Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

A tale of two cities

e!sharp  March-april 2005

When the World Social Forum began in 2001, at the height of the antiglobalisation movement, its focus was clear. But now left-wing activists are struggling to determine not only what they are against, but also what they are for. Samuel Loewenberg reports

The exclusive ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, is on the other side of the globe from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. In the last week in January, both hosted conferences. And although they were at polar opposites both geographically and ideologically, the two events nevertheless had a lot in common.

The World Economic Forum in Davos was filled with business elites hoping to hobnob with Bill Gates, Tony Blair, or Bono. The Porto Alegre conference was for everybody else.

For six days, more than 150,000 activists, agitators, intellectuals, and trade unionists from scores of countries converged on the southern Brazilian city to talk about how to save the world, or at least to try to figure out where to begin.

Like Davos, the Porto Alegre meetings are about networking, a place for progressives to exchange experiences and business cards. While technically it may be a meeting of the Left, the plethora of cultures, ideologies, and agendas defy any simplistic categorisation.

The World Social Forum was launched five years ago, the creation of French and Brazilian activists who redefined world conflict as a matter of North vs South.

These days, the Brahmins at Davos are acutely aware of their bad image and go to great lengths to show they are good guys, capitalists with a heart.

A few weeks before the conference, the World Economic Forum's coordinators released two surveys suggesting that the global financial community cares about hunger, extreme poverty, and the environment.

At the same time, more than a quarter of respondents said they backed the Bush administration's "war on terror".

There is a market logic to this.After all, terrorism and war disrupt markets, and there is nothing business people hate more than unpredictability. Poverty, human rights abuses and disease are constants they can live with - which is probably why only 5% counted it as a top priority. And this year's slate of panels at Davos suggested Ebenezer Scrooge after a yoga retreat: "Will income disparities always be with us?"; "Mobilising a disenchanted workforce", and "Why rich countries can't buy happiness".

It was a far cry from Porto Alegre, with an agenda which filled two 134-page volumes and panels on everything ranging from water privatisation in Uruguay to global child trafficking, India's underclass of 200 million Dalits and the impact of supermarkets on southern Italian farmers.

Still, like the Davos gathering, the World Social Forum now has its celebrities too. Brazilian President Ignacio 'Lula' da Silva spoke on the first day, endorsing a global campaign to end poverty and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a closing speech replete with populist flourishes.

The forum also attracted a handful of Nobel Peace and Literature Prize Winners, including Portuguese novelist José Saramago, as well as more than 100 indigenous tribes from all over the world. Celebrities aside, the core theme behind the more than 500 meetings held each day was how to build bridges between organisations, both between nations and across disciplines. "In this age of globalisation, we can no longer work only in one country," said Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions.

He explained that the German unions had sent several delegations to the conference in an attempt to bridge the gap between workers in wealthy and poor countries by, for example, linking up with Brazilian miners who work in a bauxite mine owned by the German-based, Norwegian-owned aluminum company Hydro.

"It is not acceptable for German companies that manufacture in the developing world to use different standards than they do at home.Why is a Brazilian lung not as protected as a German one?" said Eich.

"Brazilian unions dealing with a German company are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact."

At another meeting, union representatives from Holland, India and Brazil met to share information and strategise about common employers, which included some of Europe's biggest companies such as Unilever,Thyssen, and Phillips."We have to globalise too to compete against multinationals," said Patrick van Klink, a worker and union organiser at the Unilever margarine factory in Rotterdam.

Over the last five years, his union has forged links with Unilever workers in India and Brazil, sometimes providing them with strategic advice, publicity and funding to help them unionise.

Van Klink argues that the benefits of globalisation - the lowering of old national boundaries and the revolution in communications - are an opportunity for unions.

"The possibilities for us as a workers' movement are better than ever before - it is easier to travel, communicate and meet face to face.We have to take advantage of these opportunities," he explained, adding: "We are not quite sure what the EU will mean for European workers - whether there is a danger of a 'European Union of the Bosses'. Our interest lies in building European and international networks." For all the participants, the forum was a time to network and share strategies. Sauro Scarpelli, an Italian based in London who heads Amnesty International's campaign to control conventional weapons, described his experience from the last forum, held in Mumbai, India, where he saw how successful local anti-armament groups were in using street theatre to attract attention to their cause. "It's not the kind of thing we would do in London," he added wryly. But building bridges is not always easy, as Helen Kirkman of the UK's National Farmer's Union discovered.

Her association is worried that if all trade barriers are dropped, British farmers will be driven out of business by cheap foreign imports. It was a difficult story to sell to the Third World advocates who dominated the Porto Alegre conference, but Kirkman was determined to do her best. "I am here to explain and to listen," she said.

When the World Social Forum began five years ago, at the height of the antiglobalisation movement, the focus of the fight was free-trade agreements, international lending agencies like the World Bank and the hegemonic power of multinational corporations.

These days, the activists, trade unionists, intellectuals, indigenous groups and multitudes of others who gathered in Porto Alegre are struggling to determine not only what they are against, but also what they are for.

The forum deliberately avoids issuing any manifestos or reaching a unified political goal. And in that respect, it shatters one of the old clichés of the Left, which is that diverse groups always break off into backstabbing factions.  Even so, many delegates complained that the conference had become dominated by intellectuals and professional elites, and was in danger of losing touch with the people on whose behalf it was supposed to be lobbying. "The World Social Forum is a reflection of the state of civil society movements," said Shalmali Gultal, a development and poverty researcher from India and one of the forum's organisers. "It doesn't necessarily need to have a sharp focus." The opening day parade set the tone, which, depending on one's point of view, could be described as either diverse or chaotic, optimistic or idealistic.

Either way, it was a serious party, as tens of thousands of people wound through the city's streets before converging on one of the city's central parks. Indigenous tribesmen in feathers and body paint chatted with earnest university students wearing Ernesto 'Che' Guevara t-shirts. The crowd waved banners with slogans like "Against the War and Against Capitalism", "Education is Inclusion" and "Tourism is Predatory". The hundreds of workshops each day were a deliberate hodge-podge, in line with the forum's ethic of promoting change from the grass roots up.

Among the opening day's offerings were a pan-Latin American panel of farming groups discussing strategies for agrarian reform; a Brazilian-led meeting on women and sustainable development; a meeting of anthropologists on the effect of globalisation on human rights; and a discussion on racism, sexism and homophobia led by an organisation representing female, black, Catholic lesbians.

While some of the discussions were theoretical, others had a painful urgency. On the first day, representatives from India, Indonesia and other countries affected by the tsunami asked that their nations be granted total debt relief.

The group, dubbed Jubilee South, expressed concern that in the wake of the tsunami, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and individual countries would use it as an opportunity to saddle the devastated countries with even more interest payments.

While the forum was filled with European intellectuals, Indian trade unionists, African activists and Latin Americans of every stripe, the United States' delegation was relatively modest, composed mostly of long-time antiglobalisation NGOs.

Canadian political scientist Elizabeth Smythe, who has attended numerous social forums, attributes the absence of people from the United States and Canada to a culture that "deliberately tries to depoliticise inequality".

And building connections between divergent groups is not always easy, as American Glenn Switkes discovered.

Switkes, the Latin American representative of the California-based International Rivers Network, spent the day trying to convince Brazilian miners that a proposed expansion of energy-intensive refineries, and the dams that would come with them, would threaten both their communities and their environment.

But for the Brazilian workers, jobs and job safety were top of the agenda. Their union leaders told Switkes that if he wanted to mobilise the local people, he would have to go directly to the villages. "Meetings like this are great, but this is a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grass roots. It's a problem for lots of international organisations," he said afterwards.

One of the most important aspects of the forum was creating a sense of solidarity between NGOs who might otherwise feel isolated.

"It's inspiring; so many people from so many parts of the world coming together to share their experiences. It gives you strength to keep working," said Maija Nilson, a 23-year-old Swede based in Chile with an NGO which helps poor children.

And although social change is a slow process and many activists admit that they are sometimes disheartened at the recent right-wing, aggressive stance of the US, Jurema Werneck - a 43-year-old physician from Rio who has attended the forums since the beginning - insists meetings like the World Social Forum play a crucial role.

"Things would be worse if we didn't do this.We have to keep fighting."

By Sam Loewenberg