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Porto Reflecto: Some WSF Issues

I’m leaving tomorrow. So, before team OD repairs again to watch the sunset from yellow boat on the river, its time for reflections. Or, perhaps, confessions. If you are reading this I bet you are thinking: what has this been about? What is the big news, the take-home, the thing-people-are-talking-about, the big idea? You'd be right to think that. I’ve been itching to find out too.

Yesterday and today I’ve walked the length of the event in search of an answer. (This is no small undertaking. Traipsing from the Arts&Tech in Zone A to Spirituality&Peace in Zone K takes an hour and a half. In 35 degree heat, and with pale English skin, it is hazardous indeed.) I have watched events, in tents, covering labour relations in Asia, copyright reform, global democracy, non-violent protest, U.N. democratisation, hunger, poverty, the WTO, the rights of indigenous people, the rights of women, the wrongs of neo-liberalism and much more besides. It sounds like an OpenDemocracy dream; all these interesting topics, all in one place. But it isn't. As a jamboree, a gathering, an aesthetic feast-for-the-eyes, a celebration of dissent; this event is a triumph. But as a forum for new ideas it is a significant failure. Here is why.

This year’s forum is organised on the principle of no cause left behind. Anyone who wants to organise an event can do so. WSF 2005 is, so people tell me, bigger and more diverse for it. This rather good piece from the Nation suggests this is reason enough to celebrate. "I don't think it's the enthusiastic cab drivers, or the gorgeous weather, that explains why the WSF gives even the most jaded New Yorker a genuine sense of hope. Sure, one could find T-shirts with slogans to object to, or grouse about logistical screw-ups, or offer snide analyses of the impossible contradictions of even attempting to ponder alternatives in the midst of global corporatism....But the palpable energy for change that pervades the atmosphere... simply overwhelms any impulse to snipe from the sidelines."

I disagree. I like the T-shirts.  The logistics are genuinely impressive. And i find no logical contradiction in suggesting reform to global corporatism, whatever that might be. But I still haven't found reasons to be cheerful.

Why? First the dominant mode of communication is not dialogue, but exhortation. There are a number of discussions; 20 people in a tent, sitting in a circle, talking. But the vast majority of daytime events are rolling 3-hour panels. Each speech ends in a rousing call to action against such-and-such, greeted politely by the sweating crowd. After the n'th call for solidarity with the n'th cause you wonder exactly what the exhorters think they will get for their efforts. After two days I feel barraged; like sitting through a lengthy evangelic sermon with too many preachers.

Second the bazaar-like set-up and deliberate divsersity of purpose means, by definition, that there is no focus. The causes of global justice seem more disparate than they need be. An impression of the state of the movements is preciously difficult to find. MediaWatch Global founder Roberto Savio, whose organisation runs the daily Forum newspaper, complained today that even he couldn't get the Forum to designate spokespeople, or produce news. If a man this close to the event can't see what it is coming out, how are the rest of us? More importantly how can those outside?

Third, the Forum doesn't do a good job of representing those it seeks to help. Kamal Chenoy, one of the organisers of last year's WSF in India, sees this as problem of free-spirited disorganisation. "Where are the poor people?", he asks in an interview in the Forum daily newspaper. A collegues follows: "The marginalised need to be coordinated. WSF could be a forum for bringing their opinions into mainstream debate". The forum’s principle of disorganisation might stop any one person imposing their agenda on others, but it still means that many who need help expressing their agendas get left behind.

So who does the Forum serve? Those who seek a platform and those who seek a good time. No platform seeker is turned down, no agenda is deemed too trivial, and all are left happy. An evening meander through the Youth Camp, the sprawling square mile wide tent-city taking in the middle of the conference, shows how much fun most of the participants are having. The bigger event tents transform in the night time, ditching calls to action for calls to dance.

As it is I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde. He once remarked that the problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings. The WSF has gotten round this problem by making the evenings much the most fun part of their event. But for all the colourful look and feel, the vibrant protests and the communal spirit, the days are intellectually empty. After today I thought one more call to action, or one more peroration to mobilise and organise, could send me over the edge. But I’m concluding that this is the lesson for the 'organisers' themselves. This Forum needs to become a conference with an agenda, supplemented by the open diversity of events seen here in Porto Alegre. Otherwise the stories of those the event seeks to serve will be lost to world the Forum claims to represent.

January 29, 2005 in World Social Forum | Permalink


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