Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Dispatches From the Anti-Davos

Slate  Monday, Jan. 31, 2005


Changing the World One Cause at a Time

Porto Alegre, BRAZIL-The World Social Forum is packing its bags today. Delegates, talking time is over, now go home and save the world.

So, what did they learn? Had this fifth global meeting of leftists, progressives, civil society activists- call them what you like-really "broken [apart] the lie that neoliberal domination is inevitable, and that it is 'normal' to have war, inequality, patriarchy, castes, racism, imperialism, and the destruction of the environment," as the organizing committee's press release claimed?

Don't laugh off this statement too quickly. The intent was to educate people that there are alternatives to the status quo. There's nothing wrong with that goal. Isn't that the aim of every political gathering, whether it be a neighborhood PTA meeting or a national political convention (no offense to the World Social Forum, which certainly had a lot more content than the latter).

So, how successful was it? If you base your judgment on whether it gave birth to a unified political movement, it fell short. But if you were looking not for a revolution but to prepare to fight some battles, or even to try to figure out what the battles were, there was plenty to grab onto.

Some snapshots:

A workshop to strategize for the upcoming U.N. Conference on Women. The panelists seemed to be high-minded types, particularly one woman who used more acronyms and abbreviations in her sentences than actual words-my favorite being the hip-hop sounding reference to "the bug boys of the G-group." The discussion was starting to sink under the weight of its own jargon until audience members were allowed to speak. Veronica Chisemphere, a Malawian development worker, criticized the U.N. meeting for being a talking shop for the elites and said that "the women in the villages don't know what is being discussed." She called for the inclusion of HIV/AIDS in the platform. She described how the disease has devastated her continent and left many women, including herself, with huge economic and social burdens.

Another panel took on the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and asked whether the emissions-trading scheme it proposes is really a method of "privatizing" the atmosphere. Great sound bite, a real rabble rouser: Those evil politicians are trying to auction off our environment to the highest bidder. Better, said the panelists, to reduce emissions by regulating and taxing the use of fossil fuels and devoting money to alternative energy sources. Again, nice sound bite. Then, somewhat unusually, there was dissent from the audience. A gentleman from Belgium pointed out that alternative energy is still not a practical solution; it cannot begin to meet power demands. And besides, emissions-trading is by far the closest that anybody has come to implementing Kyoto-the European Union is doing it unilaterally. Lots of statistics were tossed around about the relative size of the carbon market, whether emissions-trading could actually help a struggling economy gain badly needed credit, and how Spain compared to other EU countries in respect to its power usage and economy. Finally, one of the panelists said something like, "Listen to all of these numbers. When people tell me that something is complicated, I think that it is really simple, and that they just don't want me to understand it." Then again, sometimes things really are complicated.

A dance performance promoting the National Campaign for Educational Rights, a Brazilian grass-roots literacy movement. Sure, it had its nouveau sloganeering too-"Education Is a Right, Not a Commodity"-but it was packed with people like Monica Veloso and Gleides Sodre, volunteers who teach reading to children in the Sao Paulo favelas.

One of the final debates to erupt at the forum was whether it should be more focused. Seventeen prominent intellectuals issued an open letter calling for the forum to get back to its roots. When it began, five years ago, the focus was on globalization and free trade. Back then, forum participants protested-literally-that the meetings were too hierarchical, and so last year the organizers decide to abdicate their oversight role and let the planning be more "organic," opening the forum meetings to whomever wanted to present. "The World Social Forum is a reflection of the state of civil society," said Shalmali Gultal, a development and poverty researcher and one of the forum's organizers. "It doesn't necessarily need to have a sharp focus." Sounds good, in theory. In practice, nonlinear organization meant lots of wasted time. It was typical that when I would go looking for tent K604 to sit in on a meeting about child trafficking, tent K604 was no longer located between tents K603 and K605; rather, it had been renamed K609 and now housed a meeting about justice and African women.

On the other hand, the opening up of the forum meant more people like Chisemphere and Veloso, who were actually doing hands-on work in various fields, and less insider babbling by academics and professionals. It's probably safest to have a few of each.

So, what did I learn at the forum? Changing the world is like cleaning up a messy apartment. If you stare at all the scattered junk too long, you will never get anything done. Best to start with one corner and work from there.

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