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Interview with Eric Toussaint, President of the CADTM
Social movements and political power - an essential debate
by Sergio Ferrari
7 July 2004

A World Social Forum mounted by its own participants

Interview with Eric Toussaint, President of the CADTM (Comité pour l’annulation de la dette du Tiers Monde - Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt)

The phase of preparation for the World Social Forum to be held at Porto Alegre between 26th and 31st January 2005 is now officially open. This fifth edition is to represent a ‘qualitative leap’, explains Eric Toussaint, President of the CADTM and member of the WSF International Council. After Mumbai, the fully maturing alternative globalisation movement is now taking the path back to Porto Alegre with some innovative proposals.


Some have criticised the ever expanding ‘gigantism’ of the WSF, judging that the quality of reflection and action is being suffocated by sheer quantity. What will the next WSF be like?

In my own view, the International Council has drawn a certain number of conclusions from the last few Forums. We are convinced that the bigger conferences that until now have been run by the Organising Committee, and which have been the ’main course’ of past Forums, should be strictly limited. As from now, 95% of the activities and the time available will be dedicated to self-run initiatives. I think this decision is of major importance.

That implies a fundamental change in the methodology of previous meetings.

Effectively, there are to be certain changes and a new logic is to be put into practice. We are planning three very different sections to the Forum that will follow on one from another in a coherent manner. The first, which will last for two days, is to be dedicated to self-run activities organised by the various movements taking part and who recognise themselves in the Forum Charter. The second will last for one day and will be an axis for articulating a broader transversal theme defined by the movements involved, and that will serve as a point of convergence. During the third phase, specific calls for action will be elaborated and launched.

Can you give an example?

Let us imagine that during the first two days the various movements and networks working on the subject of Third World debt organise an activity. They then broach a larger theme with participants working for example on the reform of the financial bodies, or possibly with all those whose field of action has to bear on capital flow. These wider themes will allow us to establish common denominators. We could consider an even broader theme, that of international finance and human rights.

How are the local movements developing at their roots?

These movements have to be integrated into our projects. For example, the rights of native peoples could be a transversal theme that groups together various approaches: e.g. land rights or public goods on a planetary scale. I would like to make an important point: it is in the nature of the WSF that no-one who respects the WSF Charter is prevented from suggesting more specific workshops or seminars. But we are going to concentrate on ‘synergies’ between movements and networks, and advise against activities that are proposed by a single organisation.


Can you talk to us about the part that is dedicated to ‘calls to action’?

We must remember that during the previous Forums there has been a potential energy which has luckily not expressed itself in the form of confrontations between the Forum itself (prevented from taking a stand or calling for mobilisation itself by its Charter) and the Assembly of Social Movements. There exist two separate but complementary forms of logic, entailing a certain risk at each Forum. For example, the mainstream media tended to present the final declaration of the Social Movements as that of the WSF, which it was not. In my opinion, the newly hatched version of the WSF has been designed to eradicate this latent tension. The WSF is going to encourage its various elements to adopt ‘calls to action’, so that there may be 10, 15 or 30 different appeals in the form of separate declarations on separate themes.

A qualitative ‘leap’ beyond what has been achieved so far, then?

Yes, a real move forward. We are not going to modify the Forum Charter that defines the Forum as a place for meeting and reflection. But the networks and the social movements behind them are to have a wider field of intervention that will be promoted by the Forum itself. This change represents a challenge for the social movements to further improve their co-ordination. After the first WSF at Porto Alegre in 2001 these movements met again in August in Mexico City, three weeks after the mobilisation against the G8 in Genoa. This meeting was extremely important. Organisations representing rural workers and native peoples, in particular those from Latin America, came in great numbers. Unfortunately those meetings that took place beyond the big WSF meetings were not followed up. However, the technical and secretarial organisation that was set up to handle the circulation of information, and which has since been passed on to the Brazilian Landless movement and the Central unica dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Trade Union), is still serving its purpose. What is more, we must remember that social movements came together during each WSF session and adopted joint declarations and plans of action. This was useful, but something was still missing. Maybe the social movements concerned need to meet once again to discuss their own initiatives, independently from the WSF meetings. It is obvious that the principal activities of these movements go far beyond the framework of the WSF.


During an interview last year you mentioned the ‘asianisation’ of the WSF, viewing it as a new aspect of the WSF that would contribute a great deal to the Mumbai meetings. What will the fifth WSF have to offer on a conceptual level?

I think that reflection on the relationship between the alternative globalisation movement and the realities of political power will be at the heart of the next meetings. In January 2005 it will be two years since President Lula took power in Brazil, and the alternative globalisation movement will be able to come to a certain number of conclusions, taking into consideration the size of Brazil and the importance of its social movements within the WSF. The challenge will be to take stock of the relationship between social movements and political power in a mature way. This will not be easy. A point of agreement could be the admission that the expectations held prior to Lula’s election have by no means been fulfilled. But there will certainly be two levels of interpreting the circumstances and whether or not they are responsible for the situation.

Are we not running the risk of giving too ‘Brazilian’ a character to the fundamental debates?

No, not at all. I bring up Brazil because it’s an emblematic case. The Indians coming to Porto Alegre will evaluate these first months of their new government, run by the Congress Party and supported by two communist parties. The Venezuelans will give their own opinion of the relationship between the social movement within their country and the revolutionary process in progress. The Ecuadorians, in particular the Indian organisations, will analyse from their point of view the government of Lucio Gutierrez, whom they helped to power and from whom they have since distanced themselves. All these contributions will enrich a debate which should have a planetary impact. Not in order to reproduce or to impose models of thinking, but in order to make concrete and useful contributions to those of us who live and act within different geographic and political contexts. What conclusions will we come to and what lessons will we learn for the future from these various dynamics? We should give serious thought to the relationship of the alternative globalisation movement with political power. I think it is an important step in the development of its various movements.

We have talked about the form and content of the next Forum. Are there other issues that you would like to touch on?

I would like to broach an aspect that is no less important than the others: the concept of the Forum as a permanent and open process, and not as a yearly event that lasts just five days. We have ratified this concept. The International Council has taken very concrete decisions to enable the immediate launching of this process. Since the end of May - and up until August - all movements and all organisations can sign up via the WSF web-site with the themes that they would like to incorporate into next meeting’s programme. In September we will have a first impression of what is to come and we will be able to map out a programme which gives 95%, as I have already stated, of its time to autonomous initiatives. This will facilitate co-operation, working in groups and sharing projects.


Again, the WSF will not be over when it closes on 31st January 2005. It has been decided that during the following six weeks, widespread meetings will be held between the diverse components of the WSF and the national and regional forums, in order to fully evaluate Porto Alegre and to exchange opinions and criticism in order to ensure that future meetings come up to expectations.

An extra effort to make the Forum a true process

Ground-level involvement is the centre of gravity for politics, and it is this that feeds wider reflection. As a result of this new methodology and the preponderance of self-run projects for discussion, the WSF is developing an even more global nature in that it is open to all who wish to join in, and not just those who can get to Porto Alegre.

A look at Mumbai

The fourth meeting of the Forum that took place last January in Mumbai (Bombay), India was "a total success”, declares Eric Toussaint. The number of participants - over 150,000 - and the strong presence of the most exploited sectors of the population, such as the Dalits, confirm this. However, according to the well-known Indian writer Arundhati Roy, the danger is that of becoming a self-satisfied annual meeting that turns the WSF into a sort of high mass or a circus show. “The risk was there”, agrees the President of the CADTM - in particular in the case of the organised talks that brought together 15 or 20 thousand people and for which the subjects were defined exclusively by the International Council and the Organising Committee. “These were not interactive areas of debate, nor of dialogue between the organisations and the social movements”. And this is what gave rise to the new logic whereby we call for a “significant qualitative leap”. E. Toussaint insists: “The WSF is not just a five-day meeting, it is also made up of the intense processes that go on before and after it”.
(Sergio Ferrari).

E-GHANGER Press Service [].

Translated by Jane HOLISTER with Vicki BRIAULT MANUS.

Sergio Ferrari

Journaliste RP/periodista RP