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14 Dec, 2003

Gathering Against Goliaths: Civil Society To Rally at World Social Forum in Mumbai

Originally Published: 14 December 2003

About 75,000 activists and non-government organisations opposing everything from imperialist globalisation to fundamentalism and militarisation are to gather in Mumbai, India, from 16 to 24 January 2004, for the fourth World Social Forum.

Being held for the first time in Asia, the event will mark yet another strengthening and coming together of global groups better known for mass demonstrations against the IMF / World Bank, World Trade Organization and World Economic Forums.

The theme uniting the groups, “Another World is Possible,” is intended to send precisely that powerful message, backed up by studies, debates and discussions showing the unsustainability of the current global drift and the need for a new approach.

Says the Charter of Principle, “The World Social Forum is not an organisation, not a united front platform, but …an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a society centred on the human person”.

The nine-day event is expected to be an energetic affair, buzzing with conferences, workshops, displays of art, culture, music and dance,  focusing on 10 sub-themes:

1) Militarism, War and Peace

2) Media, Information, Knowledge and Culture

3) Democracy, Ecological And Economic Security — Debt, Finance and Trade

4) Sustainable and Democratic Development

5) World of Labour and Work in Production and Social Reproduction

6) Social Sectors — Food, Health, Education and Social Security

7) Exclusions, Discrimination, Dignity, Rights and Equality — Nation, State, Citizenship, Law and Justice

8) Caste, Race and Other Forms of Descent and Work-Based Exclusions

9) Religion, Culture and Identities

10) Patriarchy, Gender and Sexuality

One important element of the WSF India will be the Youth Forum, which itself is expected to attract about 10,000 delergates aged 15-34. As leaders of the future, they are a critical target  in the creation of the alternative global movement “to sustain and defend the dignity, identity and democratic space of individuals and societies, and expose as well as oppose their violation, carried out on a global scale by neo-liberal and imperialist policies.”

Based on input from youth groups worldwide, the Youth Forum is being designed to “add value to the WSF in spirit, thought and action, not merely as a parallel event but with the objective to ‘mainstream’ the discourse of the youth.”

According to the organisers, Mumbai was chosen as the venue because it “provides an ideal site to challenge the neo-liberal globalisation agenda, as it is perhaps the largest financial centre in the world outside the OECD, as well being the location of some of the most aggressive and violent acts of religious sectarianism that the subcontinent has witnessed.

“Mumbai is also a large industrial centre and has witnessed the birth of a militant trade union movement, vibrant dalit and women’s movements, and has allowed the growth of alternatives to mainstream arts, performing arts and cinema. It is the preferred destination on India’s over-land migration route and has been a vantage point on the Indian Ocean trade route for several centuries,” the organisers say.

“All of this has contributed to making Mumbai a plural, cosmopolitan and permissive city with every language of the subcontinent spoken and just about every faith of the world practiced. It’s a city that never sleeps and a safe city for women and international visitors.

“Mumbai also provides an opportunity for organisations from various sectors and diverse political perspectives to work together. It’s proximity with the rest of the world by air and sea and a large infrastructure to cater to the thousands who will participate in the event provides added advantage.”

Through extensive use of Internet communications power, the WSFs have clearly grown in strength since they were held in January and February 2001- 2003, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The first WSF in 2001 attracted about 20,000 people representing over 500 national and international organisations from more than 100 countries. Encouraged by the “success and enthusiasm” generated, it was decided to make the WSF an annual event.

Smaller regional and thematic forums were held during 2002-2003 in Argentina, Italy, Palestine, Ethiopia, Brazil, Colombia, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden and other countries. An Asian Social Forum was held in Hyderabad, India, last January and the second European Social Forum from 12 to 15 November 2003 in France.

Today, organisers say, the “WSF has emerged as a counterweight to the worldview of the World Economic Forum. (It) has become a symbol of the gathering strength of forces fighting against globalisation and war.” WSF 2003, with over 100,000 participants became a rallying point for the protest against the war in Iraq.

An International Council (IC) Forum has been formed to enhance and expand the diversity of the WSF process. Comprised of a group of international networks from different regions of the world working on issues including economic justice, human rights, environmental issues, labour, youth and women’s rights. The IC contributes to the WSF methodology, outreach, communication strategies as well as the local and regional organising process.

The IC played an important role in taking the WSF to India on the grounds that the WSF needed to become more inclusive of peoples of Africa and Asia where “many peoples are felt to be facing the brunt of imperialist and neo-liberal globalisation, and enjoined in strong popular struggle against it.”

The 4th WSF in Mumbai will be followed by the First Social Forum of the Americas, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 8 to 13 March 2004, and the third World Education Forum from 28 to 31 July, 2004 in Porto Alegre.

Similar events being held in Africa and elsewhere are also designed to counter a smear campaign that these groups are badly-organised idealists with no specific agenda or action plan.

However, their ‘expose and oppose’ policy is clearly playing a very significant role in putting image-conscious multinational companies and international banking groups on the defensive. What they appear to lack at the moment is a top-quality list of counter-proposals.

As the relatively movement crystallises and finds a firmer footing, religions and religious groups are playing a major role in this process of translating anger to action. That role will be the subject of my next column, the last of the year 2003.