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.

Countless articles are available on different aspects of social forums, especially on-line, but increasingly also in academic publications. Most, however, are based on personal experiences, and most focus on the global and regional level. We, too, of course draw on personal experiences, but in addition we have mapped and analysed global, regional, thematic, national and local social forums, done a content analysis of World Social Forum programmes and selected regional, national and local Social Forum programmes, and pulled together other current research. We aim to provide a helicopter view of social forums, as well as a critical analysis of their functions for global civil society, and the tensions inherent in or attendant on this form of organising.

One of the most striking ways in which global civil society activists have responded to globalisation in recent years is through the organisation of social forums. Although the term ‘social forum’ is in reality adopted by very diverse groups, a social forum can be understood as a space that facilitates people coming together, either in person or virtually, to engage with each other on political issues. Local, national, regional, thematic and global social forums have mushroomed in the last few years, inspired, either directly or indirectly, by the World Social Forum (WSF) and its Charter of Principles.

New departures

New forums

The World Social Forum (WSF) has in recent years become a place of convergence and crossover between different types of global civil society activists (Glasius and Timms 2005). As described above, the early social justice movement may have distrusted the human rights paradigm, and made no use of the economic and social rights frame. This has definitely begun to change with the spread of the social forums. The 2005 WSF made human rights one of its 11 themes, and about one third of the events held in the human rights space concerned economic and social rights-related themes (Forum Social Mundial 2005). Still, the evidence of a convergence between human rights activists and the social justice movement around economic and social rights remains somewhat mixed. Many social justice activists continue to make no reference to economic and social rights, speaking more broadly of justice and equality versus the criminality, greed and destructiveness of the neo-liberal paradigm instead. Even when they do, their concerns and approaches and those of the human rights community sometimes remain completely separate.

A recursive process of state co-optation accompanied by successive waves of anti-institutionalism within civil society continues unabated. Anti-globalisation was succeeded by the positive programmes of the World Social Forums with commitment to non-violence (see Glasius and Timms 2005). Geoffrey Pleyers shows (Box I.2) how resistance to being institutionalised in civil society has led others to adopt the ‘alter-global’ quest for a ‘new culture of politics’, escaping the oxymoron of ‘organising worldwide to defeat globalization’. Backlash against global civil society comes then from two opposite corners: from states and from those seeking radical alternatives to institutionalisation.

The outsiders cohere

If these are some of the conflicts and divisions that characterise those groups closely involved in tracking and seeking to shape the negotiations, another set of groups approach the issue from a very different angle. Their focus is on the relationship between rights, environmental injustice and climate inequality. These links are manifested in the relationship between climate change and the struggles around environmental racism pursued by broader social movements such as the environmental justice movement and the anti-globalisation movement. Destruction of the world’s climate increasingly features in broader critiques of neo-liberalism, testimony for which is the profile the issue has received in European and World Social Forums.

The huge success and impact of advocacy and campaigning, and the exercise of communicative power by celebrities and public figures, has been acknowledged above. The social movements that were earlier the principal sources of public pressure for greater attention to be paid to debt, global inequality, poverty and the environment, have been supplanted by a set of new players who are better equipped to exercise communicative power in the twenty-first century. The anti-globalisation protests of Seattle in 1999, the World Social Forums and the many other examples of global civil society action, which have been explored in the Global Civil Society Yearbook series, are now subsidiary sources of global action.

In sending countries, there are migrants’ rights groups that fall into the Reformers category as well. Brazil’s Servico Pastoral dos Migrantes (SPM URL) holds an annual forum, as part of the Bishops’ National Conference, to promote respect for migrants’ rights and raise awareness about the challenges they face. At a social forum on migration held in January 2005, a few days before the fifth World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, 600 participants from 35 countries discussed the notion of ‘universal citizenship’ and how migrants might use it to stand up for their rights (SPM 2005).

Their objective was to provide a first answer to widespread aspirations that, if not taken into account, will progressively empty the WSFs of their most active members. One must be aware that this process has already begun, at both the European and the global levels, where several organisations feel that they are wasting their time and limited financial resources in repetitive discussions. Activists are no longer satisfied with mere debate. They want to move on to action in order to change the world, with a certain number of shared objectives. The body of proposals resulting from past Forums is extensive enough to draft largely consensual platforms and challenge political parties, governments and multilateral organisations. While this first Manifesto is not frozen, and remains open to amendments, it does represent a starting point.

The decision not to hold a full-scale WSF annual meeting in 2006 is not only due to the need to allow Africa to prepare itself to host it in 2007. It has also to do with the fact that, even though it has been partly revamped in 2005 at Porto Alegre, notably by taking the demands and priorities of social grass-roots movements more into account when drafting the programme, the original format inaugurated in 2001 has somewhat run out of steam. The question constantly asked by delegates and observers is: what are the main conclusions of these global or European meetings, and what can they lead to in concrete terms? Several possible and different indicators can be used to measure the success they have had so far.

Bernard Cassen

Unlike with the four editions held in Porto Alegre, Brazil and the 2004 sessions in Mumbai, India, the World Social Forum will not convene in a single annual meeting in 2006. While a sixth annual Forum will be held in Africa in 2007, the WSF International Council unanimously agreed to hold meetings in several countries in 2006. Such gatherings will fit into the broader framework of a ‘Polycentric World Social Forum’. The most important one will be held in Caracas, 24–29 January. This event will also serve as the second edition of the Social Forum of the Americas.


The WSF is a power space. The opposite claim – that the WSF is a totally open space, with no centre and no hierarchies, and potentially all-inclusive (within the limits set by the Charter of Principles) – seems be a bit far-fetched. It is true that many of the concrete limits of inclusion are not the responsibility of the organisers. Nonetheless, crucial organisational options are decided by the IS and by the IC, and they condition the types of events that will take place, the themes that will be discussed and the ambit of the discussion. It is, therefore, wise to recognise the existence of power relations and submit them to the same criteria we want to see applied in society at large: transparency in the operation of such relations and their submission to the mechanisms of participatory democracy. Herein lies the new strength of the WSF, a strength that is necessary to confront the new challenges as the WSF moves to ever more efficient ways of making the world less and less comfortable for neoliberal globalisation, that is, for global capitalism as we know it.

To manifest or not to manifest?

The idea of drafting a document that would synthesise the major points of agreement among the movements and NGOs participating in the WSF dates back to the second edition of the WSF, in 2002. Impressed by the enthusiasm with which so many organisations across the world responded to the call of the WSF and the atmosphere of general consensus on major global issues expressed in so many meetings convened by so many different organisations, some intellectual-activists started discussing the idea of putting together the main points of agreement in a document. The document would have the twofold purpose of providing the participants with an overview of the diversity of the WSF and showing to the outside world that such diversity was neither chaotic nor devoid of concrete orientations for collective global action. The success of the third WSF (2003) was interpreted as providing further justification for the idea of a document in light of the immense range of topics discussed and the generalised view that the lively debates were not being used to generate concrete proposals for action against neoliberal globalisation. In the WSF held in Mumbai, Bernard Cassen, founder of ATTAC, was particularly insistent on the idea that the growing strength of the WSF demanded that the alternative provided by the WSF to the World Economic Forum of Davos be sharpened and made visible worldwide. If the WEF had been for many years the think tank of hegemonic globalisation and the legitimating amplifier for the Washington Consensus, the WSF should present itself to the world as being the major manifestation of a counter-hegemonic globalisation and the bearer of an alternative global consensus, the Consensus of Porto Alegre. How to accomplish this, having in mind the informal and horizontal structure of the WSF and the terms of the Charter of Principles? The idea of a manifesto of the WSF was ruled out by the Charter. The Charter, however, did not prevent the participants from drafting manifestos and from presenting them as expressing the political will of the signers. The political weight of the manifesto would depend on the number of participants willing to sign it. The Manifesto was finally drafted during the fifth WSF, signed by 19 well-known participants, and presented to the media outside the World Social Territory (the grounds where the WSF was convened) as a document opened to the subscription of all participants in the WSF. The focus of the document was on concrete proposals, ‘twelve proposals for another possible world’.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos


In order to understand the debates that take place within the World Social Forum (WSF), it is necessary to analyse the ways in which at the beginning of the twenty-first century utopian thinking interacts with political activism. In my conception, ‘utopia’ means exploring new modes of human possibility and styles of will, and using the imagination to confront the apparent inevitability of whatever exists with something radically better that is worth fighting for, and to which humankind is fully entitled (see Santos 1995: 479). The conceptions of and aspirations to a better life and society, ever present in human history, vary in their form and content over time and space. They express the tendencies and latencies of a given epoch and a given society. They constitute an anticipatory consciousness that manifests itself by enlarging the signs or traces of emerging realities.

The system would function independently of the Forum events, but would be interconnected with them because the Forums would figure as special opportunities for in-person encounters and for furthering understanding and action, and thus would foster quality leaps in the effectiveness of any action proposed. Set free of the events themselves, the World Social Forum process would advance much more quickly in building an ever larger number of local, national, regional and world networks, thus empowering global civil society to achieve concrete objectives in changing the world.

In practice, some of the groups organising Forums do treat the Charter more flexibly, without much concern for the consequences. Only the World Forums held so far have strictly abided by the Charter of Principles; the same cannot be said of all the regional, national or local forums. There are cases, for example, of forums that have ended with final documents, been presented as organisations, and had spokespeople or coordinators. Others are not really ‘open spaces’ but rather events taken over by particular political forces. Others are organised from the top down only, as if they were seminars. One of the most flagrant cases of breach of the Charter had to do precisely with party and government participation. According to the reports of participants, the Socialist Workers’ Party and Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, played central roles in the organisation of the European Social Forum held in London in March 2005.

Like a square, the Forum is an open space, as specified in the Charter of Principles. But unlike a public square it is not a neutral space. The Forum opens up from time to time in different parts of the world with one key objective: to allow as many people, organisations and movements as possible that oppose neo-liberalism to get together freely, listen to each other, to learn from the experiences and struggles of others, to discuss proposals for action and to become linked to new networks and organisations that aim to challenge the present process of globalisation dominated by large international corporations and financial interests. Thus, it is a space created to serve the common aim of all those who converge on the Forum, and it functions horizontally like a public square, without leaders or pyramids of power. All those who come to the Forum accept this, and participants are therefore required to agree to abide by the Charter of Principles.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the success of these demonstrations, some would have preferred to mobilise through a call from the Forum as a way of introducing and reinforcing the forums as a new political actor, with its own initiatives. This points to an important, and perhaps the main, question about the nature of the Forum that is continuously debated: is it a space or a movement? How we answer this question will determine the organisation and process of the forums, as well as their future. I have discussed previously, in an article that appears in several publications, why the ‘space’ conception is preferable to that of a movement, and how some were trying to imbue the Forum with the characteristics of a movement.

The Forum’s Charter of Principles

Immediately following the success of the first Forum, its organisers drafted a Charter of Principles (WSF 2001; see also Box 6.1), explicitly adopting horizontal relationships. Believing that these relationships were the key to the success of the first Forum, the organisers wanted to ensure that such experimentation would continue and be extended to other events held at the world or the regional level. The Charter embodies a set of guidelines completely at variance with current political practices, such as not drawing up final documents at the forums, guaranteeing that participants would be completely at liberty to organise their own activities at these events, pledging that the organisers would not direct such activities or any collaboration among them, and not designating spokespeople or representatives of the Forum.

Chico Whitaker


Where does the World Social Forum (WSF URL) process stand today? After the success of the 2005 event, which drew 150,000 participants to Porto Alegre, many of those engaged in organising forums are worried. Where is this process heading? What is the WSF actually intended to achieve? How effective is it in promoting the necessary political changes? Is it running out of steam? Is it not at risk of causing a great deal of frustration – with all the accompanying ill effects – by announcing that ‘Another World Is Possible’ and thus raising expectations that are difficult to meet given the resurgence of wars and terrorism and the increasingly visible likelihood of irreversible ecological disasters?

This chapter seeks to portray different perspectives on the nature, evolution and future of the World Social Forum. We invited contributions from three people who have played a significant role in the origins and development of the World Social Forum. Their contributions are timely: the Porto Alegre Manifesto, a platform of proposals launched at the 5thh World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005, sparked a debate that we would like to continue in the Global Civil Society Yearbook. Key issues include the appropriateness of such a manifesto and its implications for the nature of the World Social Forum, including, for example, the discussion about whether it is a space for debate or a campaigning movement.

Glasius and Timms, in their chapter on social forums, come to rather different conclusions. The decision to hold the first World Social Forum in Brazil (albeit in the relatively wealthy south of the country) was a conscious attempt to get away from the self-reinforcing dynamic described by Katz and Anheier. Social forums have since organised primarily around a South-American/European axis, more recently and more problematically also including the Indian subcontinent and Africa (see Glasius and Timms, Chapter 6). Europe is undoubtedly still over-represented, but social forum organisation in North America is very weak. But beyond the geography of the social forums, the most important thing about them from a global civil society infrastructure perspective is the way they have focused on horizontal networking across cultures and issues, and experimenting with participatory forms of organising, as values in themselves.

At the World Social Forum, where the interest in international institutions has steadily risen (see Marlies Glasius and Jill Timms, Chapter 6), the 2005 seminars on UN reform have generated a network backed by 140 organisations and a host of global celebrities. An appeal, again in the name of ‘we the people’, calls for ‘a constituent process involving all possible actors in civil society, local authorities and parliaments. Priority must be given to ensure due representation of region, race, class, gender and all social pluralities in this process’. A ‘Global Day of Mobilisation For a New World Order Against Poverty, War and Unilateralism’ has been proclaimed for 10 September (September 10 url). But the details of the proposed reforms are not (yet?) worked out.