Ten years ago this month the World Social Forum (WSF) met for the first time to discuss ways of changing global order. A decade on, the movement is still going strong, but just how effective has it been?
The World Social Forum's slogan reads "Another World is Possible." But exactly what form that world should take, is not stipulated in the movement's charter of principles. While it is long on solidarity, fairness, anti-globalization, human rights and the creation of a space for reflective thought and democratic debate, it is noticeably short on strategy.
So what is the WSF really all about? Jackie Smith author of the book "Social Movements for Global Democracy" describes it as a "movement of movements," a "process" which aims to connect social forums and build networks of people involved in pressure groups. And she believes it is one of the most important political developments in recent history.
"It has mobilized millions of individuals in well over a hundred countries," Smith told Deutsche Welle, adding that the WSF has encouraged "popular discussion and debate as well as action to address some of the most pressing conflicts of our day."
One issue on the movement's agenda is the redressing of the poverty balance. But Alec van Gelder, project director at International Policy Network in London, says that while the WSF may have attracted attention to the problem, its left-leaning principles will never solve it.
"More and more countries around the world, whether they are left leaning or right leaning understand that they're in a global competition and the only way to win is to become more competitive," van Gelder told Deutsche Welle.
Citing India as a case in point, he says there is a growing understanding all over the world that a free-market economy is the better way to tackle poverty.
"Back in 1991, it [India] was a series of catastrophic failures and really there was no other option but to pursue a more liberal order," van Gelder said. "India is not exactly a free-market paradise but it is unquestionable in which direction they are moving."
And that is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the World Social Forum.
From the fringes to the mainstream
But Hugo Braun, a member of the coordination council of the activist group Attac Deutschland, holds that the past decade has proved the movement is on the right track, and that some of the WSF's demands have made it into mainstream political consciousness.
"The German chancellor, the US president and the French president are talking about a financial transaction tax that we called for 10 years ago," Braun said. "And that leads me to believe we have put at least one or two issues on the agenda."
Jackie Smith concedes that the WSF could have had a greater impact on policies of economic globalization, but she says where the movement has made the greatest progress is in the minds of the population.
She says it has helped people to imagine alternatives to the kind of globalization being advanced by elites at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.
What's a fair world anyway?
But critics argue that such talk is too nebulous, insisting instead that if activists really want the fairer world they talk about, there's no way around capitalism.
"Does a fair world actually mean that more and more people are able to enjoy the fruits of economic development, have access to modern technology like live-saving medicines, modern electronics, hospitals and so on?" van Gelder asked.
"If you ask me what a free world is, that would certainly be a characteristic of it."
NGOs stealing the limelight
In honour of the 10th anniversary of the WSF, there won't be a single convention as is usually the case, but a string of events spread out over 12 months. This year, like last, many delegates will be from non-governmental organizations. But that is not as innocuous as it might sound.
The forum has come under fire in the past for allowing too many state-funded NGOs to attend.
"A lot of the NGOs gathering at the WSF are actually funded by governments and their agenda is politically motivated one way or the other," van Gelder said. "And that obviously becomes a problem."
He says the self-proclaimed non-governmental movement is actually running to a Socialist agenda and is ultimately trying to achieve a world-wide Socialist revolution.
For his part, Braun refutes the claim, insisting that while there are certainly many Socialist-leaning forum participants, the WSF has always remained true to its non-party identity.
"We have people of very different motivations, members of religious and environmental groups," he said. "But what I think is so fantastic about the forum is that there are so many different groups working together to find possibilities for this undefined better world."
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor. Rob Mudge