Pleading for a Social Conscience

Paulo Rebêlo
Wired News
February 2002

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — The World Social Forum wrapped up several months of business with the usual proposals for making the world a better place, but the stark reality remains: All talk is meaningless unless the richest nations pitch in and help.

The forum, founded as a kind of social riposte to the capitalists who make up the World Economic Forum, hosted 28 separate conferences and more than 700 seminars dedicated to a range of subjects. Among the themes touched upon in this southern Brazilian town: the production of wealth, dealing with unemployment, labor relations, civil rights, prejudice and racism, ethics, religion and, yes, even socialism as a living and breathing concept.

“This (forum) represents (an alternative to) the Economic Forum, where injustices tend to perpetuate as a result of their economic rules,” said Olívio Dutra, the governor of the Brazilian state Rio Grande do Sul. “What we’re building here is a social movement for everyone who needs it, not only the rich.”

Perhaps the key issue is the indebtedness of the world’s poorest nations, who need financial help from the developed nations but often cannot repay. The idea of forgiving these debts is not new, and it was pushed at the forum, along with an alternative: If the rich nation accepts money, at least invest it in the nation making the payment.

Then there is the question of war. Why, wonder people such as former Nobel peace prize winners Rigoberta Manchu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, is the world spending an estimated $800 billion annually on arming itself to the teeth?

In a letter delivered to José Antônio Ocampo, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan’s personal representative at the forum, participants said “there’s no sense in promoting world peace when rich nations invest so much in war weaponry. The war budget must be transformed in investments to by-pass unemployment, hunger, racism, prejudice and lack of medicines in many regions of the world.”

“This letter will be personally delivered from me to the United Nations,” Ocampo promised. “We will (do what) we can do to help, but we must admit that we can’t do much without political initiative and interest from countries’ governments.”

The globalization of media and information was also a hot topic. Tarso Genro, mayor of Porto Alegre, condemned information manipulation by the giant media companies.

Ignacio Ramonet, director of French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, said that while some aspects of media globalization, especially with the Internets help, are marvelous, there are dangers.

“Good journalists — those who investigate, raise (issues) and write a good story with technique and skill — are becoming more and more unneeded in the big global media centers,” Ramonet said.

“Day by day, stories are becoming even more sensationalist. And for that, good reporters are not needed.” Ramonet said that many readers — most, maybe — aren’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a public-interest news story and one that’s been planted to serve commercial interests. “The truth is becoming the truth when many sources says the same thing. But, sometimes, that’s just not the truth.”

Outside the halls, protesters marched against the Free Trade Area of Americas, arguing that it benefits the United States at the expense of the other members.

“The (FTAA) agreement greatly benefits the United States and their commerce, not ours,” said Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers Party pre-candidate for Brazil’s presidency. “The U.S. will get even more protectionist, while we’ll be forced to open more and more of our products. When rich and poor countries receive equal treatment in the FTAA, then we could agree with it.”

American flags were burned, causing the forum’s committee to quickly disassociate itself from the demonstrators.