By Walden Bello*

 Now five years old, the World Social Forum is returning to Porto Alegre, Brazil, after being a big success in Mumbai, India. To be held January 26 to 31, the mood of the thousands of people expected is likely to affected by the tsunami tragedy in South Asia as well as the changed national context in the host country.

Disappointment with Lula


At the last Porto Alegre event, in January 2003, the forum was greatly animated by triumph of the Workers’ Party candidate Lula (Luis Inacio da Silva) in the presidential polls a few months earlier. Today, the Brazilian progressive movement that is the backbone of the Porto Alegre process is dispirited owing to the fiscally conservative policies adopted by the Lula government, which have generated high unemployment and little growth. From being the hope of the Brazilian masses, Lula has become the darling of Washington and Wall Street owing to his full compliance with the measures proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The “Lula problem” affects not only Brazilians. Many of the thousands trekking to Porto Alegre are upset at Brazil’s role in reviving the World Trade Organization. The WTO appeared to have entered an irreversible crisis when its Fifth Ministerial collapsed in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003. To revive the organization, the United States and the European Union coopted Brazil, along with India, as partners to create a framework for negotiations for a new Agreement on Agriculture. The result was the so-called July 2004 Framework Agreement that brought the WTO back on its feet. In almost all aspects, the July Framework was a bad deal for the South, but Brazil and India’s endorsement of it made it difficult for most developing countries to resist its adoption by the WTO’s General Council.


Confronting Globalization


How to deal not only with the WTO but with the whole phenomenon of corporate-driven globalization will be a central concern cutting through eleven theme areas or “terrains.” The debate over the effects of globalization has long been won by its critics, with the overwhelming weight of the evidence correlating free market policies with increasing inequality both within and among countries, growing numbers of poor, and weak, unsustainable growth. Yet, like the proverbial dead hand of the engineer on the throttle of a speeding train, neoliberal policies continue to reign in most developing countries, often in the guise of World Bank-sponsored macroeconomic strategies (PRSPs) ostensibly aimed at prioritizing poverty reduction but actually the same old free-market programs with cosmetic safety nets added on.

Nevertheless, things are changing. Disenchantment with neoliberal policies is most advanced in Latin America, where one neoliberal government after another has been booted out of office by voters or, as in the case of the Sanchez de Lozada government in Bolivia, overthrown by the people. While Brazil has buckled under pressure, other governments such as those in Venezuela and Argentina are leading the way in charting other paths. Argentina, for instance, has frozen most payments to private creditors and seen its economy grow by eight per cent two years in a row. How it did this “by ignoring or defying economic and political orthodoxy,” as the New York Times puts it, is likely to be one of the topics of hot discussion among forum participants.

The much ballyhooed “Millenium Development Goals” (MDG’s), a big UN-hyped effort to cut the global poverty rate by 50 per cent by 2015 with little more than rhetoric and promises is likely to be subjected to critical review at the WSF. So will the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) Initiative of the World Bank, which has barely reduced the debt of its target group of debtors since it was announced over five years ago.


The Shadow of Iraq


As in Mumbai last year, the war in Iraq will be a central concern of the meeting.

It was, after all, at a WSF-related event, the European Social Forum (ESF) held in Florence in November 2002, that the call was issued for the global anti-war march that brought out hundreds of millions of people throughout the world on Feb 15, 2003. But like Brazil’s excitement over Lula, the euphoria accompanying the emergence of a truly global movement for peace has since given way to frustration at being unable to stop the US invasion and force the withdrawal of US troops. This is linked to shock and anger at what many see as the message of the Nov. 2, 2004 elections in the US: the consolidation of an electoral power base in the US from which the Republican Right can rule for the foreseeable future.

Frustration will, however, be mixed with a sense of challenge for many. How to coordinate more effectively across borders? How to bring the resistance to the war from demonstrations to massive civil disobedience? How to connect the global peace movement more organically with civil society in the Middle East, which promises to be the strategic battleground in the next few years? How to hook up local struggles with the broader struggles in Iraq and Palestine? These questions will be explored at the Anti-War Assembly and other venues, and the hope of many is that the peace movement will emerge from Porto Alegre less spontaneous and more organized.


Institutional Issues


That the WSF has survived and become an institution is testimony to the fact that it has tapped into the vast reservoir of energy of global civil society. The WSF prides itself as an open space for discussion and debate among different movements. Many feel, however, that what is the source of the WSF’s strength may also its weakness, and that to prevent it from becoming ossified, it needs as an institution to take more partisan stands on the key issues of the time such as Palestine, Iraq, and the World Trade Organization, and translate these stands into action programs. This debate is likely to be more intense this year than in previous years, but whether it is closer to being resolved remains to be seen.

Many movements have not waited for an answer and gone on to use the forum as a venue for organizing resistance. The WSF and its most developed regional form, the ESF, have provided avenues for networks working on different problems and issues to come together, compare notes, and plan the next phase of resistance in their areas of concern. Because the WSF concentrates so many movements and networks in one place for a few days, the opportunities for networking among movements are unparalleled.


So What’s New?


So what is new? What distinguishes this year’s WSF from previous years?

For one, this year’s forum is completely self-organized by participants, with no central panels organized by the host committee, reflecting a conscious effort to build a space that is horizontal and open, and which encourages cross-fertilization across political, sectoral, geographic, cultural, and language barriers.

Also, the physical organization of this year’s WSF will be different, with all events in a continuous space, stretching along the lake shore and including the youth camp. Previous forums had seen activities conducted in different parts of the city. The design and implementation attempts to more consciously incorporate the ecology and social solidarity. Interestingly, the Brazilian landless movement, the MST, is constructing the giant tent where many events will be held together with the Brazilian Army. Translation glitches that marked other forums might be less frequent this year owing to innovative translation equipment developed by Nomad, a network of IT activists, and the volunteer efforts of more than a thousand interpreters organized through Babels network.

There are likely to be no surprises in Porto Alegre this year. This predictability, say many, will increasingly become a liability for what was once a very exciting space for debating and dreaming about the future.


*Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.