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Interview with Eric Toussaint
World Social Forum: from Porto Alegre to India: Making the other globalisation universal
by Sergio Ferrari
20 March 2003

After 3 consecutive successful meetings in Porto Alegre, the World Social Forum (WSF) will move to India in 2004, and return to Brazil in 2005. A geographical move with implications in terms of methodology, participation and even political culture. Nearly two months after the conclusion of the third WSF– with the invaluable distance that time offers – Eric Toussaint analyses the present and future of this working process. A member of the International Council of the WSF, Director of the Committee for the Cancellation of the Third World Debt (CADTM), based in Brussels(*), Toussaint, a tireless activist for a different kind of globalisation, is also one of Europe’s most qualified political analysts in this field.

Q: A retrospective analysis of the Porto Alegre process…What is the WSF today?

A: An accumulation of rich experiences that made it possible for more than 12,000 participants to meet in 2001 and up to 100,000 at this third meeting. A process that made it possible to create an innovative global dynamics. And, on top of that, a very concrete implementation of this dynamics in several continents, in particular in South America and Western Europe, rather less in Asia and Northern America, and to a much lesser degree, as yet, in Africa and Eastern Europe.


Q: How do you feel about this move to India?

A: “Asianising” the WSF is a fundamental step. More than half of the world’s population lives in Asia. To a large extent, changes in the world will first have to take place on this continent. We must not forget that Western Europe and South America represent only 15% of the world’s population.

Since its inception and to date, the WSF has been mainly European- and Latin American-focused, which influences its fundamental characteristics. The move will imply a change in the way we work and the people who will speak. Most of the participants in the first three meetings were the same each time, we repeated ourselves. We debated and discussed a very precise set of themes (the Third World debt, water, globalisation, alternative media, the anti-war protest, women’s struggles, food sovereignty, etc). This move to India will bring renewal within continuity. A new way to address and debate issues. With a very important additional element: the high level of development that the social movements have there.

Q: We don’t know much about this social dynamics…

A: There are some amazing social movements out there. Grassroots peasant organisations with several million members, massive trade unions (in industry, public and private services and the fishing sector) made up of players who have been mobilised around major issues linked to corporate-driven globalisation. The struggle of Hindu peasants against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), genetically modified foods, multinationals such as Monsanto, or against energy projects promoted by multinationals and World Bank, like those for the Narmada River… We are talking about peoples who have had to deal with criminal negligence on the part of the multinationals, like the Union Carbide case in Bhopal in 1984 where more than 15,000 people died because of a toxic gas leak.

Q: The shift to India is therefore a qualitative step in the process?

A: Mainly the chance to combine experiences and implant the Forum’s dynamics in the very rich social movements that are developing in sensitive regions round the world.

Q: A question that was often raised in Porto Alegre III: does India have the organisational capacity to ensure the continuity of this process?

A: We can’t demand that other continents do the same or better than what has been achieved at the last meeting of the Forum in Porto Alegre. We mustn’t forget that we started with 12,000 participants in 2001. So it would be normal, in fact not a bad achievement, to start with 30,000 participants in India in 2004. The level of infrastructure will be different. Probably, we won’t have the support of local or national governments, as we have had from the Municipality of Porto Alegre and the government of the State of Rio Grande del Sur. We will have to rely much more on hard work and activist networks. And participants may not find it as comfortable as what we have been used to.

The WSF organisers in India decided not to accept funds from large foundations. The last WSF meeting in Porto Alegre benefited from financial support of almost half a million dollars from the Ford Foundation. I think this new viewpoint will be interesting, as it will force us to make do with a more rudimentary infrastructure. Don’t forget that before Porto Alegre, the Zapatistas held one of the first meetings against neo-liberalism and for humanity in Chiapas (Mexico) in 1996, in the middle of the Lacandonian jungle. That was a very rich and exciting starting-point for this whole process.

Not for a moment do I doubt the ability of our Indian friends to organise an event that will ensure exchanges between the social movements. An event where they will be able to decide together on their future agenda and which will reinforce their representation and co-ordination. It will be a success and it will strengthen the WSF.


Q: A WSF that mobilises more and more global movements…

A: Yes! Even more important than the 4th WSF in January or February 2004 are all the initiatives and struggles coming up in 2003: first of all against the war; against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), against the GATS (General Agreement on Trade and Services), against the WTO (World Trade Organisation); in favour of debt cancellation; in favour of the cancellation of agreements with the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

The entire preparation process, with local and continental forums, is also more important than the 2004 WSF itself. It will bring together all the initiatives from the bottom up, from locally to globally, and mobilise civic movements. The WSF started out as a think tank, as an alternative to Davos and its Economic Forum. In that first phase, no one considered mobilising civic movements. The original idea was a forum for debate. At Porto Alegre III, without changing the basic concept, we decided to organise one day of global protest “Against neo-liberalism, Against war, For another world” every year during the Davos Forum. We were taking a step forward, of a significance that no-one could have imagined…

Nobody imagined at first that we would organise demonstrations. The massive global demonstration against war last February 2003, which as everybody knows did not succeed in stopping the threat, but did help to build a powerful global anti-war movement, is a very significant signal. For the first time, a war will be illegitimate even before it starts. And that is the result of the European Social Forum in Florence and demonstrations inside the USA itself.

We are living one of those exceptional moments in history, as described by Gramsci. A moment of enlightenment, when a large majority of citizens are striding towards a higher level of collective consciousness. Bush, Blair, Aznar and Berlusconi, amongst others, are revealing all the hypocrisy, cynicism and inhumanity of the system. A large number of individuals world-wide are becoming more and more rapidly politicised against this system.

Other very important demonstrations are planned, for example against the G8 Summit in Evian-les-Bains, near Geneva, from May 28th - June 3rd, where we are expecting over 100,000 demonstrators. And during the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003… We are living in a situation where every month or so such initiatives are taken.

Q: Would you go so far as to say that this mobilisation process is all due to Porto Alegre?

A: The world-wide anti-war protests on 15th February 2003 would not have happened if it had not been for the first European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, and Florence would not have taken place if it had not been for Porto Alegre. Florence is where Europe met, and it then turned into a global protest. Of course this is the result of convergent processes that did not start in 2001 at Porto Alegre. But that was to become the unifying axis, a dynamics of growing self-determination. A process without limits. We must be totally open to all these initiatives in progress.

Q: Open to a new political logic and culture?

A: Yes. We are living a centripetal process. Like so many rivers flowing towards the ocean of the movement of movements, where capitalism and patriarchy are viewed as two systems which are at the root of the world’s problems.


Q: Once again, some secondary, but none the less real, tensions were apparent in Porto Alegre, between the social movements (who adopted a final declaration) and the Forum itself… How do you read that?

A: I think that the relative influence of social movements, including the trade unions or traditional trade union confederations, has increased within the dynamics of the Forums. These movements are growing in strength, whereas it was the NGOs and alternative media such as Le Monde Diplomatique, who played the key role in the original initiative. I think this tendency is very positive. There is no justification for imposing this approach on all the other organisations that see their place in the WSF. But it is very encouraging that organisations with a firm social base and who are involved in real struggles, are playing a fundamental role in the movement, without marginalising others. Furthermore, I am convinced that this process can and must embrace more civic movements world-wide.

I feel that a kind of movement of movements is gaining strength. It is not only a convergence or coming together of movements, but something more than that. Here, there is no centralised leadership, which is good. Nevertheless, a structure for the movement of movements is definitely taking shape. This is a new fact. In the case of Europe, we must recognise that last November in Florence, the birth of a European social movement was witnessed. There had already been a wave of continent-wide campaigns (for debt cancellation, European marches against unemployment, European strikes such as the railway strike, etc). But never before had it reached such a scale. And that is just wonderful!

Translated by Anne Challieu and Gillian Sloane-Seale with Vicki Briault.

Sergio Ferrari

Journaliste RP/periodista RP