PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, FEB. 10, 2001 (Zenit.org).- After looking last week at what happened at the World Economic Forum — a think tank now regarded as a symbol of the global economy –we now examine a parallel summit. The World Social Forum (WSF) was organized in Porto Alegre, Brazil, by groups highly critical of globalization and capitalism in general.
Its Web site says the WSF “will be a new international arena for the creation and exchange of social and economic projects that promote human rights, social justice and sustainable development.”
The group sees itself as a means of strengthening alliances between nongovernmental organizations and other groups who are dissatisfied with the international financial institutions and trade arrangements, and seek to improve the economic situation of poor countries. It has also announced it will be active in areas such as human rights, education and the environment.
In an article written for the WSF, Noam Chomsky, a prominent left-wing intellectual, explained the need for this new forum. According to Chomsky the globalization of recent years has led to increasing inequality, stagnation in wages, an increase in working hours and a reduction in social support systems. In turn, he says, the move to free trade has fomented the creation of oligopolies and permitted an explosion in short-term speculative capital movements.
This has resulted, in Chomsky´s words, in a system of “corporate mercantilism,” characterized by a system in which “decisions over social, economic and political life (are) increasingly in the hands of unaccountable private concentrations of power.”
What happened in Porto Alegre
The WSF drew about 3,000 participants from various countries. The six-day conference was made up of four plenary sessions and 400 workshops.
The WSF gained media attention, in part, because of the presence of José Bové, the French sheep farmer who became famous for damaging a McDonald´s restaurant. The French presence was notable at the WSF; the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, Bernard Cassen, is one of the founders of WSF. Danielle Mitterrand, widow of the late French President François Mitterrand, was also one of the speakers.
During his speech Bové promised strong protests against a proposed all-American free trade zone, which will be discussed at an April summit in Quebec, the Associated Press reported Jan. 26. Another key supporter of the forum was Olivio Dutra, the left-wing governor of Rio Grande do Sul, the state where Porto Alegre is located.
Many of those gathered in Porto Alegre were the same who participated in violent protests in Seattle, Washington, two years ago at the World Trade Organization, and at last year´s International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, according to a Jan. 26 report in the Globe and Mail newspaper. Also represented at the WSF were women´s groups, environmentalists, labor unions, communists, Marxist economists, liberation theologians, and homosexual-rights and anti-poverty groups.
The protest summit of the WSF did not manage to please everyone, as Reuters noted Jan. 28. At one stage protesters stormed a press conference to demand greater participation for blacks. Dozens of protesters interrupted the proceedings declaring: “We are more than 50% of the population in Brazil, but at the World Social Forum we only get one hour of a five-day meeting to express our views!”
The gathering was also marred by the violence now customary in the anti-globalization movement. According to a Jan. 28 report on the Newsweek Web site dedicated to covering the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and its countersummit in Porto Alegre, a convoy of 18 buses took demonstrators to a farm in Brazil owned by Monsanto, the American agricultural company. The company is experimenting with genetically modified crops at the farm. The protesters invaded the fields and destroyed the crops. At least two other protests against genetically modified crops were staged, one in Porto Alegre and another in Recife, where one farmer died and several more were injured.
As a result of the raid on the farm, police ordered José Bové to leave Brazil. They accused him of trespassing, destruction of private property and breaking laws governing foreigners in Brazil, Reuters reported Jan. 30. The courts later suspended the police order.
Representatives of the WSF and those gathered in Davos held a televised debate, but the Financial Times reported Jan. 29 there was little common ground in exchanges that at times degenerated into personal insults. For example, George Soros, the billionaire speculator and philanthropist, was accused by one speaker of being responsible for the deaths of children in poor countries.
The organizers decided well in advance of the meeting not to issue a final declaration because they believe that their forum, with the theme “another world is possible,” was a struggle in progress, the Forum News Daily, published by The Earth Times Foundation, noted Jan. 31. The only officially sanctioned document for the whole meeting was an “informational note” which announced the conference would be held in Porto Alegre again next year and in a different city in 2003.
What to make of the WSF
The mix of radical groups and neo-Marxist ideologues gathered in Porto Alegre could lead a skeptic to reject the WSF as just another bunch of fanatics whose ideas, if put into practice, would be disastrous. Certainly many of their proposals contain serious flaws.
Their objections to the current global system of trade and commerce, however, are in many cases valid. Many observers now recognize the serious injustice of exacting interest and debt repayments from countries that lack sufficient funds to feed and educate their citizens. Similar inequities occur in the way global trade is organized, with rich countries frequently excluding the exports that poorer nations need to sell in order to have any hope of economic development. It´s also patent that many Western companies have little regard for the impact of their activities on the Third World.
The danger is that protests against these injustices may be ignored because they are seen as coming from radicals who, despite their media exposure, lack widespread support. Therefore, those unsatisfied with the North-South divide need to present constructive and sensible reforms, avoiding neo-Marxist and Luddite excesses.
As John Paul II said in his World Peace Day Message for 2000, “There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity. Failure awaits every plan which would separate two indivisible and interdependent rights: the right to peace and the right to an integral development born of solidarity” (No. 13).
The Pope went on to observe, “What seems to be urgently needed is a reconsideration of the concept of ´prosperity´ itself, to prevent it from being enclosed in a narrow utilitarian perspective which leaves very little space for values such as solidarity and altruism” (No. 15). The challenge is to find ways to bring about a greater solidarity in an increasingly globalized world and to do this in a way that is based on Christian principles. The alternatives — a capitalism that ignores social justice, or radical reforms based on erroneous ideologies — are incapable of ensuring a balanced development for everyone.