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.

 
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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.

 
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The first section of this chapter will examine the political and philosophical origins of social forums, and the distinctive principles associated with them. In the next section, we will describe what is actually happening: the people and activities involved at the world, regional, national, and local levels. The third section will discuss the major issues and themes on which social forums focus, and how these have been evolving. In the fourth section we aim to draw out the areas of tension and the failures of social forums, including ideological clashes and organisational challenges encountered in putting the social forum principles into practice. In concluding we examine the implications of the experiences of social forums for global civil society, and look to what their future role could be.

 

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Origins and principles

Origins

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.

 
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But the forum, of course, has further antecedents. At least four interrelated strands can be detected. The first goes back at least to the 1970s, although it could be dated back further, to national anti-colonial struggles. It is connected to the idea of the New International Economic Order, which sought to give Third World governments more say in global affairs, and in the management of their own economy. This strand of activism is associated with anti-imperialism (taking the empire to be the West, and more specifically the United States), state socialism, and national solutions to economic problems.

 

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The second strand is that of communist and socialist party activism of all stripes: Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, Guevarist, Sandinista, social-democratic etc. To the extent that they have survived the end of the Cold War, parties have been a surprisingly large presence, and sometimes a source of tension, at the social forums.

 
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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.

 
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