In January 2021 it will be exactly twenty years ago that global civil society came together for the first time in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in order to shape ‘another world’, that is, different from the world which was built by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, organised at exactly the same dates.
The World Social Forum (WSF) still exists, as well as the WEF, and both have adapted, more or less successfully, to the changing times.
Now, at the 20th anniversary of the WSF, several and divergent analyses of its existence have been made. The WSF was meant to give an answer to the discourse produced in Davos and develop alternatives to the neoliberalism promoted by dominant and hegemonic powers.
Today, it might be interesting to take a look, not at what the WSF has achieved, but at where the WEF stands and to what extent the WSF can or should be considered in opposition to this global gathering.
From management to global governance
The WEF was founded in 1971 as ‘European Management Forum’, under the patronage of the Commission of the than European Economic Community. Under the chairmanship of Professor Klaus Schwab, an economy professor and businessman, it slowly developed into a major gathering of political and business leaders that discussed the ‘state of the world’, reflected on possible policies and adopted a ‘Code of Ethics’ and a commitment to ‘improve the state of the world’.
Contrary to an often heard belief in the world of social movements, this is not a club of billionaires, but rather of millionaires that consider themselves ‘progressives’, in favour indeed of a better world, or say a better capitalism. You can compare it to the more secretive ‘Bilderberg’ group or other elite gatherings where the wealthy people of this planet show they have more class consciousness than their workers. They do not meet in order to make concrete proposals or to decide on anything, they just want to exchange ideas to see to what extent they are all working in the same direction, avoiding social unrest and environmental catastrophes. There certainly is no ‘pensée unique’ among them, there is more difference than unity in their thinking, but they do all look in the same direction. They are contributing, in fact, to shaping global discourses, in the same way as the World Bank with its World Development Reports, or the United Nations Development Programme with its reports on ‘human development’ are doing. They shape a discourse that can make people believe they are the real global leaders with the best intentions for all, searching for the best solutions for the real problems they can see, referring to scientific knowledge when it is available and suits them.
It is here that the paradigmatic changes in, for instance, social policies are prepared, away from social insurances, away from social citizenship, away from trade union interference, away from regulated labour markets but focusing on this new category of people, created in the 1990s: the poor!
It is also here that the major dogmas of neoliberalism were promoted, balanced budgets, free trade, States with less scope but more strength, the economy out of democratic decision-making, freedom of movement for capital, etc. In sum, it is here that globalisation was promoted and an end was made to the post-war ideas of a ‘developing’ world needing special policies to fill the gap with the ‘developed’ countries. From the 1980s onwards, there was only one world with one policy.
Again, this discourse was the result of many meetings and many exchanges at different levels. The implementation of these policies is in the hands of international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in cooperation with national governments. They obviously take different forms, depending on local and historical circumstances and possibilities, but the results are the same everywhere: growing debt, growing inequalities and the impoverishment of existing middle classes. The extremely poor indeed made progress, though very little.
As the opposition to this neoliberal globalisation grew, with the creation of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, this cosy and complacent class started to understand they had to change. If they wanted to survive, with their businesses, they had to make some promises to the victims of their policies.
That is when the World Bank started to promote ‘poverty reduction policies’ (but dismantling old and emerging welfare states), the UNDP invented ‘human development’ and the WEF in Davos started to welcome religious leaders and NGOs, decided to touch the ‘spiritual dimension’ and wanted to enhance ‘human values’. The desire was for a global economy with a human face.
The WEF wanted to make possible a ‘dignified existence for all’, Klaus Schwab said, one had to tackle the backlash of globalisation. Churches, NGOs and even some trade unions were invited to leave a message that the protesters outside the meeting rooms were not allowed to say. They did and they were warmly welcomed. Who does not remember our dear Bono pleading for, well yes, reducing poverty? Fair taxes or full range social policies were not on the agenda.
In this same period the UN opened its doors to the private sector with Kofi Annan’s ‘Global Compact’, an agreement to respect a couple of global non-binding rules concerning human rights, labour and environmental standards in return for using the UN emblem.
From the beginning of the 21st century onwards, the discourse was all about ‘good corporate citizenship’, ‘social entrepreneurship’, ‘compassionate governance’, ‘investing in human capital while remaining competitive’, the ‘economic value of saving lives’ and ‘promoting global health in order to get greater returns’. Questions were asked openly if the ‘rich world was giving back enough’ and if it should not do more to ‘alleviate some of the worst poverty’ (italics are mine)? Negative feelings had to be shed, since ‘God created us as a harmonious family’ an archbishop of Justice and Peace proclaimed, so harmonious we will be.
It would be naïve to think the WEF in Davos is only about these soft messages trying to set the moral standards for society.
Underneath is a political message, as open as the ethical recommendations, just demanding the reading of the WEF reports. For this article, I want to briefly look at two reports that give more clarity on the world WEF is preparing.
The first report is the ‘Re-Design’ report of 2010. The report describes the way in which international cooperation should be re-organised. An analysis is made of how all our international organisations are inter-state entities that are getting more and more difficulties every day for reaching agreements. We know we need environmental agreements, trade agreements, rules for fair taxes, for tackling the Silicon Valley giants, for global redistribution. We do have a Universal Declaration for Human Rights, but we all know these rights are violated on a daily basis, all over the world. The report gives a detailed description of how our States and our international organisations are no longer up to their tasks.
International cooperation, according to the report, is a matter for all, or to use the usual jargon, it is a matter of ‘multistakeholderism’. Business, NGOs and local authorities should all have a place at the table.
This movement started long ago. Several studies were published in the 1980s and 90s about global civil society and about the reform of the United Nations system. We are interdependent, so the reasoning goes, something the current coronacrisis shows once again in all clarity, and we should adapt our governance systems to this reality.
At every global conference since the 1990s, more and more ‘stakeholders’ are invited and it did not last long before the NGOs were outnumbered by business lobbyists. Local authorities also got to play an ever more important role. The multistakeholderism was confirmed in the UN Declaration of 2015 on Sustainable Development Goals.
What this means is not in the first place that the power of States is eroded, but that they are the willing victims of hard lobbying and a bitter reality. They depend on the financial sector and on transnational corporations providing employment for thousands of workers. These are the mighty players in all real negotiations, blocking binding rules and promoting codes of conduct. And here, the often perverse role of NGOs has to be highlighted because they were all too happy to be invited at the table, even if their voice had little or no weight at all in the negotiations. They were the new and important international players!
In this way, little by little, States and international organisations were ‘captured’ by business. Several UN-organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, would not be able to survive without the financial contributions of private partners. Or think of the weakness of States when confronted with transnational corporations in the ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) of all trade agreements where companies can sue States because, for instance, they rise minimum wages or introduce environmental rules. Or think of the PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) in the sector of public services, lowering standards, rising prices and deteriorating working conditions.
These are the existing practices the Re-Design report describes and legitimises, shaping them in a coherent discourse on new ‘international cooperation’. This is the world business is dreaming of, obviously, respecting ‘ethical values’.
‘Re-set’ after the coronacrisis
The different reports published this year are very clear: ‘The time to rebuild trust and to make universal choices is fast approaching and the need to reset priorities and the urgency to reform systems grow stronger around the world’.
Since the emergence of the coronacrisis many voices all over the world are claiming this is the moment for major changes. But what changes? With what strategy? With what power? One might expect that for progressives, the WSF can bring some answers. For business, WEF is preparing itself.
The Great Reset Initiative sees five domains that have to be tackled: the ‘social contracts’ have to be transformed in order to become more inclusive and it should include responsibility for the next generations; we need to decarbonise and build green economies, enhancing our global commons; we need to address the challenges of digitalisation; we need to develop long term stakeholder capitalism; and we need to advance global and regional cooperation.
Again, there is hardly anything new in these ideas, the point is that once again, several positive and progressive concepts – inclusion, commons, social contract, cooperation, decarbonise – are integrated into a neoliberal discourse under the dramatic umbrella of ‘the turning-point of humankind’.
This discourse is not about system change or anti-capitalism, it is about geo-engineering, G5 networks, making workers responsible for the success of the companies they work for, dismantling welfare states and labour regulations , further weakening trade unions and continuing State capture.
The traps for ‘civil society’
The WEF is playing a very similar role to that of the World Bank in its annual reports on World Development. It analyses the State of the World, uses the ideas available on the market of progressive social movements and NGOs and uses these same ideas in order to shape a global narrative in which their purely economic interests are hidden. In today’s world, where many young people are educated with these soft values and do not see or learn anymore what the major central challenges are, where identity, gender, racism and colonialism chase concerns about capitalism, the risk of falling into the trap of these ‘ethics of business’ is serious. The confusion about left and right is growing rapidly. Emerging fascism is promoting ‘order’ and presents itself as the real protection for vulnerable populations.
It is obvious we should care about human rights, about the preservation of biodiversity and climate change, about gender equality and racism and yes, the ‘new’ identity concerns should be tackled alongside capitalism instead of being subordinated to it. There are many arguments to criticize trade unions, but we should never forget that the workers’ movement is the one single movement having changed the world in the 20th century, thanks to organisation and international solidarity, however imperfect they were. That is the lesson we should never forget, before we jump on the wagon of ethical values that have less weight than one single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The second trap that should be avoided is the similarity with the world of philanthropy. Since its inception at the end of the 19th century, wealthy people feel obliged to defend the ‘common good’, rather than pay their taxes. They are convinced that entrepreneurs will save the world and they cleverly combine their tax evasion with an entry into the world of politics, forgetting democracy and accountability, weakening governments. Since there is no not-for-profit-capitalism, what they are doing is depoliticizing all major problems of today’s world, from poverty and hunger to pandemics. According to the WEF, business does not want power, they only want influence. But looking at the number of businessmen that become President of their countries, one might have some doubts. At any rate, even if mighty and wealthy people do not want direct power, one can imagine that one day they change their mind and do want to take their ‘responsibility’.
Three, we should not be surprised to see some values and standards that are proper of progressive social movements in the discourse of business. There is nothing wrong for NGOs and social movements to cooperate with States or with business. But one should never forget that, basically, the interests are different. Business wants to make profits, even if some CEOs are convinced they should indeed care for their workers and for the environment. Progressive social movements do not share values with business. They work for the common good and for the interests of their members. At some point these values may meet, but basically they remain opposite. Progressive social movements may have lost trust in governments and in States, but for different reasons than business. Having a common enemy does not make for friendship. It is important to always clarify the difference.
And the World Social Forum?
This article does not provide for a full analysis of what the WEF is and does. But it does give some ideas of what it is about and what should guide the movements in the WSF who want to ‘oppose’ the WEF.
This is not an easy task. When I made a first analysis of the messages of organisations gathering in the WSF, in 2003, I was surprised to see that very little was about anti-capitalism, socialism, or revolutionary strategies. The radical alternatives discussed focused on social relations, participation, and a solidarity economy beyond markets. There was very little anti-globalization, but more alter-globalization with demands for a fair global order, based on the United Nations as opposed to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. There was a strong belief and trust in democratic values of participation and citizenship. In sum, the first World Social Forums were mainly reformist, succeeding in de-legitimising the existing neoliberal system but without achieving convergence of demands and strategies, let alone alternatives.
Debates about the role and the potential of the WSF have been going on for twenty years now and concern mainly its basic rules, its democracy and its accountability. Having analysed the discourse of the WEF, it is amazing how many similar principles are present in the discourse of the WSF. But the WSF does not want its own voice, it refuses to take decisions, it rejects any strategic thinking, it is happy with the pure gathering of social movements, it wants to be an open space for discussion and nothing more. More and more, over the years, it has become a kind of fancy fair, a market for progressive ideas. In its International Council, there is no political debate and consequently, most of its intellectuals have left the process. In a way, one might say that the WSF does even less than the WEF which has a voice and which does build a global discourse in order to orient actions.
The explanation for this might be found in the origins of the WSF. According to Milciades Pena and Davies, authors of an interesting academic article on the WSF, Oded Grajew, one of the founding fathers of the Forum, declared that he came to the idea of the WSF after he ‘had tried for some time to introduce social responsibility in the World Economic Forum’. Grajew is a business man and played an important role in bringing together the first founding organisations of the Forum, together with Chico Whitaker of the Brazilian Commission of Justice and Peace. Grajew worked at bringing together business, the emerging Workers’ Party and Brazil’s social movements. He also had an important role in many foundations for corporate responsibility and was on the governing board of the Global Compact. As he himself said, still according to the article, the WSF ‘is not against Davos’. Though Grajew certainly has no monopoly on the founding of the Forum and other more leftwing organisations were present, the authors conclude that the ‘WSF is closely rooted in the corporate movement for social responsibility in Brazil rather than simply in anti-capitalist social movements’. There may be disagreement on this conclusion, though there certainly is some truth in the statement that the WSF has not been conceived originally as a counter-hegemonic movement.
The fact is that several radical leftwing movements have left the process. The great majority of analyses of the WSF have been focusing on elements that had nothing to do with these fundamental objectives that always remained hidden to the majority of ‘stakeholders’ in the Forum.
In a message of December 20 2020, Chico Whitaker said, answering a letter from a group in favour of a renewal of the WSF: ‘… we are dealing with two different visions of the WSF and the ways of political action.’ How astonishing it took twenty years to reach this simple conclusion!
Discussing the future
This point is important for the ongoing discussions on the future of the Forum. If one wants to prepare the future, one has to know the past in order to avoid the same mistakes being endlessly repeated. It is important to have a clear idea of where we want to go. Discussions till now have been rather difficult, too often focusing on the past and the easy elements of social and political action.
There are many cleavages within the movements participating in the Forum, reform or revolution, socialism or social emancipation, direct or institutional action … . In recent years discussions have focused on the differences between movements and NGO’s, and on verticalism vs horizontalism, although it will be difficult, I guess, to find advocates of real verticalism. The most important discussions however are the ones de Sousa Santos already pointed at in 2006 and this brief analysis of the WEF reminds us of: the WSF as a space or as a movement, and in its corollary, its position concerning capitalism. The options we are faced with concern the legitimising and accompanying a trajectory for a better capitalism with ethical and human values, or choosing the way of rejecting capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. These are the questions that have to be tackled today if the WSF wants to maintain its innovative potential.
After twenty years, the time has come indeed to resolutely look at the future, to reflect on what is needed for building ‘another world’ and on what this world should be like. To define objectives and strategies, these are the most urgent tasks.
Francine Mestrum, PhD, Global Social Justice, Brussels.
 Mestrum, F., Another World Social Forum is Possible, 2020, https://www.cetri.be/Another-World-Social-Forum-is?lang=fr
 Samans, R., Schwab, K., Malloch-Brown, M. (eds), Global Redesign. Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World, Geneva, WEF, 2010
 Francine Mestrum, “Forum social mondial : une alternative démocratique”, in Delcourt L. Duterme B, Polet F. (coord.), Mondialisation des résistances – L’état des luttes 2004, Paris, CETRI/FMA/Syllepse, 2004.
 Milcíades Pena, A. & Davies, T.R., ‘Globalisation from Above? Corporate Social Responsibility, the Workers’ Party and the Origins of the World Social Forum’ in New Political Economy, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2013.779651
 Quoted by Milciades Pena, A., op. cit.
 Fight for the WSF and its Renovation!, https://www.foranewwsf.org/2020/12/respuesta-del-grupo-renovador-del-fsm-a-la-carta-de-chico-whitacker/#more-373.
 For an overview, see de Sousa Santos, B., The Rise of the Global Left. The World Social Forum and beyond, London, Zed Books, 2006.