The World Social Forum Trumps the World Economic Forum on Solutions for a Better World

By Michelle Pressend · 20 Feb 2009

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Critics argue that leaders at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) were unable to provide solutions for the complex problems facing the world at the recent gathering in Davos.

These darlings of Davos are the very cooks that have stirred the awful stew the world finds itself in today. But finding solutions to the world’s woes would bring this group of people face to face with inner demons that they would prefer to keep locked away, along with their millions.

Capitalism is, after all, self-imploding due to the greed of its masters. Climate change, food shortages and the global financial crisis have all arrived courtesy of the machinations of the Davos degenerates. But they of course are shielded from these pesky inconveniences in their lofty first world towers. It must be the reason they sat on their hands mouthing platitudes to each other in Davos, while glaciers melted onto the agricultural lands of Nepalise farmers and drought encroached deeper into the lived reality of the indigenous people of the Amazon forest.

Quite the opposite was happening half way around the world at the World Social Forum (WSF) -- a counterpoint forum timed to coincide with the WEF. This year the WSF was held parallel to the Davos event in the Amazonian city of Belém, Brazil from 26-29 February 2009.

Brazil’s da Silva government spent US$50 million to host the event, which four other leftist presidents from the continent attended -- much to the rapture of the Belém gathering, numbering some 155,000 that gave the Latin leaders a heroes' welcome.

The WSF has become the most renowned global gathering of social movements and civil society organizations united against capitalism and market-driven development underpinned by liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation.

As stated by the WSF declaration, “…The present system is based on exploitation, competition, promotion of individual private interests to the detriment of the collective interest, and the frenzied accumulation of wealth by a handful of rich people. It results in bloody wars, fuels xenophobia, racism and religious fundamentalisms; it intensifies the exploitation of women and the criminalisation of social movements…” 

Since its inception in 2001, the WSF continues to be a platform for discussion, debate and exchange. Its value lies in creating a space for the most marginalised to speak. This year, indigenous people from deep in the Amazon travelled for more than a week to get to the city of Belém to participate in discussions with academics and activists from all over the world.

The 2009 WSF was marked by civil society’s response to the global financial crisis, climate change as well as the food and energy crises. 

I participated in discussions about climate justice, arresting the power of transnational corporations, resistance to free trade agreements and alternative regionalism.  

Discussions on the global financial crisis warned that while neo-liberalism has crashed, solutions are being masked by social democratic capitalism.

Concern was raised about the negative implications of the free trade ideology fostered by the World Trade Organisation. The commoditization of natural resources coupled with decreased regulation of corporations and unregulated tariff reductions as well as the opening up of the service sectors, have all fed into the financial crisis.

Market-based solutions proposed under the Kyoto protocol were strongly criticized at the WSF. The focus was on the need to interrogate and incorporate a people’s perspective in climate change.

The ‘Climate Justice Now’ seminar on challenges to the construction of climate justice transcended technical debates to provide an eye-opening account of people’s realities around the world and how climate change is affecting their livelihoods. 

Among the issues highlighted was the racial inequality experienced by the people of Hurricane Katrina; glacial melting on agricultural land and access to water in the indigenous local communities of Nepal; as well as the desertification and drought currently being experienced in the Amazon. 

The Climate Justice Now Network put social issues at the centre of natural disasters, particularly as disasters tend to affect the poor. Vulnerable groups living in urban and rural areas have fewer resources to cope with the intensifying frequency of natural disasters. Climate justice is focused on a shift in the whole paradigm from almost totally market-based solutions to a transformative framework – based on a strong set of principles of participation, justice and ownership of resources from the community.

The Permanent People’s Tribunal organized by Enlanzando Alternativas or Linking Alternatives, brought together movements working in strategic areas such as energy, natural resources, agrofuels, food, water and land, in Lima last year. This bi-regional network between Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, “acknowledges that a great majority of urgent problems are affected by the operations and activities of transnational corporations and that any project of ‘another world is possible’ will have to keep the issue of corporate power at the centre of its vision and work.”

People are keen to expose the impact of European transnational corporations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as generate resistance.

The opportunity to participate in the WSF and the value of this process, for me, brought to the fore the significance of making the connections -– the convergences of the global economic and planetary ecological crisis between climate change, natural resource exploitation, militarization, transnational corporations and capitalism.

The WSF revealed not only common struggles, but also common solutions. 

It highlighted the need for collective mobilization and an understanding of indigenous peoples’ struggles against the global capitalist economic model and related neoliberal policies, as well as the role of the international institutions and agents that drive these policies. These include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Word Trade Organisations, governments, elites and transnational corporations.

While I gained first hand knowledge of the lived experiences of the poor, indigenous people, woman, youth and workers; I also experienced collective solidarity and gained a deep understanding of knowing ‘another world is possible’ through the coming together of struggle, resistance and mobilization of social and indigenous movements, environmentalists, feminist, workers, and activists from around the world -- to share, consolidate, strategise, inspire and mobilize. 

The WSF reinforced my belief that local, national and regional initiatives are mechanisms to shift the paradigm to influence the global arena. The outcomes are about internalizing the collective values and principles and working together to win campaigns through linking local, national and regional struggles in order to change the world. 

For those who criticize the WSF for not having concrete outcomes, my response is that they should open their eyes and look a little deeper at the changes that are happening in the world, particularly in Latin America. The successful resistance in the Americas, which defeated the US Free Trade Area Agreement and the election of more democratic and accountable governments, provide loads of evidence. 

The fact that the presidents of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and Brazil, Lula da Silva boycotted the WEF also gives one a sense that ‘another world is possible’.

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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23 Feb

Sustainable Development: The need for Coherence

Another world is not only possible, but absolutely necessary for the endurance of planet earth. It is high time that we move beyond point scoring and empty rhetoric. It is time to take stock and consolidate. The MDGs provide a basic framework for a better world. The online progress tracking system demonstrates that South Africa has to do an enormous amoung of work towards achieving the MDGs. As a country South Africa has no shortage of policies, agences and interventions towards sustainable development. The problem, however is the fragmentation and lack of political will to work towards effective change. I am not aware of a coherent model for sustainable development. One which enables effective implementation. Without such a model and in the absence of an appropriate delivery mechanism, the quest for achieving the MDGs will remain a pipe dream.

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