Forum: It’s the Society, Stupid

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
January 2002

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — While political and business leaders from the world’s richest nations preach the gospel of globalization at this week’s World Economic Forum in New York, a wholly different point of view will be presented in this southern Brazilian city.

The week-long World Social Forum, beginning Thursday, was initiated last year for those who believe that life quality and development can’t be achieved only through economic rules, but mainly through social rules.

Under the auspices of what they call “solidarity globalization,” WSF organizers and participants are working toward finding social solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems, including hunger, poverty and sickness.

During last year’s first WSF, all the speeches seemed to center around a feeling that something is very wrong with the globalization embraced by developed and rich countries — a globalization on vivid display during the yearly World Economic Forum — since poor nations would only become poorer and more dependent on the rich.

However, very few solutions were offered last year.

This year, WSF officials will concentrate on potential solutions.

“We came because we believe in the possibility of a different world,” said Bernard Cassen, director of Le Monde Diplomatique, and president of Attac, the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens.

Among the speakers at the conference are American leftist scholar Noam Chomsky; Canadian author Naomi Klein; Belgium’s Eric Toussaint, director of the committee for the annulment of the third-world debt; Portugal’s Jose Saramago, Nobel Prize winner for literature; Pakistan’s Tariq Ali, editor for the New Left Review; Indonesia’s Dita Sari, defender of Indonesian human rights.

Jose Antonio Ocampo will represent the United Nations. Others scheduled to attend are French Youth Minister, Marie J. Buffet, and three Nobel Peace Prize winners: Rigoberta Menchu (Guatemala, 1992); Mairead Corrigan Maguirre (Ireland, 1976); and Adolfo Perez Esquivel (Argentina, 1980). There are also representatives of the Red Cross and Amnesty International.

Chomsky, who will deliver the keynote speech on Thursday, and Cassen have been deeply involved in the WSF’s organization since its inception.

Seminars and workshops will be divided into four primary topics: Production of wealth and social reproduction; access to wealth and self-sustenance; civil society and affirmation of public spaces; and political power and ethics for a new society.

Issues related to unemployment, labor relations, economical, social and cultural rights, worldwide taxation, genetically modified crops, prejudice, ecology, racism, religion and socialism will be discussed in parallel workshops.

“We can and we will point solutions for those who need them,” said Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities. She will coordinate a workshop on Saturday about how to assist communities in developing their own solutions for local problems.

If credibility is at least partially determined by the number of well-known thinkers, essayists and political leaders who participate, the WSF is indeed growing quickly. And along with the influx of brainpower comes a change of focus from the identifying of problems to actually setting a framework to do something about them.

“I came last year and felt a bit disappointed about the lack of solutions contrasting to the high amount of critics, but it seems we’re having a different approach now,” Williamson said.

In an open letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Nobel Prize winners said: “Our fight must be against the silent bomb of hunger, poverty and social exclusion.” In that same letter, they argue against terrorism, but also against military aggression based in “humanity operations.”

Of all the speakers and activists expected this week, few are more provocative than Jose Bove, of France, who was deported from Brazil after an incident last year but has already been spotted in Porto Alegre this week.

Bove, who defends agricultural causes, organized a group last year that destroyed a nearby farm growing genetically modified crops of soy on an experimental basis for Monsanto.

In addition to last year’s deportation, he’s awaiting trial in France, where he’s accused of promoting riots and attacks at McDonald’s restaurants.