Conversation and Change #4 by Kraig Scwartz History of World Social Forum

                              World Social Forum

 After the Cold War ended neoliberal capitalism , no longer fettered by the Soviet Union, expanded to all parts of the world.  Whether it be farmland in Ethiopia, or the fisheries of our great ocenas, the world increasingly came under the control of unbridled “free market” capitalism and the corporations that serve and benefit from those markets.  Under the sway of neoliberalism, governments deregulated their economies, cut back or eliminated social spending,  pushed aside labor unions and promoted “free trade.”

Perhaps the major economic hallmark of this post Cold War era was the expansion of world trade through the WTO, NAFTA and other regional trade organizations.  The yearly World Economic Forum held at Davos, Switzerland embraced the  world-wide neoliberal capitalist order.  Yet,  strong resistance to this push for the commodification of the world emerged in various parts of the world, most notably by the indigenous  Zapatistas in Mexico.  NAFTA  was about to go into effect on January 1st of 1994.  When that  debut day arrived the neoliberals were beaten to press deadlines by the Zapatistas, who from the jungles of southern Mexico denounced NAFTA, neoliberalism, and declared war on Mexico.   The newspaper headlines that day reflected this development. The Zapatista had the lead story that day.  They rejected neoliberalism and demanded a better world.  They gained much sympathy from all over the world.

One year later, the WTO was launched and the neoliberal agenda advanced with all due speed.  In 2001 China joined the WTO,  an event which fully integrated China into the world economy.  Taking the lead from the Zapatistas, many people and civil society organizations from all over the world began to resist the neoliberal juggernaought. The resistance included workers, peasants, students, labor unions, churches, NGOs and other parts of civil society.   Opposition to “free trade”  and globalization emerged very broadly over much of the world.   In Seattle in 1999,  30,000 people took to the streets and effectively shut down the WTO ministerial meeting; it was a major victory for the emerging anti-globalization forces.

      Many of the most active anti-globalization forces in the late 90s were located in Brazil where friendly local governments, friendly social and political movements, particualry the Brazilian Workers Party, took up the challenge of globalization.  Meetings were held, the call went out all over the world.  A forum was being organized, a forum where people from all over the world could meet, share their ideas and proposals about how to make a better world.  The1st meeting of the WSF was  held in January of 2001 in Porto Alegre.  12,000 people attended that first meeting.  Hundreds of movements, organizations, labor unions,  NGOs and individuals from all over the world participated.  It was and is an open meeting that encourages democratic participation.  It is  a non-hierarchal horizontal movement.  It has no leaders, nor does it make pronouncements;  it is a leaderless  movement.   Although, its politics are mostly from from the left, not all individuals or organizations are of the left. It is a gathering to discuss and demonstrate the ways a better world can be constructed, a world based on social justice, environmental sustainability, racial equality and world peace.

An International Committee (IC) was established that organizes the annual meetings, invites guest speakers or participants, and along with a Local Organizing Committee seeks funds and logistical help. Many annual meetings have been  held in Brazil, but in other countries as well, particularly in the Third World.  Some local or regional forums have  been held as well, such as Detroit.  Some years more than 150,000 people  have attended, including  well-known activists, academics, union leaders and political leaders. 

It is difficult to assess the contributions that the WSF has made to world-wide political and social change.  This is a difficult task because of the organizational character of the WSF.  With no leaders, pronouncements, or policy proposal it is difficult to assess the influence of the WSF.  However with some speculation, it seems that its influence has been enormous.  Attendees and presenters from  all over have brought concrete proposals to work shops and plenary sessions, including models for social and raciall  justice, sustainable agriculture, human rights, climate change, and much more.  These proposal has been brought back to the country of the attendees, which in turn enhances the ideas, proposals, etc. “for making a better world.  Moreover, the language used at the forum has altered the thought and vocabulary of people all over the world.  It  most certainly had an impact on Occupy Wall Street, both in terms of substance and procedure.



Twilight of the forum? 

In recent years the WSF has been deeply scrutinized by many of its participants.  The last forum was attended by only 10,00 people, half of whom were Brazilian,   A call has gone out to alter the WSF.  Roberto Savio, whose linked article is included here, and many other founders, have formed the International Renew Group (IRG), calling for numerous reforms to save the WSF.  Savio and the IRG believe that a small group that he calls “an intransigent power group needs” to accept reform and recognize that the Charter of Principles adopted 22 years ago are no longer adequate, and that the WSF is in danger of folding.  The IRG suggestions are offered here.


1.       Need for a new communications policy, as the internet was in its early days of development and not utilized the way it is today. Using just email or relying on the Web pages as communication sources are limited. In 2000 few people had cell phones, nor was there Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.   Web sites and email cannot fulfill the functions of the communication needed today.

2 . The IRG asks for a major restructuring of the WSF, specifically it    calls for the creation of a general assembly, which in turn will elect an executive committee. And, this new executive committee will interact with the world political system.  It will make proposas, evaluate proposal,l and take part in international debates within civil society, and be proactive within that process.  The view is that, if reforms are put in place the WSM will again become an important voice in world politics, particularly at a time when it seems the world is greatly a skewed

3.     Eliminate consensus as decision-making tool.  It is now a major block to change, as it call for unanimity.

4.     Implement policies and finances that will allow people without means to attend the forum, but also participate in the life of the forum.  Over the years this problem has intensified.

For further Reading;

1.      Roberto Savio

2.        World Social Forum Under Criicism….history of the WSF and current situation:

3.  trailer of film “another world is possible” by Melissa Young  Mark Dworkin. 


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