The World Social Forum Renewal Group: What do we want?

by Roberto Savio

At the last World Social Forum, held virtually in November last year, just over 10,000 people participated. Of these, more than half were from Brazil, another 41% from Latin America, and the remaining 9% from other countries around the world. And this at a time when you didn’t have to travel to participate. In the history of the WSF, the first Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, with almost 40,000 participants, reached 100,000 in the second, and maintained similar numbers in the Thematic, Regional and Social Forums that have been organised in Latin America, Africa and Asia since then.

Another clear erosion has been the quality of the participants. The many intellectuals, academics and protagonists of international events have gradually withdrawn from the WSF. Just look at the last three major mobilisations: the movement to stop the climate tragedy; the movement for women’s dignity; and the movement against racism, all of which took place without any involvement of the WSF. The WSF has also disappeared from the media.

It is impossible to deny that the WSF is in a deep, existential crisis and that the time has come to open a debate on the causes of this situation and to propose solutions.

This is what a group of founders of the WSF intends to do, in a transparent, participatory and open way to find solutions. The Grupo Renovador puts forward some reflections, without any spirit of polemic or confrontation with those who do not want to hear about changes. Our interest is not to take power (it would be surprising if this were to kill the debate), but to make the WSF once again the great instrument of expression and meeting that it has been in the past. We only want to add one dimension: that it should also be an instrument of action, in line with the times and the challenges of today.

It is certainly unscientific to claim that the vision of the WSF and its formalisation in 2001 do not need to be updated. Today’s world is very different. At that time the main enemy was neoliberalism, embodied in the World Economic Forum in Davos, against which the first Porto Alegre Forum was raised. Today, not even Davos defends neoliberalism. Phenomena such as the globalisation of finance, social injustice at unprecedented levels, the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, the fragmentation of the world into local (but always internationalised) wars in a context of the destruction of the planet, with a growing clash of religions and identities, were not even foreseeable when we met in Porto Alegre. It belongs to the world of religions, and not to the world of humans, to consider that a document – the Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum – adopted in 2002, is an unchangeable document, of eternal value.

Our Group, which has called for reflection with other founders of the WSF, current intellectuals and activists, calls for a debate of ideas and experiences on the following points.

1) The Charter of Principles was based on four concepts that were very valid at the time:

1) the absolute horizontality of the Forum. The WSF was only a facilitating space that the participants filled with content, without any interference. In order not to divide us, there was no voting at the International Council meetings, and if there was, decisions were taken unanimously. And the Forum could not have spokespersons, as no one would be able to speak on behalf of the others. The Forum was an open space, to allow exchanges of experiences, ideas and visions, but actions could not be taken as a World Social Forum. The participants who wanted to could come together, take positions as individuals or collectively, go back to their activity, incorporate what they had experienced with people from all over the world, thus enriching their capacity for analysis and efficiency of action.

2) All this was a brilliant new way of creating a new way of bringing together hundreds of thousands of people. However, as time went on, unforeseen problems arose, which could not be solved. To begin with, there was neither space nor drive in the International Council to discuss and strategise. Each person could speak for three minutes, without summaries or conclusions. In a few years, the IC gradually lost its attractiveness, and intellectuals and large organisations and movements gradually abandoned it.  The IC became a bureaucratic space, discussing the organisation of the Forums in purely administrative terms. And the idea of horizontality meant that there was no capacity to structure the Forums efficiently. In each Forum there were many panels on the same topic, which could not be regrouped, creating a great deal of fragmentation, and no confluence.

3) The other major problem was that there was practically no communication policy, both internally and externally. Inwardly, there was the impossibility of reaching conclusions, which meant that each Forum did not have the debates of the previous ones as a reference. The Forums became a series of events rather than a process. And since no one could speak on behalf of the Forum, the flow of information to the media lacked content and ideas, with only bureaucratic information of no interest to the vast majority of the media.

  4) Finally, since the International Council could not take positions, and neither could the Forums, we gradually became a self-referential process, without any capacity to pronounce ourselves on the events that were shaking the world. The idea of unanimity, so as not to divide us, turned out to be a profoundly anti-democratic straitjacket. A single vote was enough to overturn almost unanimous pronouncements.

 The Renewal Group calls for the following ideas to be discussed:

a) That a free and open assembly of the participants in the next Forum discusses these issues for two days, and can elaborate an update of the WSF, based on the experiences and data accumulated over twenty years.

b) That a committee be elected, representative of all diversities: geographical, sectors of action, and gender, with a two-year term of office and not eligible for re-election. This committee would meet whenever the majority deems it appropriate, to take positions on developments in the world, between forums (now biennial). 

c) That the unanimity rule be eliminated and replaced with a very qualified majority (80%? 90%?) to eliminate one-man vetoes.

d) That the Forum, in addition to being an open space, should also be a space for action, where the participants, with a massive quorum, can decide to act and be present in the march of humanity towards a better future.

e) That an effective communication policy be established between the Forums, with civil society that has not been able to participate in the Forums, and with the media, so that the image and thinking of the WSF can once again reach public opinion.

These are only proposals. What is important is a debate, without being accused of despising sacred texts. The Renewal Group asks all those who have an interest in the future development and success of the WSF to participate with their ideas and proposals to this debate…..

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