20 years later, which direction for the World Social Forum? – CIDSE

20 years later, which direction for the World Social Forum?

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Gilio Brunelli, former Director of the International Programmes Department of Development and Peace* (Canada) and involved in the World Social Forum (WSF) from its inception, shares with us his thoughts on the Forum and its achievements at a moment when it is going through a difficult time. According to him if one thing is certain: thanks to the WSF we can believe that ‘another world is possible’ and bring together activists from all over the world. 

Created as a counter event to the ‘World Economic Forum’ which for years is held at the end of January in Davos, the World Social Forum was set up in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. Some Brazilian civil society leaders had understood very well that the world shaped in Davos by world economic and political leaders was the neo-liberal world of profit, the world of the privileged, the world of the 1% that continues to exclude the other 99%. But these Brazilian leaders also knew that nowhere was written that the world had to be neoliberal and capitalist. Instead, they thought it was necessary to come together to shape a world where everyone has its place with respect and dignity, and they shared the conviction that this other world was not just one of the many utopias of history, but that it was possible. Thus, the slogan ‘Another world is possible’ describes their vision and programme very well.  

Since its inception, the WSF has been a democratic space for meetings and dialogue for movements, social organisations, popular associations, civil society organisations, organised community groups, and all the anti-capitalists and alter-globalists of the planet. The WSF was conceived as an enormous circus tent that was always expanding, under which a collective process of resistance and alternatives, mobilisation and struggle was played out, with convergence, alliances and networking as its main tools. It was only a little later that it became clear that resistance and struggle were not enough and that it was also necessary to propose and transform.

It took courage, even boldness, to imagine that organisations from all over the world would accept the invitation to come to Porto Alegre to discuss a subject as inspiring as it is nebulous: the possibility of building another world, a better one this time.

Gilio Brunelli exchanging with Ivo Lesbaupin,
Brazilian civil society representative, WSF 2018 Brazil

But the bet was successful, which not only demonstrates the credibility and convening power of the first leaders, but also reveals the need for the global social justice movements to get to know each other, to talk to each other, to consult with each other. Let’s remember that in 2001, social networks were still in their infancy, that many platforms did not even exist and that email was the most efficient tool for international communication.

Technology aside, the profound significance of the first Porto Alegre meeting is not that it represented an alternative to Davos, but that international solidarity is possible, that it is possible for progressive organisations to put aside their internal quarrels and internal struggles – an art in which they by far surpass the organisations of the dominant groups – to come together around a common analysis: the world is not well, and a common vision: another world must be built! It was the first time in recent human history.

The need for strong international solidarity still remains very important and this is probably the main rationale for the existence of the WSF today, because, on the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the WSF has aged badly.

On the one hand, the International Council of the WSF, which has since been tasked with ensuring the continuity of the forum process, is divided between those who want to keep the WSF as an open space and those who want to use this space to take specific positions (against the impeachment of Dilma Roussef, for the boycott of Israeli products, etc.), which would in itself mean narrowing this space which, by its very nature, must be open in order to exist. We have been in a deadlock situation for years.

On the other hand, the possibilities of mass mobilisation and convergence offered by social networks somewhat destabilised the WSF, whose leaders were more used to email exchanges and heavy, long negotiated and always complicated decision-making. The major denunciation and protest campaigns that have marked the last few years took place without the WSF. In fact, Occupy Wall Street, the 99% movement, the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo and even the environmentalist movement mobilised, demonstrated, denounced, demanded and proposed, and occupied the public and media space ‘in parallel’ to the WSF. At each meeting of the WSF International Council, its members questioned, with a certain jealousy, the absence of the WSF in the organisation of these campaigns; they wondered why the leaders of these movements had not come either to solicit the participation of the WSF or joined its big tent….

Today, this question is crucial for a movement that wants to be open and unifying, and the cumbersome process of (non-) decision making by the International Council is in part a first answer. In any case, the emergence of these movements is to be welcomed rather than be jealous of them. Having said that, it must also be recognised that if a broad and open space like the WSF had not existed and did not continue to exist, these campaigns/movements would not have had the global importance they have had and would probably have remained important social phenomena, albeit localised. It is because, over the years, the WSF has contributed to building networks of organisations and associations, to opening channels of exchange and communication, to bringing together civil society leaders from all over the world, that local struggles and specific issues can be relayed and supported worldwide almost immediately without using traditional media.

Will the future of the WSF therefore consist in relaying and disseminating the struggles and proposals that emerge independently all over the world? The future will tell, but if this is the case, the WSF will have achieved its objective, because it will then be exactly that space, now virtual, where the proponents of an alternative world can consult each other and forge alliances to build that other possible world.


Cover Photo Gilio Brunelli (top left) with CIDSE delegates at the 2018 World Social Forum in Brazil – Credit: CIDSE.

* In August 2016, CIDSE’s Canadian member organisation, Development and Peace, sponsored the World Social Forum in Montreal and shared their WSF experience in a video.


Additional reading:
20 years World Social Forum, a short CIDSE story” by Markus Brun, Head of the International Cooperation Department at Fastenopfer (Switzerland)

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