Neoliberalism and the attendant financial globalisation were a common enemy that unified and mobilised activists of the most diverse tendencies ten years ago in Porto Alegre. But in its 11th year, the Word Social Forum is meeting 6-11 February in Dakar, Senegal, at a time when neoliberal, free-market policies stand out less in a world threatened by collapse from a combination of crises: financial, climate change, food and water. By Mario Osava
US imperialism, another favourite target of the activists, has seen its economic clout wane while another superpower, China, emerges with its own colonial practices, although without militarism or the export of its belief system and way of life – for now. The dynamic growth of the emerging economies has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. But inequality in the world and within countries is still marked, as is the hunger people face on many parts of the planet.
* Planetary miss-governance The climate threat is felt in the rising number of people killed and displaced by extreme weather events, and the increasing losses suffered by agriculture. Finance has a strong destructive force, with 860 trillion dollars in speculative capital circulating around the globe – 13 times global GDP – according to the Bank of International Settlements.
All of which is aggravated by "planetary miss-governance" – the lack of institutions capable of dealing with "global problems," according to Brazilian economist Ladislau Dowbor, who is heading to Dakar to share the ideas of a group of intellectuals who, under the title "Crises and Opportunities", are discussing systemic solutions for the "convergent crises." The growing concentration of wealth that has left two-thirds of humanity excluded from progress and living on just six percent of global income is not sustainable, said Dowbor, a professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo. Nor is it possible to continue forward on this "environmental Titanic," exhausting natural resources, "the soil, the marine life," he added.
The basic document of the group of intellectuals that includes Dowbor, Polish-French "ecosocioeconomist" Ignacy Sachs, and British futurist and evolutionary economist Hazel Henderson, rejects "simplified visions of the social decision-making process," calls for rescuing "the public dimension of the state," and suggests replacing GDP as the main economic indicator, among other recommendations.
* Only one-third of last edition’s participants
The WSF is returning to Africa for its eighth global edition just as a popular uprising has toppled the dictatorship in Tunisia and another one is threatening to do the same in Egypt. This year's Forum "will be vibrant, with new people," but it will take place in precarious conditions, "with one-third of the initially projected budget," said one of the founders of the WSF, Cándido Grzybowski, director of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE). In many of the events, for example, there will be no simultaneous interpreters.
Some 50,000 participants are expected, one-third of the total who registered in the last global edition, held in 2009 in the northern Brazilian city of Belém in the Amazon jungle. "But that figure could double, with the influx of Europeans," Grzybowski hopes.
Senegal has a population 15 times smaller than Brazil's, said Chico Whitaker, another WSF founder, who explained that 80% of participants in these events generally come from the host country. The Latin American presence will be much smaller, partly due to the financial difficulties faced by non-governmental organisations as a result of the decline in foreign donor funds, aggravated by unfavourable exchange rates and scarcity of national financing. And air tickets to Dakar are costly, because there are no direct flights from Latin America; flights go through Europe.
The organisational limitations in Dakar reflect the lack of government support, lending credence to the position taken by one Brazilian current of activists who held a thematic forum last year in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Bahia and who advocate alliances with progressive governments, to strengthen WSF events and give them a broader impact.
The WSF defines itself as a civil society initiative in which government leaders only participate as guests in events organised by social movements and organisations. However, most of the global editions, including the five held in Brazil, have received financial support from national or local governments.
* Lula as a “member of civil society”
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a guest at previous editions, will now take part in Dakar as a "member of civil society" in a seminar on 7 February, the Africa and Diaspora Day in the WSF 2011 schedule. Lula has announced that Brazil's relations with Africa will be a priority in his post-government activities.
For the next unified global Forum, which has been held every two years since 2005 – the others are "polycentric," with different regional events – many Brazilians want to bring the WSF back to its origins in Porto Alegre, while others are pushing for it to be held in Bahia, the state with the largest proportion of people of African descent.
But Europe, another strong candidate for hosting the 2013 edition, is focusing on other approaches, such as attempting to have an impact on the big issues of the moment. However, it is the new paradigms of "another world" of the future, more than current challenges, that are of greatest concern to the founders of the WSF. "Development that is killing life on the planet is a major problem," said Grzybowski, who ruled out "the green economy" as a solution, saying it is really just "greenwashed capitalism" that does not modify the mechanisms underlying the tragedy.
* Go beyond the WSF
His proposal is "to go beyond the WSF" and take advantage of next year's Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which will bring up-to-date the debate launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Social movements should organise a strong presence at the 2012 conference, to forge an alliance with the Brazilian government with a view to changing the way the environment and development are thought about, he said. Global problems are immense and complex, but "the world doesn't stop, and people make history," as seen in the Arab world in the last few days, he said.
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