It Should be Clear What to Expect from the WSF

Image from the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunisia. Photo: CIDSE - together for global justice/Flickr

ROME – The last International Council (IC) of the World Social Forum (Mar 29 and 30) in Tunis was characterised by the usual sequence of three-minute statements, without any conclusions. This time, the presence of several people who intervened vehemently, without being members of the IC or representing anyone, added more confusion.

ICs are usually held without any control of participants, often in inadequate space, with problems of sound and translation. And with the passing of the years, the numbers of those who question the present format of the WSF are increasing, with a consensus to postpone the issue until a serious debate on a future occasion.

This time it will be the turn of an ad hoc seminar in Greece, but as the IC cannot vote and decisions must be taken by consensus, whatever will come out of the seminar in Greece will have to be adopted by a full IC. And, because the composition (and chemistry) of the IC changes every time according to its location, the next meeting will be held in Montreal in 2017, with scarce Asian, Arab and African participation. It will be a Latin-American European mix, as it was at the birth of the WSF, which may be a regression.

The debate about the future of the WSF is, as the late Tarzi Vittachi once said, always about something else.

After 15 years, the facts about the WSF are by now well clear. The Forum is doing exactly what it was supposed to do. It is a meeting space, where tens of thousands of people meet, share and exchange, and it is an occasion for taking decisions on common action among participants.

Especially for young people who are meeting for the first time, it is an exciting experience.  The problem is that for those who saw the WSF as a new actor for a different world, this self-referential formula does not make an impression in the real world.

The first Forum, held in Porto Alegre in 2001, created a wave of enthusiasm. When, in its wake, a March for Peace "brought together" 110 million people around the world, the New York Times described global civil society as a "new crucial world player".  There was also a TV link for a debate among some prominent participants from the World Economic Forum in Davos (including George Soros), and some participants from Porto Alegre. Today, this would be impossible.

The Forum has never lost its vitality, in all the passages from Porto Alegre to the various other locations in the world, from Mumbai to Nairobi, from Caracas to Dakar. Every time, tens of thousands of people met, discussed and shared how to make another world possible.

Variations were due to the local organising committee, to logistical factors, to financial realities. But the formula of the Forum, by and large, has kept functioning worldwide and over the years.

What has grown is the disconnect between the Forum and the world that it wants to change. The disasters created by neoliberal globalisation are now evident to everybody. The loss of legitimacy of the political system is stronger every day. The inability of the system to resolve even problems for the survival of the planet, like climate change, have become common knowledge. The   unprecedented growth of social injustice is now denounced by international organisations like IMF and the World Bank.

However, on all those issues, the WSF does not take any position. It is frozen in the formula of an open space, not for relating to the outside world. And the IC is just a facilitator which cannot take official positions, or propose any vision or plan of action.

Some historical analysis may be useful here. The first WSF in 2001 was created as an anti-Davos, and was intended to be a one-time event. Then the Brazilian organising committee found itself facing an unexpected success. Over 50,000 people came.  Clearly this was a movement, and could not be killed.

So a "conference for reflection" was called in Sao Paolo the following year, and several international or local organisations were invited to attend. And here came the beginning of the problem. The invitations were not issued after careful planning, by region or by any criteria. Those invited were people that the Brazilian committee knew, and in hindsight it was considered a logical way to proceed. 

However, during the meeting, the Brazilians realised that it would have been a mistake to remain the only ones responsible for continuation of the Forum, and they changed the meeting into the first International Council (after calling it Committee). So the IC started as a collection of different people and organisation, without clear criteria.

The IC of the time was attended by very high-level personalities because the WSF was considered a revolutionary event.  But the fact is that the Charter of Principles that it adopted was not a charter for any action to change the world – it was simply to allow as many participants to meet and debate among themselves.

The IC was to be only a" facilitator", so its debate focused on organisational matters not on issues of policy or vision, because the IC was not intended to provide vision. The high-level personalities got bored, and the level of IC was left to activists and representative of organisations. Over the years, that level has also been on the decline.

It should also be noted that the IC was conceived as a totally horizontal structure, as is always the case in alternative civil society – there are no directors, no positions. It is the same formula as for a number of other global  events, like the Indignados in Spain or Occupy Wall Street in New York, just to recall the two most famous. The same horizontal formula – no leaders, no spokespersons and no structure.

A very interesting book, "Assault the Sky" by Josè Ignacio Torreblanca, analyses how the leaders of Podemos, who were part of the Indignados, debated how to organise without falling into the traps of the old political system. That political system has been so discredited that anything which resembles is rejected by the large majority of militants.

It is interesting to note that at the IC in Tunis, a young German participant rejected any rules in the debate, accusing the IC of being a bureaucratic organisation which was re-creating the divisions among countries and copying political institutions.

The question is an old one, and comes from colonial times. Can the oppressed free themselves using the same instruments as the oppressors? But this opens up another question: is it verticality that characterises the ills of the political system, or its content and players? Podemos will give an important answer to this.

The IC was therefore also created as a space for dialogue, not for decisions, but it is a very ineffective dialogue, given the amount of time given to speakers and the fact that no conclusions are drawn to avoid privileging some of participants over others. The debate is intended to make the participants of the IC aware of what others think.

But here we enter another problem. The IC is formed, nominally, by more than 150 organisations but, in reality, perhaps 50 really participate. Further, at every IC less than half of the participants are the same as in the following IC, and on each occasion the newcomers go back to issues which were somehow examined in previous ICs. Given that note was not taken of previous debates, the solution on every occasion on which there is clear consensus is to send the issue to the next IC.

The result is that the very few who come to every IC (because they are funded by their organisations to do so), have become de facto an organising force, with many rumours of having created a power group with little transparency.

While it was generally accepted that the WSF is not an event, but a process, horizontality makes this very difficult. In an organised process, you would expect to pass previous debates and cumulative wisdom from forum to forum, in order to give to the process more speed and force. But there is no link between forums.

At every Forum, debate at any level starts anew, complicated by the fact that the organisers of the Forum cannot force panels on the same issue to join together. In Tunis, there were more than 1,000 workshops, seminars or meetings, several of which were on exactly the same issue. So every meeting spoke only to its direct constituency, without hearing the voices of others.

Every year there are a minimum of twenty local, regional, thematic and global forums, with thousands of interventions from academics to activists, giving an indication of how much collective wisdom gets lost in the process.

In the case of the IC, there is a further problem which has nothing to do with horizontality. Members of the IC tend to look to it just as a meeting space. To take assignments at home is judged a statistical failure. It was the lack of efficiency of the Forum that gave rise to the creation of commissions which would look into methodology, enlargement, communication, finance and other issues.

When the Commission on Enlargement wanted to reorganise the IC into a more representative body, it went nowhere. The only support that the Commission on Communication asked from the IC was that participants would provide the names of a few journalists known to be interested in the Forum, but this never happened.

Given the gradual dwindling of journalists attending forums, the proposal to present a list of resource persons (for gender, environment, indigenous people, etc.) for giving to journalists so they could find their way around hundreds of meetings to obtain material to write their articles was dismissed as a way of appointing spokespersons.

In any case, the commission died quietly, without anyone noticing, and the secretariat of the WSF also closed, because of budget problems. The organising committee of the Tunis Forum even made it clear that it had received no contribution whatsoever from the IC.

After 15 years, analysis of the WSF would require much more than these few lines, but the point is very simple. The WSF has no governance body because the IC was intended only to be at most a facilitator, whatever this means. The IC is an inefficient body, without a permanent core, with no acts or rules, which cannot take decisions on vision and strategy. This is aggravated by the proven fact that the members do not take any work beside their interventions to its meetings.

In the last few months, the debate about the future of the WSF has again taken force. The proponents for change say that when WSF was created, neoliberal globalisation was new, and the WSF was necessary to debate and denounce it.

Now this work has been done, and we need to start to act. At the very minimum, this requires changing the Charter of Principles, and accepting that the Forum can make declarations on issues that participants consider relevant.

The guardians of the Charter maintain that this would lead inexorably to a splitting of the movement. But it would be enough to add a quorum of 80 percent, for example, for any act to be sure of having a mass view.

In Tunis, for example, it would have been perfectly possible to have a unanimous declaration asking the governments of the world to be responsible for the future of the planet and be prepared to go to the Climate Conference in Paris in December, ignoring the lobby of the energy corporations and thinking instead of people's lives and survival.

The same should also have been possible for the International Council, which would then discuss vision, and become an actor on global issues.

This brings us to the real problem. As it is now, the IC is not a representative body of global civil society because it is not the result of an organic process. It should reorganise itself radically, which is a very unrealistic proposal. Ideally, it should be dissolved and re-created as an IC of the various organising committees of the World Forum held until now. This would bring diversity, experience ... and legitimacy.

This IC would then organise itself to expand by incorporating more organisations, representatives of a large base (which would bring more to the fore social movements or organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International, which have never joined because they did not find the IC a place to be). Such an IC could then carry out plans of actions, endorsed by the Forums, for taking positions on global issues in global events, such as the upcoming climate conference in Paris.

This proposal is just an example of the debate that should be launched. To continue as now and make no changes will leave the Forum as just a meeting space, very much like the spiritual exercise held for centuries by the Catholic Church while conflicts and revolutions were exploding in the outside, real world.

Is global civil society in the form of the WSF ready to adopt some mechanisms of organisation, albeit limited? Is it ready to accept that to fight the system some kind of counter-system must be organized and that horizontality has some limits?

Without that clear decision, everything will always be about something else, and we will continue debating issues which are not really central – like the efficiency of the IC, but efficient for what?


 *Savio is the founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency. In recent years he has also founded Other News (, a service providing 'information that markets eliminate'.

WSF 2015 logo