A polycentric forum for a convergent social movement

[Interview with E.Toussaint] World Social Forum 2006: Defining priorities and common axes

5 December 2005 by Sergio Ferrari

The next World Social Forum is to be... polycentric. It will take place in 2006, in a « decentralised » fashion, in Caracas (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), Bamako (Mali) and Karachi (Pakistan).

To grasp the potential of the World Social Forum (WSF) you first need to evaluate the present state of the social movement on a global scale, given the close relationship between the forums and mobilisation. « In that respect, I am very optimistic, if the increase in mobilisation in 2005 is anything to go by », asserts Eric Toussaint, a Belgian historian and activist and president of the Belgium-based Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt (CADTM). Eric Toussaint - who is also a member of the WSF’s International Council (i.e. the coordinators) considers that this next step « needs a clear definition of the priorities of the citizens’ agenda on a global level ». The process is already under way ... or at least, it has begun.

Sergio Ferrari (S.F.) : A year after the 5th World Social Forum at Porto Alegre (in Brazil, in January 2005), in what frame of mind is the international social movement?

Eric Toussaint (E.T.) : In 2005, there was a significant revival of mass mobilisation after a slump between mid-2003 and late 2004. In fact, the next WSF will take its place in a two-sided world picture. One side is very gloomy: the barbarity in Iraq, the continuing brutal repression of the Palestinians, the determined attacks on the mechanisms of collective solidarity throughout the world by businesses and governments, mass redundancies, the undermining of economic, social and cultural rights. In a word, the neo-liberal offensive is forging ahead, despite the fact that its ideological foundations have lost all credibility in the eyes of the world’s populations.
On the other side is a glimmer of hope : a significant revival and spread of social and citizens’ struggles, with an increased ability to foil specific political projects, such as the European Constitutional Treaty, or economic ones, such as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Without a doubt, 2005 is ending on more positive and interesting perspectives for the social movements than did 2004 (see box).

S.F. : Given the context, then, what are the main aims of the coming polycentric session of the WSF, in January 2006?

E.T. : First of all, it’s important to remember the success of the 5th WSF at Porto Alegre, at the beginning of this year, with its 150,000 participants. And the 1st Mediterranean Social Forum in Barcelona, in June 2005, where over 1000 delegates from the Arab world and numerous Europeans took part.
The 6th WSF presents us with a challenge that was not planned for. In 2004, the frenetic rhythm of the « World Social Forum process » was opened up to debate within the International Council. A number of national and continental forums, as well as various campaigns and movements (including the CADTM), considered that the frequency of WSFs was far too high and that it would be preferable to organise them on a biennial basis. Finally, it was agreed to carry on holding an annual session throughout 2005, 2006 and 2007, but to decentralise it to several venues in 2006.

From Porto Alegre to the three continents

S.F. : So the new polycentric forum, will also be held in Caracas and in Bamako, at the end of January 2006, then in Karachi a few months later...

E.T. : That’s right. But again, instead of avoiding overload, all the WSF actors will be coming under intense pressure at an even faster pace all through the first half of 2006. In January, there will be a North-African pre-forum to prepare the forum at Bamako (capital of Mali), due to take place from 19 to 23 January. From 24 to 29 January, the Caracas meeting will attract particular attention due to the Bolivarian revolutionary process in that country.
The third decentralised session will be held several months later in Karachi (Pakistan), preceded in January by a national preparatory meeting in Lahore. The Pakistani organisers of the WSF have had to delay their session by a few months after the recent earthquake in Kashmir. Other activities are also planned in South-East Asia. Then in late April or early May, the 4th European Social Forum will take place in Athens (Greece). In other words, we have a very busy programme ahead...

S.F. : What are the biggest challenges of the polycentric process?

E.T. : The main aim is to develop regional dynamism while avoiding fragmentation. There is a definite risk of this in 2006, since by not having a single venue, there will not be the opportunity for campaigns and movements to exchange views and to discuss and define their priorities of action, just when the need to progress in defining collective action is felt to be most pressing.

Decentralised unification

S.F. : Should we expect to see certain contradictions arise between the clarification of options and a decentralised process?

E.T. : That is certainly happening, but I am convinced that the dynamics of the social movement will prevail and that priority will be given to unifying the process. I came out of a recent international meeting in Geneva in October feeling very optimistic. A number of active networks and movements from all four corners of the world were present, including Via Campesina, the CADTM, Focus on the Global South, the CUT of Brazil (the Unified Workers Confederation), several groups of ATTAC and European trade unions. We took stock of the last few years’ actions and we made headway in clarifying certain future priorities. Everything points towards a process of broad consultation to draw up these essential axes.

S.F. : With such an unusual procedure, can the International Council, as the coordinating instance of the WSFs, really manage to keep up with the entire process?

E.T. : The next meeting of the International Council is in March 2006, when we will see how the first three forums went. There is a risk that we might find it hard to keep abreast of events, even though we are well aware of the efforts required to respond to the new challenges.

Convergence of contents

S.F. : What will these decentralised forums be about? Will each session have its own programme, or will there be an identical agenda for all?

E.T. : If we analyse the central themes of these three big meetings, we see a clear convergence. In this sense, I don’t think there is any risk of political fragmentation. For example, an important axis from the Porto Alegre forum of 2005 was « Political power and struggles for social emancipation » will be present in all three meetings. Still, the biggest and most crucial challenge is to identify priorities for common action. It’s nothing new : the same need was emphasized both in the « Porto Alegre Manifesto », presented by a group of well-known intellectuals at the 5th session of the WSF and by the Assembly of Social Movements at the same gathering. At Porto Alegre, in 2005, we agreed on an agenda of common activities. Now we absolutely must decide on our priorities. We can have 2 or 3, but not 15 or 20... I get the impression that most of the constituent members of the WSF, in all their diversity, agree that this is necessary, so I am very optimistic about it.

Consultation on priorities

S.F. : What will these priorities be?

E.T. : Opposition to war, for example. That could be put into effect by a big international mobilisation on the anniversary of the attack on Iraq. Solidarity with the Palestinian people could be added to it as another shared preoccupation; and so could opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan and other war-mongering projects, like Plan Colombia. We’re trying to find a single date for all these mobilisations, probably in March 2006.

Anti-debt campaigns are another essential axis, broadly debated at the Havana meeting, in September 2005. It would be highly symbolic if we could organise the occupation of the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

and International Monetary Fund IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.

(IMF) premises in several countries on the same day.
Furthermore, if - as all indications seem to suggest - the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation WTO
World Trade Organisation
The WTO, founded on 1st January 1995, replaced the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The main innovation is that the WTO enjoys the status of an international organization. Its role is to ensure that no member States adopt any kind of protectionism whatsoever, in order to accelerate the liberalization global trading and to facilitate the strategies of the multinationals. It has an international court (the Dispute Settlement Body) which judges any alleged violations of its founding text drawn up in Marrakesh.

(WTO), to be held in Hong Kong in December 2005, ends once more in failure, mobilisation against the continuation of the negotiations which this institution orchestrates will become a rallying point for the social movements.
For the time being, I must insist, these are only proposals. Which is why we need a far-reaching process of consultation to define the two, three or four priorities that will be shared by the entire World Social Movement.

Social Movements : a dynamic upswing

For Eric Toussaint, 2005 saw a dynamic upswing in the social movement on a global scale. “Mass mobilisation against the international institutions has taken off again... In early July 2005, 250,000 people took part in the demonstration against the G8 G8 Group composed of the most powerful countries of the planet: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA, with Russia a full member since June 2002. Their heads of state meet annually, usually in June or July. in Scotland - as many as in Genoa, in 2001. At the end of September in Washington, there was a large mobilisation against the World Bank and the IMF. At the same time, in the United States, thousands were demonstrating against the war in Iraq, which had not happened the previous year. Then there were the anti-WTO demonstrations in Geneva in July and October, and the big demonstration against the FTAA at the Peoples’ Summit in Mar del Plata (Argentina) in early November. And so on.”

Parallel to these movements, the Belgian historian reports, “in recent months, certain events have shown that the neoliberal project is undergoing a deep crisis of legitimacy. There have been George Bush’s failures in the United States, over his handling of the hurricane disaster which particularly affected Louisiana; his total military failure in Iraq; the fact that the US president cannot travel abroad without provoking huge demonstrations of opposition; the failure of the concept of « Blairism », in Britain and in Germany, and even of “ Lula’s way” in Brazil. All these elements are part of the neo-liberal crisis”.

As for Latin America, Eric Toussaint emphasises certain positive points, which bring hope: “ The Zapatistas’ new initiative, “The Other Campaign”; the possibility that Evo Morales might win the Bolivian elections in December - and the discussions underway in that country about recovering their natural resources; the mobilisation in Ecuador to overthrow President Lucio Gutierrez; and of course the ongoing Bolivarian process in Venezuela, with its massive popular support”.

In Europe, he goes on, “ three things seem to me to be important: firstly, the multiplication of ’classic’ social struggles waged by workers (in France, Belgium, Italy, etc.). Secondly, the riots that have erupted in the proletarian suburbs of several French towns, which are perfectly legitimate and which will force the various social movements and political parties to reconsider their positions and to take action - not just to talk more about it. That also concerns the World Social Forum. Finally, the resounding failure of the draft project for the European Constitutional Treaty, enacted by the French and Dutch referenda. Not forgetting the critical struggle against the “ Bolkestein Directive” - fought with the participation of the European Confederation of Trade Unions (ECTU). The Directive aims to increase competition in the labour market between workers within the European Union”.

Eric Toussaint concludes that it has been a year of citizens’ struggles, a year of renewed social mobilisation which also affects, in one way or another, and with their own characteristics, several Asian and African countries.

(Sergio Ferrari)

In collaboration with UNITE (Platform of Swiss NGOs for cooperation and solidarity).

English translation : Vicki Briault Manus.
Revision and corrections : Elizabeth Anne.

Sergio Ferrari

Journaliste RP/periodista RP

Other articles in English by Sergio Ferrari (8)



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