World Social Forum

Theresa Wolfwood Reflects on the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, 2004

Arundhati Roy listens carefully to other speakers

The World Social Forum is an ongoing process, a moveable feast. Since the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre in 2001, it was repeated there in 2002 and 2003 with ever increasing participation. In these years WSFs have been organized all over the world with enthusiastic attendance. In Canada there have been forums from Victoria to Montreal . Vancouver plans one in October this year; just wait, a WSF will be coming soon to place near you, if not, organize one!

Next year the WSF returns to Porto Alegre and in 2006 it will be in Africa . The WSF was conceived as a response to the small elite of corporate and government rulers of the world that meets at the World Economic Forum, in Davos , Switzerland , surrounded by tanks, missile launchers, and thousands of troops in the mountains of the luxury alpine resort. The WSF has far surpassed the WEF in importance, vitality, and even publicity in the corporate media, it just keeps growing like a CEO’s dream of stock growth.

I attended the WSF in Brazil in 2002. Later in 2002, I organized a Small World Social Forum in Victoria . This January I made the long trek to India for the first time to attend the WSF 2004 in Mumbai – along with over 100,000 other people.

It was chaotic, hot, sticky, dirty, dusty, crowded, and incredibly noisy, a jarring blend of hope and despair. In other words, it was India in a microcosm. Most of the delegates were from India with sizeable groups from other Asian countries. Europeans and North Americans were a small minority, at least in numbers (if not on the podium), and there was a small smattering from South America and Africa . It really was India ’s event for the world.

For thousands of Dalits (formerly called Untouchables) and peasant farmers and labourers it was an important occasion to show the world the injustice of their position in society and their struggle for a dignified life. Many of these delegates did not speak Hindi or English, along with French and Spanish, the official languages of the forum. So for them the information stalls were a major way to reach people. There were 3 enormous halls with hundreds of stalls which for me were rich sources of networking and connection- building with groups as varied as the victims of Bhopal, the many fair trade representatives, the human rights group supporting my friend, Irene Fernandez, sentenced to jail in Malaysia for reporting on the conditions of migrant workers in her country, organic farmers against GMOs and pesticides, activists trying to end the iniquity of child labour, disability rights, women against domestic violence and violence in the sex trade and many more.

A significant feature of the Mumbai forum was the importance of the art of resistance. Large spaces were dedicated to exhibitions like the harrowing installation about the recent massacre and earthquake in Gujarat and Baghdad !Baghdad ! the ambitious project of a young Indian artist. She sent out an appeal for photos and artwork about the USA invasion of Iraq and received replies from every country. She hung hundreds of blown-up photos of rallies and peace actions from the rafters, undulating above smaller works like posters, banners, photos, collages and written work. A collage, photos and poems of mine were exhibited.

Korean and Chilean peace activists at closing ceremony

Another way to connect with delegates was through the constant seething mass of demonstrations, parades, impromptu singing and dancing that filled every roadway and outside space through the long days. No matter where the workshop or meeting, delegates heard drums, chanting, and shouting. Dalits not only from India, but also Nepal, were out along activists against the war and occupation of Iraq -with my favourite new slogan from a Pakistan group: WHEN BUSH COMES TO SHOVE, RESIST, and colourful Bush facsimiles paraded by the growing BOYCOTT movement of major USA war-supporting corporations, demonstrations of women opposing violence against women, including rape and honour killings and violence against people in prostitution and the Free Tibet movement. The Free Tibet demos, led by burly monks twice the size of Indian peasants, with a few women straggling at the end of the line, were the noisiest and most aggressive presence on the road. They also produced about half of the paper and garbage that littered the ground ankle-deep at the end of every day – to be swept up and sorted out by a host of seemingly invisible, permanently cowed and stooped women. Free Tibet posters appeared everywhere including in the midst of the Iraq art show. The Tibetans must have rich supporters. A recent article in Vancouver ’s Georgia Straight discusses the years of CIA involvement with the Free Tibet movement.

For delegates from Pakistan which has its own forum, Mumbai was a chance to do grassroots peace building at a time when their government and India’s are talking high level peace, and for others to learn what Indians where doing on problems like AIDS awareness and rights of minorities.

The great failure of the WSF was the low level of women’s participation. Except for women-organized meetings or those that focussed on “women’s issues”, with mainly women in the audience as well, including the BBCF‘s, “Women and the Security of the Commons”, most panels and meetings were dominated by male speakers and participants. At one panel on “participatory democracy” (!), thirteen men, mostly academics, and three women spoke. The sole Indian woman speaker was cut off by a professor who claimed to be an expert on her subject!

There were many party politicians of various hues speaking at this forum – a notable difference from Brazil’s earlier forums. Some participants believe that is acceptable, that only through political organization can we achieve the goals of social movements. Others feel strongly that the introduction of politicians brings a degree of posturing and compromise to the forum, sometimes casting activists in a lesser light. I was amused by one dogmatic young UK speaker from socialist party of some kind who said re participatory democracy that he did not believe in it and we need a revolution now!

I did hear and meet many impressive, articulate Indian women activists who gave me much of the hope I retained through the highs and lows of the conference. These are women who work to save villagers and land from dams, widows organizing to claim their legal rights, tribal (indigenous) women who run their own cooperatives and credits groups and self-help groups selling their products for a decent price, women who teach and practise legal and economic literacy as well as reading-type literacy in remote villages, women who run village courts and bring abusive husbands and other family men to justice, Indian and Asian women working for a peaceful world and those struggling to hang on to traditional agriculture in the face of globalized agri-biz.

Most of the small events and some big ones were organized by participant organizations; the WSF itself organized mainly large events with the celebrities of the global movement; many of whom bring great authority and presence to the podium, like Dr. Moustafa Barghouti of Palestine and Shirin Ebadi of Iran . Other celebrities panel-hopped in a most irritating fashion, speaking at one venue for ten minutes and then rushing away to another, breaking the momentum and flow of discussion. But my favourite speakers were not the big stars but delegates from the ground who had important insights and work to discuss with us – Susan Hawthorne of Australia, Thomas Pooniah of Canada, Julia Ruiz di Giovanni of Brazil, Abha Bhaiya and Aruna Roy of India, Maria Zungia of Nicaragua and many others, including those I met in informal conversations.

Dalit women were confident and happy at the forum

Early one morning on the way to speak on a panel about the WSF process, launching the book: *Challenging Empires, I saw thousands of people lying, like a corduroy road of ragged brown sticks, right beside the train tracks and highways. Some flimsy shelters which offer some privacy but little protection from the vehicles spewing fumes a few feet away. That morning I saw (but no one else seemed to have) women washing their clothes in the filthy ditch between the four lane highway and the WSF forum site.

I was moved to say on the panel (with ten men, Hilary Wainwright of UK’s Red Pepper and me – challenging the male empire has a long way to go, in spite of the chair’s embarrassed apologies) that of two billion people in the world living on less than $1/day, many seemed to be existing on Mumbai’s streets – right under billboards for expensive cars, cell phones, investment schemes and sexy underwear to lure the new consumer class of globalization to spend and spend. Even as I said it, I was uncomfortable, I though of those sleeping on the streets of rich Victoria – so what right do I have to talk?

At one end of the WSF site I saw the crude huts of the workers who constructed the temporary meeting rooms and temporary buildings, they had one well to serve their needs. So carping about the inadequate and sewage leaking facilities on the site seems petty by comparison. In one toilet there was a graphic poster: Your pee is cleaner than the water 1.1 billion people drink daily.

The overwhelming mass of information served up visually and vocally at big forums just cannot be digested. Hundreds of events mean hard choices to find some new insights and analysis as well as discussion of actions and campaigns. One workshop I choose was an excellent session by Focus on Global South, planning a global campaign: NO TO US BASES that will have actions in many countries on July 4. As Canada opens our territory to the USA military BMD, it looks like we need to join activists from Chile where Easter Island will be a BMD base and the ignored natives of Diego Garcia, demanding justice for their displacement as a result of the UK giving their Indian Ocean islands to USA for its largest foreign base. In another workshop a German delegate gave a clear outline with handouts on how cities in southern Germany conduct Citizen Initiatives Referendums. Another workshop illustrated how drama is used in many places to raise community awareness and create actions on social issues ranging from AIDS to addiction to domestic violence. Women in Black organized a silent vigil one evening for a world without war and violence.

One poster said: If you believe in a world: without war; without want; without injustice, come to the World Social Forum. Another world is Possible. Let’s Build it.

Speakers on BBCF panel: Women and the Security of the Commons with empty chair for Irene Fernandez who was not allowed out of Malaysia to attend

Yes, I do believe another world is possible, that’s why I go to this and many meetings where I learn, share, get inspired and network with wonderful people. Like all our efforts, the WSF process is flawed. I have mentioned the poor level of women’s participation. On the Challenging Empires panel there was heated discussion, but no conclusion, about the conservative funding sources for the WSF, like the USA Ford Foundation.

As the Forum process matures, participants and organizers will need to face the problem of too much information and analysis. We need more of the “how” and less of the “what” and the “why”. We go to the WSF to learn, to understand and to inform but as we go from the realization that “The World is Not For Sale” to the goal of grasping that “we hold a new world in our hands”, the WSF will have to focus on the means of successful change, building on successes and failures in many campaigns. But ultimately we have to grasp the work of transforming social movements into political power while we try to understand the nature of power and its affect on activists, and we have to learn how to avoid the corruption and elitism of power.

An alternate forum to the WSF was organized nearby by a coalition called Mumbai Resistance (MR) who thinks that the WSF is too vague in its slogan: Another World is Possible. MR criticizes the WSF for excluding armed struggle and for accepting funds from groups like the Ford Foundation. Mumbai Resistance promotes smashing imperialism and embracing socialism as the way to go.

It is hard to see liberation armies as social movements, the base of the WSF structure. Many WSF participating groups have limited, short term goals and are not ready or willing to make a specific political choice such as a particular form of socialism. The WSF umbrella covers a myriad of groups with a rich diversity of needs and actions; they all claim and must commit to a peaceful, just and healthy world when they sign up to participate. Many would feel excluded by such specific goals as the MR proclaims. I noticed that some speakers appeared at both forums on panels with similar topics; I also noted that the participation of women was not much better at MR than at the WSF. For me, the absence of significant participation by the largest oppressed group in India and the world at any social justice event is a failure and an insult.

Yet for all its omissions and flaws, there was nothing like the WSF until it was invented. It creates an important space and legitimacy in the work and lives of local-global activists. The WSF is an intersection in the geography of global social movements and gives us an assured place in our own history. I am excited, thrilled, frustrated, depressed and exhilarated by each one I attend. It is popular education at its most intense. The energy of the numbers, the creative actions, art and brilliant discourse as well as the genuine warmth, friendship, and openness of so many people encourage me to continue. The WSF illuminates our social movements for all the world to see.

YES, I do believe another world – without war, injustice, want and degradation – is possible and – for the continuation of life – urgently necessary.

As Arundhati Roy said last, year: if I listen carefully on a quiet day, I can hear her coming.

* CHALLENGING EMPIRES published by the Viveka Foundation, New Delhi in 2004.

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