In January 2001 the idea that alternative economic and social future is possible brought together 12,000 people in Porto Alegre in Brazil. The meeting was called World Social Forum. Since then, it has been held annually in different parts of the world – in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa, and in 2016 for the first time in North America. World Social Forum is “the largest gathering of civil society to find solutions to the problems of our time” and the main antidote to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF has its roots in anti-globalization movement and “stands in opposition to a process of globalization commanded by the large multinational corporations and by the governments and international institutions.”

another world is possible demonstartion

How it started

One of the founders of WSF Oded Grajewabusinessman and social entrepreneur from Brazil, said in an interview with In Motion Magazine in 2004 that he came up with an idea of the World Social Forum when on vacation in France. It was the time of The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting that was being held in Davos, Switzerland. Grajewa grew frustrated with the way media was covering the event. The idea of “Looking at the world as a big market” and “Looking to people as consumers” didn’t feel right to him and he started thinking about an alternative to the WEF. “Then, one day, in the hotel in Paris, I was thinking, ‘What can we do against this?’ because I know we can have an alternative, another globalization, other proposals”, said Oded Grajewa in an interview. “We must show to people that another globalization is possible. Another world is possible when you make the first step the social, not the economic. The economic as a tool for the social; not the people being a tool for the economic.”

Oded Grajew – one of the founders of the World Social Forum

Oded Grajew – one of the founders of the World Social Forum

Unlike Davos – an elite ski resort in the Swiss Alps where the WEF is held, the World Social Forum chose Porto Alegre, Brazil, as the event’s venue, and it wasn’t a random choice. According to New Politics Porto Alegre “had the most longstanding PT [ Brazilian Worker’s Party] municipal government in Brazil (1990-2004) and was a showcase for the PT’s brand of participatory democracy, especially its participatory budget.” Bernard Cassen, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, and also a founder and a president of ATTAC (the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), said that “Brazil is one of the countries which suffers with this kind of globalization and Porto Alegre has a history of mayors introducing another kind of policy, with a participatory budget, with popular participation, changing priorities for more social and popular goals.”

The idea to create a counterweight to the World Economic Forum was conceived in the year 2000 in France. In January of 2001 the first World Social Forum took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

World Social Forum as an alternative to World Economic Forum

world social forum

Social Forums are open, without discrimination, to all those who wish to change the world, respecting the people’s choices, culture and tempo, but rejecting violence as a means of achieving change.  Chico Whitaker is the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission representative to the WSF Organization Committee and International Secretariat

As its Charter of Principles states, the World Social Forum is “an open meeting place for reflective thinking” that “brings together only civil society organizations from all countries of the world. Unlike the World Economic Forum, it doesn’t intend to be a body representing world civil society in its entirety and therefore none of the participating organizations are authorized to express any ideas on behalf of the entire Forum. For the same reason no WSF ever ends producing any kind of documentation or report that summarizes the outcome of the gathering.

According to Chico Whitaker the participants of the World Social Forum “have referred to themselves as ‘facilitators’, never as ‘coordinators’, far less as ‘leaders’”. Such vocabulary is of crucial importance since it reflects the horizontal relations among the participants of the WSF in place of vertical ones in WEF.

He also states that “The WSF is not intended to be ‘the movement of movements’, or a new ‘world party’, with old style leaders and a new ‘pensée unique’ to replace the dominant one.” Instead, it is meant to open up new ways of thinking to develop an alternative future and confront the world’s challenges .

World Social Forum – 16 years on

another world is possible illustartion

Since its first gathering in 2001 The World Social Forum has grown and consolidated. The first WSF held in 2001 gathered 12,000 attendees. In 2005 the number of registered participants peaked at 155,000. From 2004 the forums were hosted outside Brazil and since 2006 Africa held the second-biggest number of forums and international events in Mali, Kenya, Senegal, Tunisia, Dacar. In 2016 the WSF took place in Montreal, Canada, making it the first Northern Hemisphere venue of the Forum.

In 2001 the first WSF was largely focused on bringing together anti-globalization activists to talk, share the knowledge, and coordinate global campaigns, while the following Forums chose to focus on specific ways to counter globalization commanded by the multinational corporations, governments and international institutions. One of the most dramatic events of the first Forum was the occupation of a farm near Porto Alegre owned by Monsanto. As TIME reports, 1,000 activists occupied a local Monsanto laboratory to protest against genetically modified food. The takeover made the Organizing Committee moderate the tone of the second gathering in order to prevent further incidents like the Monsanto occupation.

world social forum in canada 2016

The third meeting in 2003 was focused on the issue that wasn’t originally on the agenda but became the most dominant theme of demonstrations and protests all around the world – the looming war in Iraq. February 15, 2003 has become knows as the global day of action that brought together between 12 to 14 million people in almost 800 cities across the globe protesting against Bush administration.

The Forth Forum was held in Mumbai, India where Indian activists used the Forum as a platform to bring up the issues of casteism, religious conflicts and the plight of the Dalit, a term used for the members of lower castes in India. The fifth Forum moved back to Porto Allegre and the sixth meeting held in 2006 is known as a “polycentric” Forum that took place in Caracas (Venezuela), Bamako (Mali), and  Karachi (Pakistan). Between 2007 and 2016  the meetings were organized in Kenya, Brazil, Senegal, and Tunisia.

World Social Forum 2016 in Montreal, Canada

WSF in Canada 2016

In 2016 the World Social Forum took place in Montreal, Canada, and brought together 35,000 activists from social movements around the world. The events were held in various locations in Montreal, but mainly in the campuses of the University of Quebec at Montreal, and the McGill University. Among its themes were economic, social and solidarity alternatives facing the capitalist crisis, rights of nature and environmental justice, global struggles and international solidarity, workers against neoliberalism. According to TheConversation, “the WSF in Montreal reflected issues specific to the region, including resource extraction, pipeline expansion, climate justice and the situation of indigenous peoples. But, issues affecting many regions of Africa were also addressed, such as land-grabbing, a major issue in sub-Saharan Africa, the rights of women and the impact of extractive industries in the south.”

Antinuclear World Social Forum 2017

nuclear plants

“Nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future. Nuclear energy is both expensive and dangerous, and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean”, states GreenPeace. The 2011 disaster in Japan that led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors as well as the rising cost of radioactive waste disposal have raised public awareness about the risks of nuclear energy.

Nuclear power, its sustainability and the related environmental issues have been the subject of the latest gatherings of the World Social Forum. The workshops on nuclear issues resulted in creating The Antinuclear World Social Forum that was held in spring 2016 in Tokyo, where a “Call for a nuclear-free world network” was launched. The second AWSF took place in Montreal as a part of the World Social Forum and the third one will be hosted in Paris, France, from 2 to 4 November 2017. 

The choice fell on France because it is the world’s biggest nuclear power producer deriving about 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. It is also the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, according to world-nuclear.org. Among the question to be debated in the meeting are “how to put an end to this activity which, from material extraction to waste management, is life-threatening?”, “how to avoid a new major disaster?” and “how to firmly engage ourselves on the path to the energy transition?”

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