Where To Now?
The forums worldwide include
relatively local events for small towns, cities, counties, whole states,
and even regions. Examples are forums for Ithaca NY, Brisbane Australia,
South Africa, and Asia. There are many instances at each level, including,
for example, about a hundred in towns throughout Italy.
These forums worldwide have
two universal aims, and beyond that, much variation.
(1) Promote respectful communications
(2) Prioritize vision and
strategy as well as analysis.
Moreover, by all evidence,
the forums worldwide cause even disagreeing activists to congregate,
to hear one another, to develop new ties, and to take seriously economic,
political, gender, race, culture, ecology, globalization, and international
goals and strategies. Some local forums excellently generate shared
program and actions among subsets of participants. But even short of
that, by at least enhancing solidarity and enlarging vision, all the
local forums powerfully aid movements.
Another attribute of the
forums worldwide, more in evidence the more local they are, is accountability
and transparency. Local forum organizers are generally well known to
the people participating and attending. Even for forums lacking a fully
democratic process, the decision-makers are at least known enough to
the attendees to be accountable. Decisions are subject to challenge,
refinement, and renovation.
Similarly, local forums have
a manageable scale. Arrangements, fees, setting up panels and getting
people to them, all occur relatively smoothly. Local agendas tend to
include many interactive sessions so that everyone involved participates
more or less equally. People can access one another. Presenters and
audience aren't sharply divided. A few people don't enjoy elite status.
Others aren't marginalized.
Without exaggerating the
virtues of the forums worldwide, they are having positive effects and
moving in participatory, transparent, and democratic directions.
The World Social Forum, however,
The World Social Forum
The bottom-up forums worldwide
were spurred into existence by a very top-down World Social Forum. The
former have yet to reform the latter. So in contrast to the forums worldwide,
the WSF is not yet transparent or accountable much less democratic.
It has become unmanageable. And while it has profoundly valuable participation,
there are often sharp and even destructive differences between the WSF's
layers of participants. While some of these difficulties certainly derive
from doing a massive event with unreliable and insufficient resources,
there are other avenues of improvement, as well.
The WSF's Decision-Making
The WSF was born from discussions
in France and Brazil. The originators took a great idea, made a courageous
leap, and inspired effective work. In time, however, they became a leadership
in a tighter, more determinative, and less exemplary manner. Oddly,
they began and they remained largely unknown. They began and remained
unaccountable, save perhaps tangentially to their own organizations.
This was likely caused in part by the difficulties of operating on such
an unprecedented scale, partly by the structure and philosophies of
some of the NGOs and other organizations involved such as French ATTAC,
and probably due to more singular factors as well.
After WSF 2, I was enlisted
to help with a variety of forum-related projects and, as a means to
facilitate my doing so, I was asked to join the WSF's International
Council. I missed a Spring and a Summer meeting, one in Thailand, the
other in Barcelona. However, I did attend a meeting in Italy in the
Fall. My experience was that the council wasn't a serious seat of power.
In fact, my impression was that the International Council of the World
Social Forum was barely a rubber stamp.
It wasn't that the people
sitting around the table in Florence weren't an impressive group. They
were worldly and wise and a good number of them came from movements
and constituencies of great importance around the world. And it wasn't
that the people at the table didn't want a more democratic and participatory
approach. This desire was raised repeatedly. It was just that after
a short time at that meeting it became obvious that despite the members'
stature and desires, the people on the council were not the real locus
of WSF power. The powers that be had some functionaries present, chairing
and it was clear that the powers that be had decided
what the agenda was, what would be made known regarding the overall
WSF situation to the people in the room, and what the international
council could be permitted to discussbut that those present had
only very limited impact.
I circled around the room
asking many of those present, "who are the real decision-makers
of the WSF?" "Who is it that allots limited choices to this
group, saving important matters for their own eyes?" "Who
is it that makes the bigger decisions that never come before this group?"
While a few folks could hesitantly
name a leader or two based on knowing the history of the WSF, no one
I talked to was confident about even that, much less a whole list of
leaders. It was as if I had been dragged onto a central committee in
a country that had a still higher body that dictated key results, and
I had asked my fellow central committee members who those higher authorities
were--and no one knew.
The real WSF leadership,
I think, makes many key decisions. Will the event have Lula present,
and in what capacity? What about Castro, or Chavez? Will there be exclusions,
and if so on what grounds? The Zapatistas? Will being in a party, advocating
violent tactics, or even just being from some group that the inner circle
finds too radical or otherwise dislikes (such as the Disobedienti from
Italy, or the international People's Global Action) preclude prominent
participation? What content will be part of the core of the events (more
on this below) and what content will be left as periphery? Who will
have their way paid--and who will not? Will there be a march, and who
will be the key speakers? Will there be a collective statement, with
what content? What efforts will or wont be made to achieve gender
balance, race balance, geographic balance? How will class differences
be addressed, if at all, within the process and more broadly? How will
press be handled, both mainstream and alternative? Will the WSF start
to discuss facilitating an international movement of movements, or will
it persist only as a forum? What will be the accommodation between advocating
reform of capitalism and advocating a new system entirely?
The decision-making of the
WSF is not transparent despite that being transparent could be easily
attained--just post the relevant names and make known significant decisions.
The decision-making is not accountable, which would be far harder to
attain, but could at least be better approached, even for so complicated
an entity. And there is no widespread democratic input before the fact,
from regions around the world, for example, which is perhaps most difficult
for such an undertaking, but ought to be on the agenda, and implies
some obvious organizational changes.
The WSF's Operational Viability
At this year's WSF, just
regarding the actual details of speaking, listening, eating, sleeping,
and marching -- most people probably perceived great success. This is
because what happened, happened well. People going to events largely
enjoyed them -- whether it was marches or rallies, big panels or meetings,
or the youth camp. People perceived and will report that the things
they attended were carried off adequately and even smoothly. And indeed,
the events that most people attended were, as they perceived, no doubt
carried off well. Which is quite amazing and immensely praiseworthy.
But what about the 400 or
so panels that were cancelled very near the time of the WSF and long
after people planned to participate in them? No one attended or presented
at those panels because those panels didn't take place at all. No one
saw that they weren't there, other than those who suffered the cancellations.
What about the events that
weren't on any printed schedule, and that attendees couldn't find and
that therefore attracted a fraction of the participation they deserved?
Only a very few people attended those events, all other people being
ignorant of their existence. Though the few who did attend were quite
distraught, the full loss was again unrecorded since it was a loss of
the benefits that might have been had if people who didnt know
to go to sessions had been able to go, under better conditions.
And what about the events
whose rooms kept being changed, again disrupting or even obliterating
their attendance? In some cases even presenters couldn't find panels.
Again, few knew about this.
Maybe all these problems
could have been avoided by stricter limits on the numbers of events
and panels, by earlier scheduling, and so on. Or maybe, while there
might have been less chaotic disruption with better preparations, most
of the chaos wasn't ultimately the fault of those doing the work --
but was a nearly inevitable by-product of the WSF's having grown too
large and embodying too many unpredictable factors for the resources
In short, the WSF, at its
current size, seems to a considerable extent unmanageable. It isn't
that leftists can't handle large scale, per se. It is that having so
few resources, no one could effectively manage so many unpredictable
Each year the WSF anoints
a subset of events as their own. These events are all prominent in the
official schedules. They all have appropriate-sized rooms and resources.
Their presenters are afforded considerable comforts, including paid
hotel rooms and sometimes travel allowances. Moreover, their housing
was at hotels which were better the more prominent the person, not the
more needy. I would guess this group's numbers to be roughly 100 people
and I am quite sure that among them were some people who needed the
financial aid but a great many who did not, relatively speaking.
On the other hand, there
were the rest of the presenters. I don't know their numbers but I would
guess a few thousand or so. The events that these participants planned
in many cases did not even appear in the official schedules and were
subject to last minute termination or, short of that, to room changes.
These second-tier presenters were afforded few comforts and little financial
support though they included overwhelmingly less well-off people then
the 100 or so at the hotels. Gender still seems to play a horrible and
destructive role in peoples roles and visibility, as well. Beyond
presenters, moreover, there were the youth who were housed in a camp
with barely sufficient water and barely acceptable sewage. That the
roughly 30,000 people in the youth camp made it a vibrant community
in which there were no hierarchies is immensely admirable, but the many
virtues of those who endure harsh conditions joyfully don't excuse that
they were treated as a separate entity, with little visible effort to
Is there no alternative to
having some participants living in camps, others in bearable environs,
and a few in luxurious housing? Couldnt there be sliding scales
of fees and accommodations more in accord with need than with notoriety,
and with those better able tithed to help those less able? Younger folks
can bear worse conditions better. Older folks need better conditions
to manage such a strenuous undertaking. Some variation of accommodations
is certainly warranted on this account, but being prominent shouldn't
be the criterion.
Without attention, layering
of participants material circumstances abets as well even less
warranted differences -- due to gender, race, class, place of origin,
and fame -- in how people are regarded in general, in the media attention
they are accorded, and in the visibility and promotion they receive.
Often attention afforded rises in nearly inverse proportion to the activism
people do, to the extent they are anti-hierarchical in their own lives,
and to the lessons and insights they have to offer and to share with
other people at the WSF's events. It isn't surprising that in the youth
camp there is sharing and equity dwarfing what prevails in the hotels.
So while it would probably be impossible to do without the hotels, it
is the logic and culture at the hotels that needs examination. Of course
we need presentations, sometimes even to very large audiences, but it
ought to be possible to reduce or even eliminate relative passivity
and subordination of those who come to the WSF mainly to listen, and
of those who present but have less known names.
There is another odd if very
much unintended layering effect at the WSF. The WSF is called a world
forum. We all say "the WSF had 100,000 participants." And
when I say and hear phrases like that, to me it sounds like a claim
that 100,000 people from all over the world gathered. But while the
WSF 3 did attract roughly 100,000 people, understandably perhaps as
many as 70,000 were from Brazil, and perhaps another 15,000 were from
neighboring countries in South America. So one might as reasonably say
that this was a major South American Forum that invited 10-15,000 people
from around the world to attend as presenters or as guests, as to say
it was a world forum. Shouldnt a world forum be worldly representative,
with some degree of proportion among its delegates to movements and
activism around the world?
Where To Now?
So what is to be done about
the WSF? It has been a remarkable phenomenon three times so far. It
has propelled forums worldwide. It has educated, inspired, and engendered
ties and connections. Its structure and processes were a miracle the
first year, amazing the second year, but have begun to fall short the
third year. The WSF, with all its virtues, is in diverse ways reaching
the limits of its current incarnation.
The issues raised above and
many more that other participants no doubt have on their minds must
be explored and debated. New ideas need to be put forth, evaluated,
refined, and implemented. Here are ten thoughts that may have some merit--but
whether they do or not, certainly changes must be made.
(1) Emphasize local forums
as the foundation of the worldwide forum process.
(2) Have each new level of
forums, from towns, to cities, to countries, to continents, to the world,
be built largely on those below.
(3) Have the decision-making
leadership of the most local events locally determined.
(4) Have the decision-making
leadership at each higher level chosen, at least in considerable part,
by the local forums that are within the higher entity. Italy's national
forum leadership is chosen by the smaller local forums in Italy. The
European forum's leadership is chosen by the national forums within
Europe, and similarly elsewhere.
(5) Mandate that the decision-making
leadership at every level should be at least 50% women.
(6) Have the forums from
wealthier parts of the world charge delegates and organizations and
attendees a tax on their fees to apply to helping finance the forums
in poorer parts of the world and to subsidize delegate attendance at
the world forum from poorer locales, as well.
(7) Make the once a year
international WSF a delegate event. Cities and states in Brazil should
have a forum. So should Brazil as a whole. So should other countries
in South America, and so should South America as a whole. And likewise
for India and South Asia, for South Africa and Africa, and so on. But
the World Event should be different. It should be representative.
(8) Have the WSF attendance
be 5,000-10,000 people delegated to it from the major regional forums
around the world. Have the WSF leadership be selected by regional forums.
Mandate the WSF to share and compare and propose based on all that is
emerging worldwide -- not to listen again to the same famous speakers
who everyone hears worldwide all the time anyhow -- and have the WSF's
results, like those of all other forums, published and public, and of
course reported by delegates back to the regions.
(9) Feature grassroots activists
from movements around the world much more prominently in major events
and throughout all forums to strengthen the WSF and local forums as
vehicles for their activity and counter tendencies toward elitism.
(10) Ensure that the WSF
as a whole and the forums worldwide not make the mistake of trying to
become an international, a movement of movements, or even just a voice
of the world's movements. To be a forum, the WSF and the smaller component
forums need to be as broad and diverse as possible. But, being that
broad and that diverse is simply being too broad and too diverse to
be an organization. The forums can and should be venues for meeting.
They can and should facilitate networking among mutually congenial participants
that leads to shared actions. But to be an organization that takes decisions
about anything other than its component forums would transcend the forum
project's degree of unity.
(11) Mandate that the forums
at every level, including the WSF, welcome people from diverse constituencies
using the forums and their processes to make contacts and to develop
ties that can in turn yield national, regional, or even international
networks or movements of movements which do share sufficiently their
political aspirations to work closely together, but which exist alongside
rather than instead of the forum phenomenon.