The third strand is that of parallel NGO forums to the large United Nations conferences of the 1990s (see Pianta 2001; Krut 1997). These meetings, dealing with the environment, human rights, gender and social policy and development issues, attracted an increasing number of professional NGOs, there to lobby governments, but also to network with each other. Ideologically, these NGO forums were not that much akin to the social forum phenomenon, but they created the habit amongst NGOs and wider civil society activists of going to broad-based international meetings, a function which the World Social Forum has to some extent taken over.

Origins and principles


Opposition to the World Economic Forum (WEF) was first expressed in a protest meeting and demonstration in Davos in January 1999. Members of Le Monde Diplomatique/ATTAC and the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) were among the participants. A year later, Brazilian social entrepreneur Oded Grajew (see Grenier 2004, 133-4) and director of the Brazilian Commission for Justice and Peace Francisco Whitaker met with the French ATTAC and Le Monde Diplo director Bernard Cassen to discuss the possibility of a larger alternative forum (Whitaker 2004a; Teivanen 2002). ‘Their discussion produced three central ideas for the forum. First of all, it should be held in the South, and more concretely in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Second, the name should be World Social Forum (WSF), changing only one key word from the adversary’s name. And third, it should be organised over the same dates as the WEF, partially because this symbolism was considered attractive for the media’ (Teivanen 2002: 623) Soon afterwards, the mayor of Porto Alegre and the governor of the state, Rio Grande do Sul, both belonging to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party), agreed to support the forum financially and logistically. The first WSF which took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, marked the beginning of the social forum phenomenon. It was the first global civil society event designed to take place in the South, with the express purpose of bringing together activists and global civil society organisations working on diverse issues, through diverse methods, within a format described as a social forum.

Before this, the Climate Justice Summit was held in 2000 in the Hague, paralleling the COP6 negotiations. It was attended by a delegation of Hispanic, black and indigenous leaders from the environmental justice movement in North America, who also held their own forum. They expressed scepticism about the technical nature of the UN negotiations and the role of corporate lobbyists and emission brokers therein, claiming:

In the end, the impetus will not likely come from within government. It is a sure bet not to come from the polluting industry. Climate justice will likely take root from meetings like the Climate Justice Summit where those most affected share their common experiences and decide to take collective action. Waiting for governments may be too deadly for communities of color and the planet. (Bullard 2000)

In the lead-up to the millennium, Kofi Annan floated a proposal to arrange a one-off assembly of civil society representatives to be organised by and held at the United Nations. But even this gesture proved to be too much for several influential governments evidently worried about any further erosion of their traditional roles as exclusive representatives of their citizenry. In the end, a stimulating set of civil society sessions was held at the same time as the Special Millennium Session of the General Assembly, but informally and not in the UN buildings.

Of course, among supporters of the UN there are also crucial divisions among liberals, Third World advocates, and radical transformers. The liberal position, typified by most national chapters of the United Nations Association, draws heavily on the leadership of internationally minded establishment figures, especially former diplomats, and seeks to reconcile an important role for the United Nations with a pragmatic understanding of world politics, which includes an acceptance of the special influence of leading states within and outside the organisation that trumps the sovereignty mantra of ‘the equality of states’. The Third World outlook, which may be grasped by reference to the activities and policy prescriptions of the Third World Network, pays less attention to the UN as a whole than to the policies and role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as well as to the development dialogue and debate about world economic policy that goes on within the General Assembly and elsewhere in the United Nations. And then there are radical peace groups, possibly best illustrated by Tavola Della Pace, which perceive the United Nations as currently dominated by geopolitics and the manipulations of Washington and Davos. Such groups seek to shift control over UN operations with respect to such issues as war and peace, self-determination (for the Palestinians, for example), and development from the dominant states to popular democratic forces and to the guidance of the rule of law and the dictates of global equity; just such a shift is the goal of their campaign provocatively called Reclaiming the United Nations. Tavola Della Pace also organised every second year in Perugia ‘A United Nations of the Peoples’ that gives voice to grass-roots views on global issues from NGO representatives and citizens from around the world, a contrasting atmosphere and agenda to the statist show put on at UN headquarters in New York City, or even Geneva.

The dates selected for the Venezuela meeting parallel those of the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) so as to prevent world leaders from marking the beginning of each year by dominating the media’s agenda with the unchallenged expression of their vision for the planet’s future. Past experience has shown that the simultaneity of these two events is an important asset. This had been acknowledged by Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the WEF who, addressing journalists in Buenos Aires on 21 March 2001 (two months after the first WSF), argued that the World Social Forum had affected the WEF’s reputation in a negative way: ‘Very smartly, place your name next to another, globally known one, and you become famous.’ In other words, Schwab’s statement was effectively saying, ‘Without Davos, nobody would have ever heard of Porto Alegre.’ While this claim is certainly exaggerated, one has to recognise that we have indeed been able to make the most out of the concurrence of these two events.

But the ideal has not only inspired cyberspace. The opening phrases of the World Social Forum Charter, now adopted by hundreds of regional, national and local social forums, could have been written by Habermas or Benhabib themselves. According to the Charter, a social forum ‘is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences’ etc. As the social forums chapter in Global Civil Society 2005/6 put it, they ‘give rise to uneven attempts to practise politics in horizontal, network-based ways that are meant to be more participatory and democratic than conventional structures’ (Glasius and Timms, 2006: 190). Six years on from the first World Social Forum, our data suggest that the majority of social forums tend to survive, and new ones continue to be founded. Deliberative democracy has flown off the pages of the theorists’ scholarly works and become a real-life aspiration for civil society activists.