Activists revitalise dream of a better world

by Mario Osava

Porto Alegre, Brazil, 31 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- The dream of a better world seemed to gather force over the last six days in the auditoriums at southern Brazil’s Catholic University, though making the dream a reality would mean subverting the world’s current economic system and channelling a great deal of wealth from the industrialised North to the developing South.

At the World Social Forum, which concluded Tuesday in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, there was little space for realism and no room for skepticism, due to the strong presence of utopianism.

Participants left no doubt that “another world is possible,” the slogan of the Forum, that implies the rejection of the current global situation and a commitment to drafting feasible alternatives.

The heated criticisms of the arithmetic vision of a world dominated by finance did not prevent the World Social Forum’s own success from being measured in numbers.

Event organisers pointed to the 20,000 people who attended, twice the number expected, more than 400 workshops and panels, thousands of ideas debated, a diversity that bordered on chaos, and the broad impact of the event through publications in hundreds of newspapers around the world.

The demands that would change the world economic order - matters therefore more likely to mobilise people - are the total cancellation of the developing South’s foreign debt and the implementation of the Tobin Tax, a tariff on international flows of capital, which today surpasses $2 trillion daily.

The application of the tax, which is named after its Nobel prize-winning promoter, economist James Tobin, would mean hundreds of billions of dollars annually aimed at development in poor countries.

Less clearly defined claims, such as “fair trade” or the “environmental debt” that wealthy nations would have to pay, would also contribute to reversing the flow of resources from the South to the North, opening the way for reducing inequality.

The arguments in favour of these far-reaching measures are based on common, but nonetheless dramatic, diagnoses. The nations of the South currently owe $2 trillion in external debt, four times what they owed in 1980, though they have paid six times the initial value of the loans.

This dynamic has doubled the gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries.

In Mexico, 70% of the 100 million inhabitants are poor and 25 million live in abject poverty, pointed out Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a leader of his country’s political opposition and participant in the World Social Forum.

Everywhere, even in wealthy countries, unemployment is on the rise, there is little job security and social inequalities continue to deepen.

The Porto Alegre Forum, which convened some 4,700 delegates from nearly 120 countries, representing thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labour unions, and social and political movements, revealed that there are several matters of consensus amid the diverse ideas, interests and areas of action.

One issue with unanimous support was the rejection of all genetically modified organisms. It is a question that unites activists who are concerned about environmental risks, those who defend the health of consumers, and the peasant farmers who are fighting the monopolisation of seeds by a handful of transnational corporations.

Free trade and privatisations also won a general thumbs-down, as Forum participants interpret them as generators of unemployment and inequality, and usually mean limited public access to otherwise public services.

The World Social Forum is not a decision-making body, but rather an ongoing process of formulating alternatives and articulating actions that seek to intensify the movement against “neoliberal globalization.”

Such resistance has been expressed through the protests that turned meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) into major police operations.

Other widely supported proposals at the World Social Forum ranged from opening all national borders to the free movement of people, to considering water and seeds as belonging to humanity, and therefore free from privatisation and patent rights.

But divergent ideas and routes for social change also appeared during the Porto Alegre event.

There was a loud condemnation of farm subsidies, which are blamed for blocking access to the enormous markets of the North and depressing the prices of the developing South’s main exports.

But poor farmers, represented by the international organisation Via Campesina, decided to focus their criticisms instead on food imported from wealthy countries, which they say jeopardises their way of life.

“Agriculture is not a business” and food should not be treated as merchandise, but as a human right, argued the movement’s leaders, including Brazilian Egidio Brunetto, Rafael Alegria of Honduras, and Jose Bove from France.

The division between radicals and moderates was evident as some, such as Walden Bello of the Philippines, called for the elimination of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, while others, considered “realists” - with Brazilian economist Luciano Coutinho among them - defended the idea of reforming the institutions.

The more utopic gaze of some, who have goals for the very long term, contrasts with the urgency of others, such as those involved in the movement for peace in Colombia.

Behind many of the Forum’s proposals lies the dichotomy of the revolutionary road, which would entail the takeover of state power by popular forces, and cumulative change, which would occur through a deepening of democracy and popular participation.

Everyone now refers only to “civil society,” but it continues to be divided into social classes, pointed out Francois Houtart, a French delegate at the Forum.

The French showed a particular concern for the terminology used during the Porto Alegre meeting, for example, preferring the word “mondialisation” (‘world-isation’) over “globalization.”

Philosopher Patrick Viveret also criticised the widespread use of “neoliberalism” to refer to what he calls “financial and informational capitalism.”

It is essential “to reconstruct language” as a form of resistance to cultural domination, stressed Armand Mattelar, a French-speaking Belgian.

Regardless of some differences, the World Social Forum served the important purpose of elevating the debate on humanity’s problems, and has contributed to overcoming “the political poverty that causes economic and social poverty,” said Victor Baez, leader of the Inter-American Regional Organisation of Workers.

Isolation and disinformation about the options that are possible for developing societies prevent greater participation in the decisions that could reduce inequalities, he explained.

For Spanish physicist Mario Negre Rossignoli, an activist for the abolition of “20th-century slavery” - in other words, the foreign debt - the World Social Forum is fundamental not only for generating ideas, but also “for expanding social networks, the international weave” of civil society groups fighting for a better world.