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Quotes Related to Dialogue & Deliberation

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NCDD Commentary

Report from the World Social Forum 2004: A Celebration of Hope and An Alternative to “The New American Century”

Submitted by Lars Torres, Researcher at AmericaSpeaks, on January 25, 2004.

There is something refreshing about the world’s largest dialogue on globalization, and it is this: encounters with more than 100,000 people from around the world who believe deeply that “another world is possible.” This statement, the slogan of the World Social Forum since its inception, is a tacit recognition that the world would be better off pursuing a different path than the present neoliberal trajectory of globalization. Not something we encounter every day here in the United States, where we benefit disproportionately from the spoils of free trade, the international strength of the dollar, and a heavily militarized economy.

"Montpelier to Mumbai" trekkers on the "maidan" await opening ceremonies of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India.

I had the opportunity to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) and the Intercontinental Youth Camp (IYC) with an amazing delegation of 6 Vermont high school students from the Montpelier and Twinfield Union schools. Prior to attending the forum, students had been engaged in weekend “global issues workshops” where critical issues facing the world were raised for discussion. Nothing could have prepared us, however, for our encounters with the reality of day-today life on the streets of Mumbai, cross-cultural experiences at the IYC, and the breadth of issues covered in workshops, panel discussions, and plenary sessions at the Forum.

The World Social Forum was held at the vast complex of NESCO, a sprawling industrial site in the suburb of Goragaon, a thirty-minute train ride north of the city center. Forum activities were spread between five large warehouse-like meeting halls, more than four dozen “break out rooms” constructed of bamboo and heavy cloth (think “Monsoon Wedding”), an open air stage known as the “maidan” where the largest plenary sessions were held, and several smaller venues for cultural performances. While delegates likely found their first day spent orienteering, subsequent forays into the bowels of the NESCO complex became easier. Scattered in and among the buildings of WSF venue were also numerous food courts, where a variety of foods could be had, from local Punjabi fare (paneer, masala, and kourma) to Asian delicacies from Thailand, Korea and China.

On any given day there were more than 200 opportunities to engage scholars and activists in discussion on topics that ranged from the impact of militarization on women to Coca-Cola Corporation’s violation of basic water rights in India. Notable speakers at the Forum included Right Livelihood winner Vandana Shiva, Booker Prize winning novelist Arundhati Roy, Nobel Laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Shirin Ebadi, the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, that charismatic French farmer turned anti-globalization poster boy, Jose Bove and many others.

Children from Tibet sit during a silent vigil for cultural and political independence from China.

Among the presentations that had the greatest impact on the students I traveled with were discussions around the privatization of water, child trafficking, and homeless youth in India. Among the topics I found interesting were the debates on the cancellation of debt, youth employment, the affects of “communalism” on marginalized persons, as well as the privatization of water and land—especially as it impacts indigenous peoples and farmers. I think it is fair to say that all of us in attendance at the Forum were disappointed with the frequency of workshop cancellations: nothing was more frustrating than having spent a solid half-an-hour making one’s way through crowds, thick dust and the winter heat (about 90 degrees) to find the anticipated discussion either moved or simply not happening.

Perhaps more than the particular content of any single discussion, the lasting “take away” from the forum was a tremendous feeling of hope, a kind of yearly immunization against the threat of disillusion, disempowerment, even hopelessness that can come to activists who must stare the reality of globalization in the face. At a place like the World Social Forum one can come to believe again that human rights, a clean environment, the right to a dignified livelihood, education, and health care are things that people care earnestly about. Or at least care about more than the performance of their global fund.

Local activist's sign reads: "My pain is less as compared to my country's farmers. (World Bank Sufferers)"

This year’s World Social Forum was held in India’s financial capital, the city of Mumbai on the Arabian Sea. WSF04 marks the first time the massive “meet” has been held outside of its city of origin, Porto Alegre (Brasil), since the forum was begun in 2001. “India is the right place for the forum to go,” Ford Foundation Program Officer Lisa Jordan said recently in an interview, “It is time to reach out and move beyond the Latin American context. Arguably, the two greatest civil societies that all others can learn from are Brazil and India. They both have worldwide reputations. They are both tremendously vibrant, and rich in tradition, ethnicity, experience.”

WSF04 brought together more than 100,000 “delegates” from more than 132 countries, representing almost ten times as many civil society organizations operating around the world. Organized as a counterpoint to the spirit, purpose and proceedings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the World Social Forum is an open platform for the discussion and debate of issues related to globalization.

Speaking before the business and political leaders gathered at Davos during the same week the Mumbai forum closed, former United States President Bill Clinton said the opponents of globalization, "have got their criticism right... There are lots of wonderful people who are dealing with the rough edges of globalisation, but we do not have the systems the world needs to respond in a comprehensive way," he said, referring to delegates of the World Social Forum. Sergio Marchi, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, built on President Clinton’s remarks, describing the Bombay meeting as "a healthy development." Marchi added, "If we can have a civil discourse then I think it is very valuable, and ultimately I think there needs to be a convergence and an intersection between the two."

This year also marked, for the first time, the presence of a protest against the World Social Forum. Known as “Resistance Mumbai,” the alternative forum believes that the World Social Forum has moved to close to a position of accommodation with governments and multinational corporations driving globalization and that the global conference is not seeking to address fundamental problems. Those participating in MR would probably shy away from the kind of “convergence” seen by Marchi and others at Davos, which smacks of cooptation. According to Rona Wilson, one of the organizers of MR, the organizers of WSF " just want to put a safety valve here and there. And that means they are merely postponing a crisis to another point."

Despite their differences of opinion on the matter of “humanizing” vs. “smashing” globalization, delegates of both “meets” agreed on one thing: it is essential that the North and the South come together to chart a new development paradigm for the 21st century. All seem to agree that the values underpinning the present system of finance, production and trade is the antithesis of a human-centered, socially constructive ways of living. I hope that in future Forums we will see more young people and more Americans taking part, particularly as listeners in the struggle to make another world possible.

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The author is a Researcher with AmericaSpeaks, a not-for-profit that engages Americans in national governance. Learn more about the delegation of young Vermonters to the World Social Forum at: http://tagstudio.net/mumbai/mt

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