The World Social Forum and its governance: a multi-headed monster

27 April 2013 by Francine Mestrum

The 12th World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Tunis, two years after the ‘Arab spring’ that put an end to the old regime and put into place a government headed by Ennahda (‘renaissance movement’), an islamist political party.

The Forum was a real success, politically and in terms of participation. Regional movements and youth were massively present, Tunisians experienced a real solidarity with their revolution, and all participants witnessed the re-engagement of the WSF with its best experiences of the past.

This was badly needed! International participants, mainly from Europe an Latin America, came with a certain scepticism about the future of the process. Moreover, the WSF was followed by a meeting of its International Council (IC) where the future of the process was on the agenda. The success of the WSF has blocked all those who wanted to dissolve the IC and/or even put an end to the process itself. However, to-day, nothing has been decided, nothing has been solved, everything remains to be done.

Horizontality and structures

The question on how the WSF is governed is not an easy one. The WSF is an ‘open space’ which means that it has no leaders, that it is not representative for its participants and that it is open to all those who accept its Charter of Principles. It only consists of self-organised events.

Nevertheless, this principle of horizontality, opposed to all hierarchies, is contrary to the relatively heavy structures that were created during the past decade.

First of all, there is the International Council (IC), originally a seminar of leaders of global social movements and of globally active intellectuals. Its meetings were closed. It thus rapidly was seen as a kind of elitist gathering in 5-star hotels. Its major task was to define the strategy of the WSF.

After the 2005 WSF in Mumbai, a first restructuring was planned and its objective was defined as being the promotion and expansion of the WSF process, giving it a major visibility and defining it as a process instead of an event.

In fact, this expansion mainly concerned the IC itself which has now become a gathering of around 150 members, with six commissions, a liaison committee and different working groups.

In political terms however, it lost power. This first was shifted to a secretariat based in Sao Paulo where the daily work was done and a certain control on the whole process was possible. In Mumbai emerged a local organizing committee that contested the Brazilian secretariat’s power.

Today, in 2013, it is clear that the power is mainly in the hands of the local Maghreb organizing committee. In Brazil, a new organism was created: GRAP – Reflection and Support Group for the WSF process. No one knows its precise composition or its real influence. The secretariat has been abandoned and the IC has become a rudderless ship.

A necessary debate

This rather chaotic situation was urgently in need of a serious debate, especially since many members got the impression of being abandoned. At the last IC meetings, there was hardly any concrete agenda. The liaison committee that should have been renewed in 2012 was in fact dissolved. The different IC commissions do not function properly anymore, its strategy commission in fact being monopolized by one single member.

The debate organized in Tunis, in a context of enthusiasm and optimism because of the success of the WSF, was thus very welcome.
There was agreement on several points.

First of all, a gap has been created between the IC on the one hand and the WSF on the other, in terms of process as well as in terms of event. Tunis was a success, several members stated, in spite of and not thanks to the IC.

The ‘new political culture’ the WSF process is so proud of, in fact does not exist. Diversity is being respected, certainly, but power relations spoil everything, especially since they are hidden behind the veil of horizontalism which only serves that purpose.

Finally, since there is a lack of rules and methodologies for balancing the power relations, there is no real democracy within the IC. Its members do know where the power is – a small hard core of Brazilian and French people – but this power rarely manifests itself explicitly. The local organizing committee does not take part in the IC and its members are not officially known.

All this has to be seen in the context of a major conflict between Brazilian social movements and a total lack of trust between IC members. In terms of human relations, the situation is very difficult and the friendship between IC members is either superficial or sectarian. No one will thus be surprised to hear that meetings of the IC are difficult to undergo beyond half a day.

In the meantime the GRAP did recruit a part-time secretary to do the most urgent work. During the Tunis WSF the GRAP had a permanent meeting room in a 5-star hotel in Tunis.

Is another IC possible?

The IC in Tunis spent two half days on the debate on its future. A synthesis report had been prepared on the basis of different contributions of the past months. Even if this report was positively welcomed, in the debate it was not taken into account. On the second half day, three working groups were created, one on the most urgent decisions to be taken such as the place for the next IC meeting; one on the recomposition and strategy of the IC and a third one on the strategy for the WSF process.

Few decisions were taken. The place of the next IC meeting remains open. Even if, at the end of the debates, less blaming took place and more openness was created, the most important points were not really discussed.
Just let me mention four of them.

Before deciding on the future of the IC, it is necessary to confirm or re-word its major tasks. Only then can a debate on its strategy take place. These tasks will obviously depend on the power relations within the WSF process. If local organizing committees continue to exist, they should join the IC. As to GRAP, its existence will have to be formalized and its role be made explicit, so as to avoid ‘overlappings’.

A second point concerns the resources necessary for a functioning IC. Meetings are expensive, certainly if one wants to pay its participants’ air tickets. In the past, a solidarity fund was paid into by movements of the North in order to fund movements of the South. But to-day, many movements of the South are far richer than those of the North. At the IC meeting in Dacca, another solution had been envisaged, asking all participant organisations to pay a yearly fixed contribution.
This is an urgent question that should find an effective and sustainable solution.

In the third place comes the political dimension, manifesting itself at two different levels. When the WSF was held in Latin America, conflicts around the presence of politicians or even presidents were unavoidable. Some think that institutional politics should have no room within the WSF, which is an open space for only social movements, called ‘civil society’. Strangely, this debate took not place in Tunis, even if the government openly supported the WSF and a delegation of the IC was invited at the presidential palace. Whatever formula is chosen, it is unacceptable that the it changes with the country in which the WSF is taking place. Most importantly, the possible alliances of social movements with political forces will have to be taken into account. If the IC can work with an islamist government, it surely should be able to work with a president allied to the social movements.
A second political level to be examined at the level of the IC concerns the political debates it can organize. The situation has drastically changed since 2001, there are now multiple crises and geopolitical changes. Moreover, new social actors have emerged to contest the dominant system as well as the functioning of the WSF process and its instances. Until now, political debates have been avoided within the IC in order to avoid divisions. I think it is absolutely necessary to have political debates in order to create the space for possible convergences beyond sectarianism.

Fourthly, the IC is in urgent need of more democracy, transparency and accountability. No single organisation can survive without trust between its members. And trust can only be built if decisions are taken within a meeting and not in the corridors, if reports are taken into account, if accounts are presented, if power relations are open instead of being hidden behind the veil of horizontalism.

And now?

Many questions are awaiting answers. If the WSF wants to survive – and after the success of Tunis we all seem to want it – its governance will have to be re-examined. If the IC wants to survive, it will have to be restructured and democratized. If the WSF wants to repeat its success, it will have to be organized where social movements feel a need for it and are directly involved in its planning.
An IC where large and small social movements, including trade unions, feel at home to discuss politics and the strategy to be defined, could give intellectual guidance to the WSF. Next to the thematic forums that are organized already, the IC could suggest a couple of major topics to the organizing committee around which special events can be organized. This does not mean a ‘political line’ would have to be imposed, but it could facilitate the emergence of major political tendencies around a couple of topics. It could also help the participating movements in the WSF to get inspired and to better prepare their own workshops.
The open space is a beautiful idea, but it has little sense and usefulness it if only leads to the juxtaposition of an illimited number of often overlapping thematics.
Twelve years after Porto Alegre, the relevance of the initiative of the first WSF organizers is fully confirmed. To-day, the time has come to renew its formula and to try and do everything to avoid its watering down. Time has come to open the space to new generations and to make the WSF a strategic space for reflection and action.



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