: WSF 2004
World Social Forum flies flag of hope
This article appeared in the ACSJC's Justice Trends,
no.112, March 2004.
THE annual global meeting of civil society known as the World Social
Forum met in Mumbai (Bombay), India, in January, a massive gathering
of about 80,000 participants representing 2,660 groups from 132
countries, including a Jesuit-led delegation of about 1,350.
The sheer magnitude and diversity of this meeting is a credit to
the spirit and method of the WSF, which within the short four years
of its life has become a global force against the worst excesses
of economic globalisation.
Not only has the annual WSF event grown steadily, it has inspired
numerous regional and local forums around the world, including local
meetings in Australia, which gives rise to the claim that the WSF
is indeed a "process" rather than an "event".
There are few instances in recent history where such an initiative
has developed at such speed and on such a scale.
The WSF originated as a reaction to the process of corporate-led
globalisation and the realisation that the current socio-political
world order, which prioritises the economy over the society, was
neither desirable nor inevitable.
A new global consciousness, which celebrated the connectedness,
diversity, creativity and unpredictability of the human person,
Within a few years, what was a fragmented and often destructive
resistance to globalisation has become an accumulating productive
search for alternatives. The WSF's slogan in India was "Another
world is possible – let's build it!"
The popularity of the WSF has something to do with its core ethos
but also its innovative organisational method. The WSF claims to
be an "open space" for movements rather than a "movement
In theory and mostly in practice, the open space method is a self-organising
model in which the people attending a particular meeting on the
day define its agenda.
Chico Whitaker, one of the key architects of the WSF, compared
the open space method to a city square that is visited by all those
who find some interest in using it. The square has no purpose in
itself except to provide the means for the realisation of different
objectives by different interested groups.
At the WSF at any one time you would find hundreds of overlapping
or competing events, including formal WSF-organised plenary sessions
and conferences, self-organised workshops and seminars, cultural
events, exhibitions and stalls, protest marches and performances,
as well as informal gatherings on and off the venue.
It can also be a source of empowerment for many marginalised groups,
as it was for the Dalits (the lowest Indian caste) and the indigenous
Adivasis and Nagas groups at this year's meeting.
It titillates the mind how any order or outcomes could emerge from
such a seemingly anarchical meeting, but outcomes have been the
experience of the WSF and its regional counterparts.
One of notable recent achievement by individuals and groups participating
in last year's WSF was the mobilisation of 10 million people worldwide
in the historic February 14-16, 2003 global protests against the
US' invasion of Iraq.
The WSF's spirit of inclusiveness and diversity – which stands
in contrast to the universalist program implemented by today's agents
of economic globalisation – is a model for the future and
the centrepiece of the hope it offers for a fairer, just and plural
Minh Nguyen is a researcher, Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.
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