Initial Thoughts on the Future of the Forum Discussions at World Social Forum 2011, Dakar

Initial Thoughts on the Future of the Forum Discussions at World Social Forum 2011, Dakar
by Michael Leon Guerrero, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance

I attended four sessions related to the future of the World Social Forum process. The first two were organized by Jai Sen of the India Institute for Critical Action: Centre in Movement (CACIM), organized under the same title ‘Facing the Challenges of the Present and the Future : How Well is the World Social Forum Doing ?’. These workshops were organized based on a set of essays written for an upcoming book edited by Jai Sena and Peter Waterman: “World Social Forum: Critical Explorations”. The third was convened by Meena Menon, one of the main organizers for the WSF in India in 2004. The last was organized by Harvard University professor Thomas Ponniah.

All four workshops brought together different actors and critiques of the social forum process. I found the discussions in all of these workshops to be very useful. The first two sessions organized by Jai Sen were based on a common theme: that the social forum process generally is a top, down, undemocratic process. I was asked to reflect on our experience in organizing the two US Social Forums. The USSF was highlighted as an example of a forum organized using a bottom up process because of our deliberate organizing process to build a foundation with poor and working class people of color and Indigenous peoples in leadership. In Jai Sen's words “we turned the forum model on its head”.

The second session organized by CACIM focused on the cultural aspects of the forum that limit its diversity. Janet Conway, one of the organizers of the Toronto Social Forum, presented on this panel. Janet has observed how most social forums are still dominated by older white men, that the most visible spaces of the forum are taken up by professionals in non-governmental organizations. Conway has noted that “Inequalities among movements get reproduced in the open space unless there is affirmative action to assure that marginalized and minority populations are present and their voices and perspectives amplified.” Will Copeland, Local Coordinator of the USSF in Detroit who talked about the challenges of organizing local participation and the strain on local organizations to host a social forum. There was also a representative from the organizing committee of the Americas Social Forum in Guatemala. He observed that there is a maturation of the movements in the way we are working together. We also can't come from a perspective of victimization. In response to a concern raised about local organizations being overrun by national groups, he said, “if you're local organization is strong, your community will not be taken over by outside organizations.”

The third session, organized by Meena Menon and other forum organizers focused more on the structure, process and organizing of social forums. Various critiques were brought up about the lack of functionality of the International Council (IC) process and the recurring question about the relevance of the forum. According to one participant, “we need to acknowledge that with WSF there are limits not just to analysis but also to organization and mobilization capacity and effectiveness.” Another commented that “the WSF can and should organize certain discussions to advance the learning of social movements. For example, there should have been a session on Egypt and Tunisia. We have lost a lot in having all sessions be self-organized”, in reference to the fact the the IC has stopped organizing plenary sessions at the WSFs.

Grave concerns were raised by several members of the European Social Forum (ESF) process who characterized the ESF as being in crisis. Only 3,000 people attended the last ESF in Istanbul. The process has become dominated by groups with no base and there is concern that the ESF which was once very large and dynamic, has lost its relevance.

The fourth session, convened by Ponniah, centered largely on the question of ideology in the forum process. This became an interesting debate initiated mainly by Patrick Bond who said that the forum had to get beyond the point of not promoting an ideology. This was countered by Chico Whitaker, one of the WSF founders. Chico gave an historical review of the WSF process and said that he is open to the WSF promoting a new economic model and ideology, the problem is that we don't have one to offer at this point. These are still under development – but the movements are not ready to say that we have an answer right now. Steve Williams of POWER and GGJ commented that there has been a reluctance on the part of Left scholars to define a new alternative and called on them to help define the vision of socialism for the 21st century.

In each of the four sessions there seemed to be a consensus that a world gathering of some kind was needed. The differing views probably breakdown between those that advocate reform of the WSF process with those that feel a different process is needed altogether. Economist Samir Amin, for instance says that we need a discussion about what the strategies of the enemy are today and who can be co-opted by them (i.e. green capitalists, social democracies). He does not feel that the WSF should be the place for this discussion. No one offered what an alternative gathering would look like, however, how it should be structured, who should participate, etc. Meena Menon made a useful proposal that an international meeting of roughly 30 social forum organizers be convened to talk about the social forum process and what would be needed to make it effective and relevant.

“The Only Show in Town”
I thought some of the most interesting analysis throughout the week was provided by Professor Immanuel Wallerstein, who has written a great paper giving a very useful historical context for the WSF (see attached). In his presentation Wallerstein references the world revolution of 1968, which marked the end of the centrist-liberal (welfare state) model that dominated global political and economic policy for nearly 100 years. Since then he said that global politics have been heavily contested by the Right, the Center and the Left. The Right was much more effective initially in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, however, the Left has made important advances. He marks the establishment of the WSF as one of 3 formative events in the last 20 years, the launching of the armed struggle by the Zapatistas in 1994, the Battle in Seatle in 1999, and the covening of the first WSF in Porto Alegre in 2001. Wallerstein sees these formative events as 3 strategies that all work. In Chiapas, an organisational process that gave priority to civilizational change and rejected seeking state power. In Seattle, organized political demonstrations that bring together different movements. And Porto Alegre, horizontal debates among vastly different movements that are left of center. All of these strategies have effective and should be pursued simultaneously.

Wallerstein points out that the WSF has been critiqued from the beginning as to whether it is relevant or useful. He argues that despite its limitations, it is still the “only show in town” for the world Left in the 21st century. “If the question is whether the World Social Forum as an institution will continue to be the principal framework for the world movement for social justice and a better historical system, my answer is that I am not sure. It is however the best framework we have at present. And I for one continue to think we should try to use it.” He concludes that if the WSF proves to not be useful in the near future, then we should seek an alternative.

A Third Phase for the Global Justice Movement?
The analysis that I offered in these discussions is that the global justice movement is in a 3rd phase of development since the beginning of the last decade. In the first phase the movement was very militant with clear common targets: World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), G-8. The movement won significant victories during that time including bringing WTO negotiations to an impasse, defeating the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and discrediting the policies of the WB and IMF. At this time the WSF was also founded as a place of convergence for the movements and a space to define alternatives to the aggressive right-wing conservatism known as neoliberalism that dominated world politics and the economy.

In the middle part of the decade the movement could be characterized by both expansion and decentralization. The WSF process grew through hundreds of regional, national and local editions, but the movement also fragmented due to our preoccupation with local and national struggles. Europe and the U.S. began to negotiate bi-lateral trade agreements with friendly governments in the Global South to get around the stalemate at the WTO. Movements in Latin America focused on national elections, winning a series of stunning political victories that have changed the geopolitical map and established Latin America as a formidable political and economic bloc in opposition to U.S. empire and neoliberal policies. But the fragmentation and decentralization of these efforts also meant that there was less cohesion and coordination among social movements. The WSF played an important function at this time by providing a common space where movements could still come together to share their experiences.

The global justice movement may be entering a third phase of development. This could be marked by a new era of militancy and some common targets (or at least issue areas:) climate, militarism/imperialism, migration and the global economy/capitalism. These are common themes that appear on the agendas of a number of international and national networks like the World March of Women, La Via Campesina, the Hemispheric Social Alliance, GGJ and others. Of course there are other key issues like food, democracy, and gender that are also emerging as core issues. At the WSF in Dakar, climate justice organizers mapped out the road to Durban, Rio + 20 and beyond. French organizers are preparing for major mobilizations against the G-20 in November 2011. It's clear that global justice forces are mobilizing in 2011.

The new phase of development for the movement will also be characterized by the emergence of global justice forces that can provide new leadership, in particular the youth movements taking to the streets in Egypt and the Maghreb region of northern Africa. Also the emergence of Indigenous movements in the Andean region of Latin America. The future role of the WSF, if any, would depend on its ability to integrate these new forces into the leadership of the process. The Left of center governments in Latin America most also be considered new and important forces in the global justice movement. They are putting into practice models of alternatives to neoliberalism and capitalism.

A third characteristic to define the next phase of the movement is the expansion of the WSF process. There were roughly 50 major national and regional forums in 2010. These forums are adapting and utilizing the model based on their local conditions and needs. The Maghreb region has had a particularly active social forum process and it would be important to understand the significance of the WSF to the mobilizations in Tunisia and other countries in the region. Africa has convened more social forums than any other continent. These efforts were apparent based on the solid participation of African movements in Dakar.

Social Movements Advance, but not WSF
The 2011 WSF represented an advance for the social movements, but a setback for the WSF process. The poor logistical planning, lack of transparency in decision-making by the organizers and lack of coordination and response by the IC created a logistical mess that too often plagues the social forum process. For many it was frustrating and for newcomers probably disheartening to have invested so much to come to an event and not have a chance to present their workshops or learn more from other movements. Those who did do well in the forum, however, were networks with existing relationships and clear intent on the conversations that needed to happen. They staked out territory at the forum and managed to hold important strategy discuussions. This was particularly true of the climate justice organizers who drafted a roadmap to Durban for the next round of United Nations Climate negotiations later in the year, and the Maghreb delegation who inspired the entire forum with their presence, and the social movements assembly which was able to identify two days of common action (March 20 in support of Egypt and Tunisia, and October 12 focusing on the Crisis of Capitalism).

But the social forum process appears far from dead. There is a lot of dynamism and energy in different regions of the world where the model is being used effectively. For the world edition of the forum, however, it is likely that some fundamental changes are needed to meet the challenges of the next decade of global justice struggle.