The World Social Forum

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The World Social Forum was created in 2001 in opposition to the Davos World Economic Forum. It rapidly spread around the world and now counts numerous regional and local forums where grassroot organizations meet, discuss, exchange ideas, experiences and come out with some recommendations. The use of new ICTs was crucial for its development, as it provided affordable and efficient means of communication and coordination.

The WSF was founded to organize regular (every year at the beginning and then every couple of years since 2007) international meetings for all alterglobalist proponents. Its bottom-up approach aims at reconciling the international system with local forces. It proposes to open the international stage to new players and change the international relations architecture to make it more democratic: it means creating an arena for participation and cooperation of various stakeholders who can discuss and exchange ideas, find peaceful solutions to conflicts, lobby for socioeconomic equity and welfare, and disseminate democratic and universal human rights values:

“The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, for formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action.”[1]

The WSF proposes to coordinate the initiatives of local and global organizations engaged in building an alternative world. It does not act as a representative of the world civil society, and it is not an organization: it is a global public sphere. As defined by Habermas, a public sphere is where common concerns are debated among citizens in an equal, free, and peaceful manner.[2]

Thanks to the use of new ICTs, WSF became a global public space where individuals and organizations dealt with common problems through dialogue and discussion. The capacity to deliberate democratically, to perceive shared interests, to cede territory to others, and to work together to achieve a common objective is central in the concept of civil society thinking. In that sense, WSF is a “non-legislative, extra-judicial, public space in which societal differences, social problems, public policy, government action and matters of community and cultural identity are developed and debated.” [3]

The model of development of WSF followed the Internet values such as transparency and cooperation: “a culture that favors horizontality, internal democracy and the active participation of grassroots actors.” [4] Similarly to the Internet, the early development of the WSF lacked of representativeness: its founding members (the WSF International Council) made all the decisions and few famous scholars and intellectuals monopolized the discussions during panels and workshops.

Regular critiques from participants, and in particular grassroots activists led to opening up the organization and its governance processes. For instance, some young activists invaded its VIP lounge in 2002 to protest again the elitism in place. It resulted in closing definitely the VIP lounge. In 2005, other protests conducted the International Council of the WSF (IC) leaders to adopt new measure to make it more participatory. [5]

Over the years, the WSF witnessed the influence of two main stakeholders: global NGOs and political parties. The WSF could have indeed become a platform for the communication of some political parties. However, after the 2006 WSF in Caracas, where Hugo Chavez and its supporters took the floor and used the Forum to promote their revolutionary process, the IC decided to reduce the participation of political parties. Since then, the WSF is a non-political movement.

Until 2007, the other main type of WSF participant was global NGOs. Their participation in the WSF could have also led to institutionalize the WSF. However, the IC decided also to reduce their influence and give more voice to social movements and other types of participants. Their objective was to give more space and voice to participants representing people on the ground, and therefore increase the legitimacy of the WSF. Indeed, within the WSF, the influence and number of informal quasi-organizations grew substantially as well:

“The evolution of the relationship between NGOs and social movements within the WSF process has both been fostered by and reflects one of the most significant changes in global civil society in the past decade: grassroots networks have realized that their internationalization did not necessarily require NGOs.”[6]

The informal quasi-organizations, which took part in the WSF, influenced its development in becoming an informal quasi-organization. The WSF illustrates an alternative way of managing international movements. The global growth of informal quasi-organizations such as the WSF shows that it is possible to develop without institutionalizing if the culture of the movement enables it. This alternative model of governance protects diversity and allows heterogeneous actors to raise awareness about global issues such as biodiversity loss without being confronted to the costs of institutionalization, which ensures them a certain type of freedom.

As shown, the WSF offers alternative governance and alternative development on the international scene thanks to its use of new ICTs. Indeed, when social movements grow traditionally, they usually become institutionalized. They take the familiar path from charisma to regularized routine, from inventiveness and passion to bureaucracy and hierarchy. Traditionally, social movements that become more international also become in parallel more institutional: in other words, an increased institutionalization supports the expansion of the social movement.

This path could have been the WSF’s development road. Institutionalization usually contains two aspects: internal institutionalization with professionalized management and hierarchical structure, and external institutionalization with its integration into institutional international processes or become a service provider for its members. In other words, the movement becomes an organization that either “does or provides something” on the international scene in a professional way. Over time, protesters pacify and adapt once their requests once heard, and once they take part into a dialogue with authorities.

Given that WSF was founded by and for alter-globalization activists, its evolution did not follow the traditional pattern. It remained an open-space where grassroots movements are more represented than powerful INGOs.[7]

[1] World Social Forum (2014) What is the World Social Forum. Brazil: WSF. Retrieved 11 October 2013 from http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/main.php?id_menu=19&cd_language=2

[2] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.68.

[3] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.67.

[4] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012) Op Cit, p.166.

[5] Ibid, p.173.

[6] Ibid, Op Cit, p.176.

[7] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012) Op Cit, p.177.