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World Social Forum flies flag of hope

Minh Nguyen

This article appeared in the ACSJC's Justice Trends, no.112, March 2004.

THE annual global meeting of civil society known as the World Social Forum met in Mumbai (Bombay), India, in January, a massive gathering of about 80,000 participants representing 2,660 groups from 132 countries, including a Jesuit-led delegation of about 1,350.

The sheer magnitude and diversity of this meeting is a credit to the spirit and method of the WSF, which within the short four years of its life has become a global force against the worst excesses of economic globalisation.

Not only has the annual WSF event grown steadily, it has inspired numerous regional and local forums around the world, including local meetings in Australia, which gives rise to the claim that the WSF is indeed a "process" rather than an "event". There are few instances in recent history where such an initiative has developed at such speed and on such a scale.

The WSF originated as a reaction to the process of corporate-led globalisation and the realisation that the current socio-political world order, which prioritises the economy over the society, was neither desirable nor inevitable.

A new global consciousness, which celebrated the connectedness, diversity, creativity and unpredictability of the human person, was forming.

Within a few years, what was a fragmented and often destructive resistance to globalisation has become an accumulating productive search for alternatives. The WSF's slogan in India was "Another world is possible – let's build it!"

The popularity of the WSF has something to do with its core ethos but also its innovative organisational method. The WSF claims to be an "open space" for movements rather than a "movement of movements".

In theory and mostly in practice, the open space method is a self-organising model in which the people attending a particular meeting on the day define its agenda.

Chico Whitaker, one of the key architects of the WSF, compared the open space method to a city square that is visited by all those who find some interest in using it. The square has no purpose in itself except to provide the means for the realisation of different objectives by different interested groups.

At the WSF at any one time you would find hundreds of overlapping or competing events, including formal WSF-organised plenary sessions and conferences, self-organised workshops and seminars, cultural events, exhibitions and stalls, protest marches and performances, as well as informal gatherings on and off the venue.

It can also be a source of empowerment for many marginalised groups, as it was for the Dalits (the lowest Indian caste) and the indigenous Adivasis and Nagas groups at this year's meeting.

It titillates the mind how any order or outcomes could emerge from such a seemingly anarchical meeting, but outcomes have been the experience of the WSF and its regional counterparts.

One of notable recent achievement by individuals and groups participating in last year's WSF was the mobilisation of 10 million people worldwide in the historic February 14-16, 2003 global protests against the US' invasion of Iraq.

The WSF's spirit of inclusiveness and diversity – which stands in contrast to the universalist program implemented by today's agents of economic globalisation – is a model for the future and the centrepiece of the hope it offers for a fairer, just and plural world order.

Minh Nguyen is a researcher, Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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