Today, Porto Alegre. Tomorrow …?

Can the World Social Forum have a meaningful impact without adopting a more formal structure? The counter-summit’s organizers insist it can.

Image: AP/WideWorld


It would be easy to turn a critical eye on the World Social Forum — a gigantic gathering of capitalism’s critics which ran from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5 in Porto Alegre, Brazil — and wonder if it will have any real impact on globalization.

It would be easy to complain about the chaos of a 70,000-person gathering, the often sub-standard translators, the overplaying of John Lennon’s Imagine.

It would be seductively simple to claim that it was all talk and no action — that there will be no single comprehensive statement that emerges from this counter-summit, no white papers or action plans.

But Oded Grajew, the Brazilian businessman who conceived of the summit barely two years ago, says such criticism misses the point.

“The WSF is not an end in and of itself,” says Grajew. “It’s a way to change things. To make a peaceful revolution.” Grajew says his vision was to provide activists with a means to connect with each other on a global stage — to tell their stories and combine their efforts. “It’s all about sharing ideas,” he says.

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo — the book which has been translated into 16 languages and is emerging as one of the main tomes of the anti-globalization movement — argues that these new ideas are precisely what was absent at the concurrent World Economic Forum in New York.

“It has been a process of fencing in our expectations of what is possible, a conspiracy of lowering expectations,” she told a crowd of nearly 1,000 early on Sunday morning. “Here at the World Social Forum, we’re doing the opposite; here we’ve seen a global conspiracy of inspiration and possibilities. We have so many alternatives that they’re spilling out of the classrooms and auditoriums.”

Some of those alternatives will be represented among the dozens of proposals being disseminated via the forum’s Web site.

Grajew says he conceived of the forum as a positive alternative to protesting at the closed doors of the WEF, normally held in the Swiss resort town of Davos. But would reorganizing the forum into a body — a democratic body, of course — that votes and drafts sweeping statements be a more effective means to challenge the WTO and the WEF? Some of the thousands who gathered in Brazil think so.

Delcio Rodrigues, former director of Greenpeace in Latin America, said such a development would be natural.

“This has to be the next step,” he said. But he stressed that the event, though unwieldy and at times disorganized, was important if only to boost to morale. “It was also a party, and we really needed a party.”

The five-day social forum featured nearly one thousand workshops, hundreds of seminars and panel discussions, dozens of major conferences, and millions of planned and spontaneous meetings between individual attendees — all happening simultaneously amidst hourly marches, last minute press conferences, and impromptu politically-inspired performances.

“It’s as if you took a four year university program devoted entirely to the issues of globalization and compressed it into five days,” said Doug Norberg, a video journalist from San Francisco.

The scale of the event was overwhelming, the pace chaotic. But for attendees such as Patty Barrera of Common Frontiers Canada, an Ontario-based group born out of the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the scale is what makes the WSF so valuable.

“The WSF is the only event at this level, with such magnitude, where it’s about sharing ideas, forming new contexts, new links,” Barrera says. “It’s participatory democracy in action.”

Barrera also said she does not believe the forum must adopt the confines of a more formal body to better wield influence.

“It would be a huge mistake. That’s the old model. It ends up closing off discussion — it creates a situation where you either fit in or you don’t. I want to protect this space,” she says, arguing that change can best be pursued from the bottom up. “Who’s gonna actually fight with governments? Local groups.”

Still, the general yearning for a larger voice and a unified front came up again and again.

“I am worried,” said Roberto Ottolenghi, an Italian delegate from the United Nations Center for Human Settlements, “that there hasn’t even been an attempt to come up with a solution, a statement about Argentina.” Ottolenghi also complained that, without a mechanism for making declarations, important ideas were lost.

But perhaps Grajew is the perfect example of the way a single idea and a little networking can have a momentum all it’s own. The forum attracted 10,000 participants last year — no small feat — but drew seven times that in its second year.

“I’ve achieved in two years what I expected to take five or six years,” says Grajew. “Now we are really beginning.” Indeed, the organizing committee announced that it would be holding regional forums throughout the year.

“We expect to influence the world agenda,” says Grajew.

Mary Robinson, the UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights, says Grajew’s expectation is already a reality.

“I want to tell you all here that the world is listening to the forum,” she said at a press conference on Friday. “You only have to step out on the streets of Porto Alegre to see the broad range of people here who believe that things need to change.”