The triple success of WSF 2005
In its fifth incarnation, the World Social Forum (WSF) returned to Porto Alegre and broke
a new record – organizers claimed a 155,000 turnout.
But the large-scale media coverage of its rival – the World Economic Forum (WEF) – in
Davos and its recent conversion to poverty and development issues overshadowed the
WSF, making its impact hard to assess.
Faced with three tangible challenges, which could have potentially turned into serious
threats for its future, WSF offered three answers that reflect the dynamic of today’s civil
The World Social Forum in 2005: three challenges, three threats
First challenge: the conversion of the World Economic Forum into a development
Since its inception in 2001 in Porto Alegre, WSF has been conceived as an alternative
space to the World Economic Forum that has been gathering world leaders in Davos
since 1970. The symbolical message of WSF, ―Another world is possible‖, illustrates its
founding opposition to the vision of a world governed by market forces, supposedly
represented by the annual meeting in Davos of a ―world’s masters‖ club composed of
corporate and political leaders.
However, WEF presented a completely different picture in January 2005. For the first
time in its 35-year history, WEF gave the priority to poverty and development issues.
Successive speeches from European leaders like Tony Blair of the UK, Jacques Chirac
of France and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany aimed at detailing their initiatives and
proposals for financing for development. These interventions from key political leaders
set the tone for many other debates, including eleven programmed sessions on
development and Africa. Once a neo-liberal club meeting in a posh ski resort, WEF has
become a vibrant champion of development, justifying the presence of the two most
important leaders of Sub-Saharan Africa, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. This conversion was even endorsed by
powerhouse celebrities like Bono, Sharon Stone and Angelina Jolie and benefited from
much wider media coverage than at WSF.
The new face of WEF clearly leads to a threat for WSF: the loss of its own legitimacy.
Inspired by the necessity to stand for of the voiceless victims of globalization and under-
development, what legitimacy is left to WSF if democratically elected leaders now
eventually play a similar role? This question is linked to the larger ongoing debate on
civil society’s definition, representation and accountability. Elusive and heterogeneous,
civil society seems a difficult if not impossible notion to define in precise terms.
Interestingly, it was in Davos in January 2005 that rich countries assumed the challenge
of ―Defining civil society, once and for all‖, and inevitably failed.
The classic criticism of the inadequate representativeness of civil society is now
highlighted by the democratic legitimacy of the new political champions of development
– British, French and German heads of state. The legitimacy of WSF as the advocate of
the poor and marginalized is therefore at risk, raising doubts about its future.
Second challenge: The urgent need for concrete proposals
In its initiators’ conception, WSF was designed as an open space for dialogue that would
not seek to deliver a common action programme. The argument behind this conception
was that the diversity and heterogeneity of the participants would inevitably lead to a
minimalist agreement based on a lowest common denominator.
Today this position seems difficult to maintain for two main reasons. First, successive
annual gatherings of WSF inevitably lead to repetition of the same debates and
arguments. Could this be repeated endlessly year after year? Second, exchange and
reflection are generally followed by move to action – if WSF is unable to produce
concrete proposals, its call for another world will remain a mere utopia.
The fifth incarnation of WSF was facing a second threat: if no concrete proposals were
to emerge from this immense gathering of civil society organizations, it would be the
signal that WSF was running out of steam, adding to the uncertainty about its future.
Third challenge: The exercise of power
As Brazilian initiative, marked by a clear majority of Brazilians at 80%, any analysis of
WSF must consider the context of Lula’s presidency that started in October 2002. In the
past, Lula was featured as a key WSF figure associated with the social movements that
tried to formulate alternative policies to the liberal paradigm. In January 2003, three
weeks after being sworn in as President of Brazil, Lula received a triumphal welcome in
Two years later, the divorce between Lula and many WSF participants and former
supporters is serious. For them, the Brazilian leader has abandoned most of the WSF
social programme. Having encountered the realities of power, the spirit of WSF, once
incarnated by the Brazilian President, has seemingly vanished into an orthodox
budgetary policy approved by the IMF and the financial markets.
Lula’s ostensible pragmatism not only raises the question of betrayal of WSF’s call for
dramatically different policies. It also flags a third threat for WSF – marginalization. The
government’s actions have in fact gained the support of a growing majority of its citizens.
In December 2004, backed by a three-year low unemployment rate, the president’s
approval rate grew to an impressive 65.4% in a poll conducted by CNT/Sensus. If the
partnership between a successful, popular political leader and his former civil society
allies is weakened by the exercise of power, WSF could turn into a gathering of
marginalized radicals who are out of touch with reality and influentially impotent.
The triple success of Porto Alegre
First WSF success: the new legitimacy
WSF’s legitimacy was reinforced in 2005 by its unique representation of civil society and
its strong impact on the international agenda.
One can interpret the new Davos agenda as a WSF victory. If the exact impact of alter-
globalization movements is unclear, it seems safe to assume that their challenging
positions do indeed influence considerably, if not immediately, the international agenda.
This crucial role of civil society was highlighted in the Cardoso Report on UN-civil society
relations in June 2004: ―Nowadays, non-State actors are often prime movers — as with
issues of gender, climate change, debt, landmines and AIDS‖. It is striking that WEF has
brought development and poverty to its core agenda only four years after the creation of
WSF. Whereas WSF founders thought changing mentalities would take a generation,
the WEF conversion may well represent an early WSF success, reinforcing its
WSF’s legitimacy was also strengthened in 2005 thanks to its unique representation of
civil society. Civil society representation at WSF is original in its principles and salient in
First, WSF has managed to avoid the debatable issue of selection criteria for civil society
representation thanks to two bold organizational principles. WSF is a forum with no
selection of participants – the individual registration fee is also remarkably low at 4 USD
– and with complete openness to the external environment – no barrier, no ID check, no
Second, WSF 2005 strengthened its legitimacy as the world’s largest gathering of civil
society organizations. Legitimacy is not only a principle but also an exercise. This year
civil society participation in WSF has grown to an unprecedented level, both in numbers
(155,000 participants in 2005 versus 100,000 in 2004) and in geographical diversity
terms (135 countries represented, 500 African participants: a double record). The clear
participatory success of WSF 2005 has added to its legitimacy as the main
representation of civil society.
Second WSF success: its action-oriented role in launching world mobilization campaigns
Some initiatives appeared as a first attempt to formulate an action plan. But the launch
of world campaigns was the strongest sign that WSF was far from losing steam.
Two separate initiatives sought to refresh WSF and formulate concrete proposals. The
first was taken by 19 intellectuals, including Nobelists Jose Saramago and Adolfo Perez
Esquivel, through a text titled ―The Porto Alegre Manifesto: 12 proposals for another
possible world‖. This manifesto proposes concrete measures such as debt relief for poor
countries, international taxation on financial transactions, and dismantling of fiscal
paradises. But it only represents the position of its 19 signatories, who have not
associated themselves with WSF organizers.
Another initiative was the building of a ―wall of proposals‖ at the closing of WSF and the
collection of some 200 reflections from the workshops. Intended to change the
perception that WSF was incapable of coming up with concrete proposals, the initiative
was largely unsuccessful because many proposals were simply operationally deficient –
enhancing dialogue between generations, advocating military disobedience, building up
links between alter-globalization movements.
The strongest advocate of a vibrant, action-oriented WSF came with the launch of a
world campaign by an unprecedented coalition of CSOs in 2005. The campaign, dubbed
the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), calls on governments to commit to the
Millennium Declaration that 189 countries signed at the United Nations in New York in
September 2000. The Millennium Declaration includes 8 Millennium Development Goals
that have been commonly accepted as a framework for measuring development
progress and commits to halving extreme poverty by 2015. The GCAP campaigners
promised that GCAP would be the biggest ever mobilization against poverty. At WSF,
civil society promised to take action in 2005 because the year offers an historic
opportunity to act against poverty. Through both its pressure on governments during the
main international events – G8 in July, UN Summit in September, WTO meeting in
December – and its elaborate contributions in the development debate, civil society will
be playing a key role in forging the new priorities of the world.
In a parallel process, September 10 has been chosen as World Day of Mobilization
Against Poverty, which will include a call for radical reform of the UN. The gathering will
held to mount pressure on political leaders before their gathering in New York to review
progress made on the Millennium Development Goals and Millennium Declaration.
It would be foolish to underestimate the impact of such an appeal – in February 2003
civil society mobilized an estimated six to ten million people in 60 countries thanks to its
appeal against the war in Iraq. The role of WSF as a place where massive civil society
campaigns are launched has definitely turned it into an action-oriented gathering
prepared months in advance by CSOs in a process somewhat similar to high-level
summits where final decisions are taken and action plans are launched.
Third success of WSF: an amplified dialogue open to new voices
WSF 2005 has managed to avoid the threat of marginalization through a refreshed
dialogue with new actors.
Despite the strong, vocal opposition of some WSF participants to President Lula’s
governmental action, WSF actually accepted a tactical alliance with the Brazilian leader.
His support for the CSO campaign to act against poverty was sought and planned.
WSF’s civil society is actually pragmatic and understands that an alliance with political
leaders is crucial for reaching concrete goals.
Even if WSF initiators did not reach a consensus on the principle of dialogue with their
counterparts from WEF, the civil society of Porto Alegre has clearly built some bridges
with the world leaders of Davos. GCAP campaigners sent emissaries to gain support for
the campaign in Davos, and several key international NGOs sent their leaders.
For the first time at WSF, representatives from the World Bank and the IMF were invited
to participate in a debate with CSOs. The debate was challenging and intense, and even
if no clear answer was given for the rationale for liberalization and structural adjustment,
it allowed at least one conclusion – WSF 2005 is clearly far from marginalization.
Conclusion: the uncertainty of perpetual change
WSF 2005 has quashed skepticism and successfully outmaneuvered the triple threat of
lost legitimacy, exhaustion and marginalization. With its newly found legitimacy
reinforced by the unprecedented participation of civil society and the building of new
alliances on the international stage, WSF is armed to launch world a mobilization
campaign that may decisively influence the international agenda in 2005.
But WSF dynamism does lead to uncertainty about its future. Organizers plan to
decentralize WSF 2006 to three continents; Venezuela, Morocco and South Korea are
strong candidates. In making the voluntary choice to reach out to more of the world and
get closer to the field, the bold policy of perpetual change could lead to an outburst of
civil society at a time when its unity and strength are vital.
Emmanuel Bor, February 2005