Current conflicts

Just as in the international negotiations themselves, so too within civil society there is significant debate and friction regarding the role of developing countries and, more specifically, the issue of whether and at what point they should assume emission reduction commitments. Conflict over this issue of commitments transgresses the North-South divide, with the G8 Climate Action Group opposing developing country commitments at this stage, while more conservative environmental groups are pushing for commitments from developing countries on the basis that this is increasingly a pre-requisite for US (re)-engagement with the Kyoto regime.

The Role of Civil Society: UN reform or human development?

In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their limited energies and even more limited resources to this debate on UN reform or concentrate most of their efforts on grass-roots contributions to human betterment. This is an old debate that revives the view that civil society undertaking to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission had led nowhere, and were largely ignored within the United Nations itself (Commission on Global Governance 1995). In contrast, the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, essentially a civil society initiative although with ties to states, adopted an approach to humanitarian intervention that has now been taken over by the official bodies developing reform initiatives within the United Nations (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to discourses on ‘global governance’ (examples include Falk 1995; Anne-Marie Slaughter 2004; Amitai Etzioni 2004; David Held 1995). It is notable and appropriate that Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead chapter a contribution by Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff that counsels international NGOs to give up the pretensions associated with claiming the existence of ‘global civil society’ and stop trying to play a role in the construction of global governance. In their words:

. . . international NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world—indeed, devote fewer of their resources to advocacy and more time and care to the actual needs of their actual constituencies, and re-establish their claims of expertise and competence. (Anderson and Rieff 2005: 36)

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.

Some thoughts on the World Social Forum itself

A collective effort to think about the role and the nature of the Forum began in October 2002, when an e-mail discussion list titled ‘WSFitself’ was formed. This was proposed by Brazilian and French participants who, after the success of the second Forum, foresaw the likelihood of growth and felt the need to clarify the meaning of the whole endeavour. At the 2003 Forum that discussion list gave rise to a workshop on proposed innovations in the form and principles underlying its organisation. In 2004, at the Mumbai WSF two significant events took place: a seminar on the subject ‘Forum: open space?’ and a plenary on the future of the WSF. Mumbai also saw the release of an anthology of essays on the World Social Forum as a challenge to the Empires (Sen et al. 2004). Also in 2005, a number of activities addressed this issue from various perspectives and at least two books discussing the Forum were published (Santos 2004; Whitaker 2005).