WORLD SOCIAL FORUM 2003 Hope Takes To Streets In Porto Alegre

SURKH Hai, Surkh Hai, Asia Surkh Hai, Khoon-e-Pakistan Se Asia Surkh Hai, Khoon-e-Hindustan Se Asia Surkh Hai, Khoon-e-Filisteen Se… Khoon-e-Iraq Se….

 (Asia is red with the blood of Pakistan, the blood of India, the blood of Palestine, the blood of Iraq……)

THUS ran one slogan shouted by a delegate from Pakistan. Awaaazzz Do, Hum Ek Hain (Lend Your Voice: We Are One), shouted some Indian delegates taking the cue. Aijenake…Aijenake…Nippon Aijenake…China Aijenake (everything will be alright in Japan… everything will be alright in China…), tuned in a delegate from Japan. All these were part of the slogans as the small Asian contingent marched together in the 100,000 strong march that heralded the inauguration of the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil, on January 23. Such unity of purpose, display of unity and vibrancy was visible throughout the kilometre long march – and visible throughout the five days of the World Social Forum. The flags of the PT (Workers Party of Brazil) merged in harmony with the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party of Brazil (CPoDB) and myriad other flags from Palestine, from Cuba, from the Fedayeen in Iran, from the Polisario in Saharan Africa and countless others representing struggling people from across the globe. Huge placards of Che Guevara dominated the skyline, vying with those of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (the newly elected president of Brazil from the Workers’ Party – popularly known as Lula and one of the architects of the first World Social Forum in 2001), Lenin, and many others. What was truly inspiring was that the city of Porto Alegre truly “owned” the march, with thousands applauding from jam-packed balconies along the route and showering confetti on the marchers. “Viva Cuba, Viva Fidel” hundreds of bystanders shouted as the Cuban delegation marched past them. Granma from Cuba summed it up beautifully when it reported, “Hope took to the streets in this southern Brazilian city..…”

 Mighty  Platform Challenges “EMPIRE”

A hundred thousand people, from 5,717 organizations and 156 countries gathered in Porto Alegre to make the 3rd World Social Forum a truly memorable event. An event so large in its refreshing diversity that it was impossible for one person to grasp the numerous currents that ebbed and flowed throughout the five days. Activists from mass movements mingled with representatives of NGOs, political leaders and thousands of people who were there just to show that they cared. They rubbed shoulders with the likes of Lula, Hugo Chávez (the beleaguered president of Venezuela) and Mario Soares (the former Socialist president of Portugal). They had come to show that they cared about the fact that a different World needs to be built – a world that is free of Imperialist domination and corporate greed, free from War and Hunger, free from the hegemony of the strong. They had come from all corners of the globe, in large numbers from Brazil, from Argentine and other countries in South America, from the US and Canada, from Europe, and in smaller numbers from Asia and Africa. They went back refreshed that today they are not alone in demanding Another World, in demanding for a more just and humane world

The World Social Forum developed as a response of the growing international movement to imperialist globalisation and the effects of neo-liberal economic policies being pursued in most countries. While international financial and trade institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation make prescriptions to be followed by countries across the globe that affect the lives of people all over the world, the effects of such decisions are poorly understood in many cases. People in developing countries, as well as the poor and excluded sectors of developed countries continue to grapple with new situations that are being thrown as a result of the thrust towards globalization. The World Social Forum was conceived as an international forum to contest the formulations offered by neo-liberal economic policies and capitalist led globalisation build around the slogan: “Another World Is Possible”. It seeks to provide a space for discussing alternatives, for exchanging experiences and for strengthening alliances between social movements, unions of the working people and NGOs. The first WSF was held in January, 2001, in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. It was timed to coincide with the holding of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF was thus seen as a counterweight to the options proposed by the World Economic Forum.

In three years of its existence the World Social Forum has grown into a mighty platform that challenges the might of the “empire” that imperialist globalisation seeks to build and confronts the myths that neo-liberal economic policies seek to foist upon billions of struggling people.

Diversity And Debate

The Forum programme itself was divided into five major Conferences, over thirty panel discussions, over a dozen debates, several hundred seminars and over a thousand workshops. The hundreds of classrooms at the Catholic University, Gigantinhio Stadium, huge warehouses near the port, and many other spaces in the city of Porto Alegre played host to these events. The numbers were mind boggling, and at times so was the confusion as delegates struggled to find their way among the jostling crowds and the maze of venues, and tried to make sense of the programme that came printed only in Spanish on the second day! But at the end of the day the confusion did not matter, what lingered on was the tremendous vibrancy and the resilience that came through in the countless stories of struggles related by people from across the planet. The World Social Forum itself is conceived as an “open space” that brings together all those who are opposed to imperialist globalisation. Most of the events were organised by different organisations and groups from different parts of the world. Of course there was a preponderance of events organised by groups from Latin America, but almost no corner of the globe went unrepresented in these events.

A large part of the vitality of the Forum was accounted for by activities outside the formal venues. People declaimed from temporary podiums, danced to the beat of drums (lest we forget, Brazil is the land of the Samba!), sang songs and showed that the language of protest can be colourful, energetic and inspiring at the same time. It is in these informal, often impromptu, gatherings that some of the most unforgettable moments of the Forum were etched. People could actually be seen wiping their tears when delegates from Palestine and Israel jointly read out a statement urging for peace in Palestine. Demonstrations against the impending war against Iraq were visible at almost every corner. And all around there was Che, the symbol of internationalism and resistance — Che on t-shirts, on banners, on placards, on bags, even tattooed on peoples’ skins! Caught in the middle of this frenzy of celebration that was also a frenzy of anger and anguish, it seemed as if Another World had actually arrived. Many papers commented that while the mood at the World Economic Forum in Davos where the “other side” was gathered was dark and sombre, the mood in Porto Alegre was akin to that of the Rio Carnival – noisy, festive and joyful.

Because the World Social Forum is not an organisation with a closed agenda and fixed positions, many different views were expressed, debated, rejected, accepted or kept in abeyance. The sheer diversity represented at the Forum — in terms of ideologies, backgrounds, ethnicity, culture, language — was both challenging and stimulating. Many ideological streams — ranging from the Marxist Left to liberation theologists — were present to debate, discuss and often disagree. Even from the Brazilian organisations present, for example, while one could sense a tremendous groundswell of opinion against Lula, there were fairly large anti-Lula demonstrations staged at the venue of the Forum. Delegates debated, shared experiences, even fought bitterly on a number of issues. But united they were — united in the resolve that Another World is Necessary and Possible. The WSF has been criticised, especially by votaries of imperialist globalisation, as being a “talking shop” where no concrete positions are articulated. What the critics miss is that this is what precisely contributes to the palpable vitality of the World Social Forum. The WSF is not designed to “lead” the opposition to globalisation but to provide a platform for exchange of idea, opinions, and experiences. With a closed agenda this feeling of “open space” where such large numbers feel impelled to participate and articulate their opinions could not have been created.

Looking Into The Future

This does not, of course, mean that the World Social Forum process does not need to take stock of where this huge exercise is leading. Many participants at the Forum felt that the Forum is becoming too large and unmanageable, putting inordinate pressure on resources, and losing a sense of focus. An exercise in decentralising the process was initiated last year, which led to the organisation of Regional and Thematic Forums. Some of these too were huge successes, like the European Social Forum in Florence in September 2002 and the Asian Social Forum in January 2003. There are still differences in perceptions regarding the way forward in terms of designating roles for political processes and movements on one hand and that of NGOs and issue based or “non-ideological” (that is not firmly rooted in specific ideologies) on the other. The WSF process has thrown up a dynamic in the interaction between these, and there is a certain amount of tension in this dynamic — with each feeling that the “other” is trying to hegemonise the process. Many also feel that while the broad contours of opposition to imperialist globalisation is emerging, more planning and attention should go into detailing specific alternatives to current policies and trends.

The Forum is already having to respond to the need to further broaden the process and ensure larger participation of people from different parts. The last three Forums in Porto Alegre has seen participation of larger and larger numbers (15,000 in 2001, 50,000 in 2002 and 100,000 in 2003) but the participation from Asia and Africa has remained small – a couple of thousand for two continents that represent two-thirds of humanity. This was the background of the decision of the International Council of the WSF (which met just prior to the Forum) to propose that the 2004 Forum be held in India (a decision that needs to be ratified by the Indian Committee by the end of this month).


Notwithstanding these serious questions about the process, it would be rare to find a person who was returning from the Forum with a sense of disappointment. The abiding sense was one that gave confidence in “not being alone” in our struggles. In large measure this is due to the infusion of dynamism and vibrancy in the process by the surge of mass movements in Latin America. This region, which was the first to feel the effects of neo-liberal economic policies dictated by multilateral agencies, is also today the seat of opposition to these policies. In Brazil, Lula enjoys tremendous popularity today because of the perception that his government shall resist imperialist pressures (whether this happens, only time will tell). Brazil is seething with anger as it grapples with the ills of globalisation, but it is also the cradle of many interesting experiments that confront this process. Like the participatory public budgeting process as practiced in the city of Porto Alegre and in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which is seen throughout the world as a model for grassroots citizen participation. Like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) that has implemented a constitutionally mandated land reform process that has put land into the hands of thousands of poor rural workers. Arundhati Roy, tried to bring it all together in the jam-packed Gigantinhio stadium before a wildly cheering crowd of 20,000 people, when she said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing…. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.”

The World Social Forum bade farewell to Porto Alegre with a mass march against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) project and a call for protest demonstrations against war, neo-liberal globalization and other political, economic and social ills affecting peoples. A parallel call went out against anti-Venezuelan militarization and economic aggression and the blockade of Cuba imposed by the United States for more than 40 years. My abiding memory of Porto Alegre, however, will be of the old man I met on the streets, who borrowed my delegate badge, put it around his wife’s neck and clicked her photograph with the badge. Porto Alegre did not just host the World Social Forum, it owned the Forum. As an organiser of the WSF from Brazil told us: You may be hosting the Forum next year, please take proper care of our baby!

16th Feb 2003