by Larry Bridwell
American Reporter Correspondent
Porto Alegre, Brazil
January 30, 2003
WORLD'S ACTIVISTS SEND A MESSAGE TO THE ECONOMIC ELITE
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- "We need a new world economic order that distributes wealth more fairly so that impoverished countries have a chance of becoming less impoverished, so that African babies have the same right to eat as a blond, blue-eyed baby born in Scandinavia," Brazil's President Lula da Silva told tens of thousands of participants at the World Social Forum meeting in this southern port city last week.
The veteran labor leader, a former metalworker who has been president for less than a month, said he would fly to Davos, Switzerland, site of the World Economic Forum, to repeat to corporate and political leaders meeting there that globalization must serve not only the economic elite, but also the poor and workers of the developing world.
Elected in a landslide last October, President Lula, as he is universally known, has a unique opportunity to carry out the classic role of social activists - speaking truth to power.
The World Social Forum was launched in 2001 after two Brazilians and a Frenchman conceived the idea and won support from Lula's Workers Party to provide an alternative to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. The intent was to showcase issues affecting developing countries and attract some of the media attention which each January focuses on the world's powerful economic leaders gathered in Davos.
This third World Social Forum, held January 23-28, marks a dramatic turning point in the effort to energize and unite social activist movements around the world. The recent election of Lula infused the conference with an optimistic spirit that leftist reformers could be elected to important political offices and initiate programs that expand opportunities for the working class.
The Forum has the potential to be an activist event on the scale of the Olympics where delegates representing all the continents can meet to advance a reform agenda for the world. Lula's flying from Brazil to Switzerland can be viewed as the 21st Century global equivalent of the dialectic process. He represents the working class of the developing world, many of whom slept in tents in Porto Alegre, challenging the rich capitalists ensconced in luxurious Davos.
But beyond the dramatic juxtaposition of these two major forums, there is an important historical dimension to this year's Porto Alegre meeting. Roberto Savio, founder of the international news agency Inter Press Service and member of the WSF International Council, argues that there are two generations of social activists. One is associated with the 1960's and its movements for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and for woman rights. This generation focused on changing laws of individual nation states.
The 1980's saw a new generation of social activists who pursued new areas such as environmentalism and who launched a large number of non-governmental organizations frequently on an international scale but oriented to narrower issues, e.g., Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, Medicine without Frontiers. In countries with authoritarian governments, activists encouraged the development of civil society. Perhaps the most significant was Solidarity in Poland which combined progressive intellectuals inside the Catholic Church with labor leaders.
Also associated with this second generation of activists were United Nations world conferences ranging from the Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993 and the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994 to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. But most of these meetings were single events with little continuity.
The Porto Alegre forums have brought together in one place the two generations of social activists and have facilitated the development of alliances across disparate issues on an annual basis.
Porto Alegre also has another underappreciated dimension. Fighting for reform is often difficult and arduous. Porto Alegre is infused with an enthusiastic spirit of celebration encompassing music, dancing, demonstrations, pamphlets, art and merchandise from all over the world. The mixture of college students and people of all ages had a rare magnetic appeal.
The World Social Forum - well-run and committed to be held in a developing country - promises its participants an annual renewal of inspiration and morale. The theme of this year's conference, "another world is possible," will come nearer to reality if, every January, social activists around the world meet to plan to make globalization a positive force for humanity.
This yearly focus on new strategies could offer a dazzling, exciting alternative to the predictable proclamations of the economic elite in Davos.
Larry Bridwell is a professor of International Business at Pace University in New York.