| français | Español |


The World Social Forum Process after Mumbai

Since 2001, the World Social Forum offers a unique platform for the expression of groups and networks active in the fight against or in concrete alternatives to neoliberal globalization. The Forum has emerged as a new type of event, which respects diversity under certain principles including non-violence and the absence of political groups. Social forums, as opposed to official conferences, don’t aim to reach consensus on a general declaration, or on an action plan.

They are best described as "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Mankind and between it and the Earth." Since the writing of the Charter of Principles, from which these words are taken, and its adoption in June 2001, the World Social Forum has the ambition to be not just an event localized in time and place, but "a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives".

The first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre proved to be exhilarating and relatively disorganized, the dominant voice was clearly that of protest against neo-liberalism. Its main achievement was to make a case against the Davos Forum that “another world is possible”. It struggled at first with constructive debate, but they got gradually more important during the following editions. It also became more evident that it was difficult for any single individual to get a global view of the world social forum. So many networks where participating, so many issues where discussed, and experiences and practices told, that one had to choose.

It also became evident with the third World Social Forum in 2003, as the process had brought 100,000 people in Porto Alegre that its growth accounted for a geographic spreading of the Forum, no single place being able to contain everybody, and for different levels of participation : some people where content to listen to anti- or soon alter-globalization stars, others where involved with their networks in workshops and seminars, which could be opportunities for denunciation, or for building common ground for action, many would also participate individually to workshops where they could simply discuss with other delegates, while young people at the Youth Camp, in numbers that gave nightmares to security services, but well self-organized, would have their own events, near the tents where they slept.

In the meantime, the process had spread at continental, national and even local levels. Hundreds of cities or regions have had their local social forums, all continents (except Oceania) hold an annual event, and other forums are called "thematic forums". But some networks leaders, civil society celebrities, and simple participants concerned by the building of a process able to challenge corporate globalization began to realize that the growth of the World Social Forum presented a set of contradictions limiting its efficiency as a tool for this process. The most urgent challenge seemed to "globalize the world social forum" by moving out of Brazil to another part of the developing world, in order to ensure a wider participations of delegates from other countries and socio-cultural contexts.

The World Social Forum in Mumbai was a successful answer to this challenge. Even though it was prepared with 3 to 4 times less funding than in Porto Alegre, its organization was at the same level as other editions, and the participation from Asian groups was massive, from India to Nepal, Japan and Korea. This World Social Forum definitely had a different taste than the previous, more Asian, but also more popular than the previous.

Big conferences and seminars where held successfully, but where not necessarily the highlight of the event for many participants. For many of the delegates from discriminated groups, dahlits (untouchables), ethnic minorities or transvestites, it was as important to show their presence through demonstrations in the alleys of the place where the WSF was held than to organize a big seminar. There was also 5 000 registered theater groups, giving short plays on small or wider stages installed for the first time by the WSF. Many of those plays illustrated in Hindi or other Asian languages the situation and problems faced by the participants in society.

Once more the opposition to war, emerging as the current trend of imperialism, was the most obvious consensus emerging from the WSF. So far, however, the social forums haven’t succeeded in building consensus and strong visibility for other issues, and even less an ongoing process of reflection and action on the issues debated to shortly during the events. For many of the participants strongly involved in the process, the preparation of the next social forum, be it through the meetings of the International Committee, for those who are members, or within their own group, is done at a pace that doesn’t allow for proper exchange and more focused intermediary meetings with other groups sharing the same issues or philosophy.

To be a showcase and a place of debate for alternatives, the World Social Forum would simply need to give time for those alternatives to express themselves in more specific meetings. Knitting them together to draw a global alternative is also a complex and organic task, which needs more ongoing interaction between groups, movements and networks, and which is hardly taking place, 4 years after the demonstration that for many of us "Another World is Possible".

In my opinion, this type of interaction is a process that is hardly beginning, and that would be a priority to develop. In order to do so, we need several ingredients :

- To show that we can express on an everyday basis a new culture of tolerance and cooperation. No one has the complete answer to the current problems, be they social, ecological, economic or cultural. There is no unique answer as well. We can only build what I would call a "cloud of solutions" or if you prefer a common horizon, together.

- To start using new techniques of remote debate, in order to be able to discuss those issues will continuing our day-to-day action. It is essential not to separate reflexion from action. Those who debate and think must also act, or must have a mandate from and the trust of those who act.

- To make visible emerging consensus within the alter-globalization movement. Beyond the refusal of war and neo-liberal policies, the principle of food sovereignty and the need to reinforce global public goods seem to be two examples of consensus which haven’t been publicized or debated enough, beyond the groups who work continuously on those issues.

- To identify strategic leverage points for change and bifurcation from the current paths humanity is following, which are, most of them, unsustainable.

- At a later stage, this world process should be mature enough to build action plans which respect diversity, but maximize the effects of complementarities between practices and take into account emerging practices and principles, as well as the identification of leverage points.


The author has participated to all World Social Forums and European Social Forums since 2001.
He produced a documentary on the first World Social Forum (“Another World is Possible”, 28”, French and Portuguese, 2001), organized the panel and workshops on Fair Trade and Ethical Consumption at World Social Forum 2003, three seminars and workshops on Fair Trade at the World Social Forum 2004. He is part of the Workgroup on a Solidarity Socio-Economy of the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World, one of the major networks participating at the Social Forums, since 1999.



The author is the 3rd person from the left. The documents section gives a report of the round-table organized.



The Allies at the FSM
The World Social Forum

Further reading:


Pierre William Johnson
Socio-économiste, participe à Caravane et à (...)
+ 3 article(s)

Themes involved

-Social Forums
-World news
-Think tank

1999-2009 Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World Legal Notices RSS Keeping in touch with the Web site