Another World Is Possible, but It Will Take a Social Conscience and Political Leadership to Get Us There

By Fazila Farouk · 17 Feb 2011

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Picture: The Real Revo
Picture: The Real Revo

In recent weeks, two meetings of global significance have come and gone with little media attention. At the end of January, the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting took place in Davos, Switzerland, followed days later by the World Social Forum (WSF) in Dakar, Senegal, which ended on an ecstatic note on the very day people’s power triumphed over Egypt’s autocratic Mubarak regime.

The Davos forum was, of course, covered by the bigger television networks, but there was none of the usual flurry of excitement; just an obligatory nod to the annual return of the world’s richest talk shop.

At nearly a half a million Rand for an entry-level ticket (that too, only by invitation), the WEF does represent somewhat of a big business expense. And if you want to shake hands with say, someone like U2’s Bono, gaining entry to the A-list events that he undoubtedly frequents, will bring your ticket costs up to nearly R1.1 million per person.

The WEF is not a place for those with modest means, even if they do talk about things that affect people with modest and especially no means at all. Topics such as “climate change,” the “water-food-energy nexus” and “economic disparity” did indeed make it onto the WEF programme his year, but many of these issues were framed in discussions that analysed “risks” for business.

The language of social responsibility simply does not enter into the lexicon of the world’s economic elite. 

Be that as it may, word from those on the inside track reveals that the WEF is nothing more than an expensive networking event for high rollers -- and, its appeal appears to be fading. 

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment who participated in the WEF, blogged: Everyone wants to hang out with the cool kids at the WEF. The problem with this year’s event was that the designated cool kids – the Chinese – were in short supply. Even if there is no deal making taking place at the WEF, given the importance of emerging markets in the global economy, there’s definitely a keen sense that the value proposition of future forums would be limited if bigger delegation of “Chindians” were not present.

Far from the fading appeal of the WEF, the WSF took place in what can best be described as a city with periodic beauty. Dakar has spectacular natural beauty. Its main marine drive where coastal villas and high-end hotels are highlighted by rambling splashes of bougainvillea rivals Cape Town’s Clifton for attractiveness. But like most African cities, development is uneven and the best parts of the city are reserved for those with “big money,” a taxi driver judiciously informed me on one of my daily drives to the University of Dakar where the WSF was held. 

To add some clarity to the origins and purpose of the WSF: It was launched as an alternative to the elitism of the WEF and established as a space for poor people, progressive organisations and forward thinking governments to come together to engage in discussions about issues of global significance. These issues often correspond with the topics discussed at the WEF, but are considered from a social justice perspective. 

The city of Dakar hosted the 10th WSF, which was opened by President Evo Morales of Bolivia. The WSF is normally held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. This is only the third time that it was held in another country. The event usually attracts about 60,000 people.

The WSF partly has its origins in the desire of Brazil’s Worker’s Party to experiment with participatory democracy to enable grassroots constituencies to have a greater say in democratic processes through assemblies that would run parallel to conventional governance structures. As a result, the Worker’s Party, which led the municipal government of Porto Alegre at the time, partly financed the launch of the WSF in 2001. The Worker’s Party then went on to carry Ignacio Lula da Silva to victory in the country’s presidential election one year later in 2002. The world has since witnessed Lula’s administration pulling 20 million Brazilians out of poverty during his two-term presidency.

This success, one imagines, gives Lula the license to espouse bold views, which he did in Dakar. While addressing an eager audience, Lula victoriously declared, “Capitalism is dead.”

It was a statement received with scepticism by those of us not living under pro-poor regimes, such as those in Latin America. Our realities seemed very distant from that statement. 

Our reality is one of a revitalised capitalism in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. It involves a shift to rightwing governments in some European and Asian countries; it includes 30 million job losses around the world and public bailouts for bankers in Europe and America coupled with stronger austerity measures for the people of those countries.

This is the reality that previously well-shielded Europeans cannot even escape.

Globally renowned political scientist and activist, Susan George elaborated on the dire circumstances of ordinary Europeans in one of the seminars at the WSF. She said European governments are stuck in the failed neoliberal paradigm -- they really believe in the free market. They are also terrified of the banks and ratings agencies, she added and argued further that there is an extreme lack of democracy at the European level with 85% of decisions being made in Brussels.

George said that the people of Europe have already paid 14 trillion dollars in bailouts. Due to Greek and Irish debt, “the people” will have to pay again because the central bank is refusing to issue European bonds to help poorer countries.

As a result, the social gains that Europeans have made over the last 50 years are being undone. Their good standard of living is being eroded. Social unrest and labour protests in Europe are all in response to this.

“It’s our turn now to be under structural adjustment…we are finding out what it is like to be under the IMF,” George said as she concluded her talk.

It was fascinating to observe the difference between activists from other parts of the world compared to those from Latin America. Many activists bemoaned the backwardness of their political and economic elites who are driving deeper wedges of inequality in their countries of origin. But the Brazilians and most other Latin Americans appeared to be on a different trajectory.

A Brazilian alternative media specialist who participated in a panel discussion about ways to popularise progressive politics totally disagreed with my view that it was important to engage with the mainstream media for this purpose. “What do we need the mainstream media for?” he challenged, as he went on to explain how it was far more important to build the grassroots media sector in Brazil due to their power as a constituency in that country.

Indeed, the Latin Americans appeared to be one step ahead of the rest of us in terms of where they were focusing their attention. Evident from their confidence was the fact that these activists are working in countries where, at the very least, their governments have recognised the unjustness of neoliberal capitalism and are dedicated to finding alternatives. This has given Latin American civil society the opportunity to concentrate on nurturing and consolidating a different vision for the world by building alternative structures for engagement with democratic institutions that are more open to them. 

African, European and American social justice activists are still trying to convince our governments about the ills of an unjust economic system propped up by biased global institutions. We’re far from singing from the same hymn sheet. 

In this regard, Latin American political leaders have far more in common with progressive civil society. For example, while seminar hopping at the WSF, I stumbled upon Pedro Paez, former Ecuadorian minister of economic policy, talking about the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), which has been established as an alternative to the World Bank in South America. It’s worth noting that South Africa, under Jacob Zuma, rejected an invitation to join the Bank of the South at the Africa-Latin America Summit in 2009.

Nobody is naïve enough to suggest that Latin American leaders are without fault or that they’ve found the solution to global poverty or even that relations between them and their grassroots constituencies are without conflicts over national priorities that include notable issues such as land policy. Lula himself has come under severe criticism from certain sectors of Brazilian civil society for being a reformist who didn’t go far enough to transform the Brazilian economy. This made it rather ironic that of all Latin American leaders; he should be the one proclaiming, “Capitalism is dead.”

But that really is beside the point. The point is that there is a group of Latin American governments that have shown leadership and conscience by choosing to reject the status quo. They are leading the way in showing the rest of us that another world is possible. 

Meanwhile the top one percent continues wallowing in the fountain of excess at the WEF, unwavering in their belief that its overflow will eventually trickle down to the bottom 99%. African, European and North American political leaders are still standing with their mouths wide open at the base of this fountain of ignorance.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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