The World Social Forum is certainly an innovative and impressive “festival of the Left” as a Guatemalan activist described it to me. The Forum gathers an incredible mix of activists and organizations from around the world, agitating for their various causes, in dozens of different languages. For many groups, it is clearly an opportunity for them to test their own causes and proposals within the marketplace of ideas. For Brazilians, it is a powerful gathering place for their own 1 million NGOs. In sum, the Forum is a useful snapshot of the key concerns and emerging trends within social movements around the world. Whether or not it is a political force in itself is another question.
FORMAT: The division of the forum into the 11 themes is helpful in trying to get a handle on what you are interested in. And the placement of all the same thematic events in one event area was great for networking with like-minded people and surfing from tent to tent. The 11 themes were:
A: Autonomous thought, reappropriation and socialization of knowledge and technologies
B: Defending diversity, plurality, and identities
C: Art and Creation: weaving and building people’s resistance culture
D: Communication: counter-hegemonica practices, rights and alternatives
E: Assuring and defending Earth and people’s common goods – as alternative to commodification and transnational control
F: Social struggles and democratic alternatives – against neoliberal domination
G: Peace, demilitarisation and struggle against war, free trade and debt
H: Towards construction of international democratic order and people’s integration
I: Sovereign economies for and of people – aginst neoliberal capitalism
J: Human rights and dignity for a just and egalitarian order
K: Ethics, cosmovisions and spiritualities – resistances and challenges for a new world
Clearly these were themes written by committee. These broad themes allowed groups to self-organize in any ways that they saw fit, while also retaining a sense of cohesiveness and integrity across events. I spent most of my time in G, H, and J. (I would have spent more time in D, but I have to admit that it was too far to walk there in the blazing heat.)
The three-hour time slots for the meetings was an interesting logistical choice, with meetings scheduled from 8:30am-11:30am, 12:00pm-3:00pm and 3:30pm-6:30pm. One would think that this was a lot of time, but actually given all the logistical issues of interpretation and room arrangement, the complexity of the issues groups are dealing with, and the large numbers of participants, three hours often seemed like just the right amount of time. One still needed good facilitation to keep the discussions on track and within reasonable time periods.
YOUTH CAMP: The Youth Camp was a huge shanky-town sprawl of tents, shacks, drum circles, and meeting spaces that took up a huge part of the forum facilities. The youth segment had their own entirely separate programme, as well as “thematic” areas such as “hip hop,” “feminist action,” “popular solidarity economy” and “intergalactic,” whatever that means.
If I were 18 again, I would have loved being in the Youth Camp. Sleeping outside, dancing in drum circles, hanging around having political conversations with strangers, showering in public with girls, staying up all night, getting grungy and not caring — what’s not to love? At 35, I have strong appreciation for a comfortable bed, modern plumbing, and hot showers. But as a teenager the Youth Camp would be like heaven.
Unfortunately the Youth Camp wasn’t completely a lefist paradise. There appears to have been some kind of sexual harassment and possible rape in the youth camp on saturday. It is sad that in such an empowering event something like that should happen. But then again this is also a huge party that draws people with all kinds of interests, some not so idealistic.
COOL EVENT NAMES: “Call Center Workers Health Protection,” “When the Black Guy Dances,” “Football supporters: culture and rights,” “What’s wrong with America?” “Conscious and careful vegetarianism for a non violent world.”
EMERGING ISSUES: The Global Call to Action against Poverty had their big launch event here, with participation by lots of aid and poverty organizations large and small as well as the United Nations and Brazilian government. They had an absolutely enormous banner on the side of a nearby skyscraper as well as a balloon with their slogan and website. Their call for mass mobilizations on 1 July and 10 September might be huge gathering points for lots of leftist and progressive organizations, not just those concerned with poverty issues.
UN reform came forward very strongly at the Social Forum, with many events focused on these questions. Lots of folks were particularly keen on Security Council reform, seeing the Security Council as the least democratic and most powerful of all the UN organs. Others emphasized the link between UN reform and country-level reform. Even Socialist International, which represents Socialist parties around the world, came out with a paper on UN reform, which it was seeking comment on.
The final 12-point “manifesto” from the Forum I believe will contain a strong bullet point on UN reform and democratization, including a call for the UN to move out of New York. French and Spanish versions of the statement are available at the IPS website
Reportedly, this year the Forum had much more turn-out for UN reform events than in past Forums. UBUNTU in particular was able to get hundreds and hundreds of people to pack their events. Clearly social movements are getting more and more conscious of the need for global democratic institutions as they become more internationally engaged in their work. And vice-versa, UN agencies are realizing the importance of the forum as a gathering place of civil society, with several officials from the secretariat, UNDP, ILO, the World Bank and the IMF in attendance.
Communications and technology was one of the smaller thematic areas, with proportionally a much more modest number of events. The >Communication Rights in the Information Society campaign had a number of events that had decent if not overwhelming turnout. There were a few meetings on free software and creative commons issues, including some celebs like Brazilian Minister of Culture / rock star Gilberto Gil, one of the members of the Grateful Dead and Lawrence Lessig. Clearly this is one thematic area that is still waiting to emerge in a bigger way in the Forum process.
To sum up my experience, I had a great time being with so many thousands of people trying to do good in the world, so obviously passionate and well-organized in their causes. Would I come back? In a heartbeat.