WSF International Council Meeting, Montreal October 2009

I attended hte Ic meeting as a representative of Network Institute of Global Democratization, Finland. What follows are my report of the activities of the meeting and some reflections.

The first day of the International Council (IC) meeting focused on crucial issues of democratic import. How to evaluate the work of the Liaison Group (LG) and how to set in place a process to replace, as originally agreed, some of its members. Such task was set originally as a concrete assurance to those who were concerned with the possible (or indeed inevitable) concentration of power in such group. Today these preoccupations were renewed and the members received clear reassurances on the commitment of the LG and its members to the values of the IC. The next crucial issues was how to replace some of the members to generate the renewal desired and to allow an influx of new energies and experiences. A proposal encountered the favour of the members: a Working Group would be set in place that would establish the Terms of Reference of such new process. This working group will be constituted by 2 current LG members and three new IC members. The group will report before the end of the meeting on the outcome of its preliminary work.

The afternoon session focused on the conjuncture. In break out groups for anglophones, francophones and portunholophones (due to translator’s constraints) some 20 to 30 members per group discussed the current development of the global crises. After an hour of work the groups returned to the plenary session were they reported back and a joint debate followed. As in Rabat, at the previous IC meeting, the members broadly converged on an assessment that defined the crisis as an accumulation of interrelated crises that showed its structural and systemic nature. The general crisis of capitalism shows its multifaceted aspects as a crisis of values, civilisation, finance, economy, culture and most importantly environment. On this latest point the convergence seemed general that this crisis deserves the utmost attention and indeed incisive action. If capitalist crises are recurrent and their effects are forgotten too soon indeed, the environmental devastation caused by the current lifestyle of a minority of the planet’s inhabitants is generating irreversible consequences which may soon enough compromise the same ability of humankind (and not only) to survive. A loud cry was raised by the IC members to stop considering the environment only a sectoral struggle engaged by the environmental activists and movements and indeed consider it our common struggle for survival as humans.

But something new was to be clearly perceived in the mood of the conversation, something indeed in stark contrast with the mood in the previous meeting. If in Rabat the general mood was hopeful and charged with expectation for the opportunity that the crisis offered to the world activists to highlight the failures of capitalism and propose a way ahead to building another world, in Montreal many articulated analysis inspired by a more somber mood. The perception was that the window of opportunity that had presented itself from September 2008 is quickly closing and the activists might have lost their chance to generate a substantial momentum for change. Capitalism once more is bouncing back and the main ‘talk in town’ is that of recovery and of the end of the crisis. A comparison was drawn between the atmosphere of the G20 meeting in London and the recent almost self-celebratory for the brilliant response provided to the crisis by the world leaders of the G20 in Pittsburgh.

Why did the activists of the world movements and of the WSF IC lose the opportunity to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the global crisis? No words were spared on the analysis of the possible reasons but a degree of convergence was rather soon generated. The global crisis is consequence of and has in turn consolidated a systemic crisis of the global left. In the first instance the global left has allowed capitalism to go unchallenged while implementing the policies that generated the conditions for the current crisis and after the crisis exploded was not able to incisively lead the way for change. This crisis is so deep and structural that it has involved the same WSF, inducing its IC members to questioning its role and its current nature and possibilities to influence change. A common voice responded to this painful cry that this analysis only depicts one aspect of the crisis of alternatives. The WSF indeed has produced, generated, incubated thousands of alternatives, it is indeed been a constant generator of viable alternatives, but the movements that were supposed to implement those alternatives have failed in their ultimate task to promote that change. If a crisis exited it was not to be considered a crisis of the WSF but a crisis of the movements that converge in its space.

What has the forum and it’s IC not done or done wrong to contribute as some said to the crisis by not opposing neoliberalism in as a strong way as it could have? The all time favourite debate in the WSF was articulated once more around this crucial question with some members suggesting that the main responsibility of the WSF is to be flexible and able to respond to the needs of the movements which in the current conjuncture is one of leadership. The WSF needs to evolve from its open space identity, in which no representation and no direct involvement in social change process is sought for, towards becoming a more assertive actor in the global dynamics of resistance to capitalism and for change.

The morning session of the second day was dedicated to list the events that will constitute the 2010 year of activities around the world. Among them the celebration for the 10th anniversary of the WSF in Porto Alegre at the end of January, a social movement challenge launched recently in Quito to the Global City Forum organised by UN Habitat in Rio de Janeiro in March, the Unites States SF in June in Detroit, followed shortly after by the ESF in Istanbul, the Forum de las Americas in Asuncion, Paraguay in August, the Iraqi Social Forum in November just to mention a few. Due to the extension of the list and the possibility that this list is later updated with dozen more events, it was debated to what extent the WSF can associate itself with all the events who claim to be a social forum. What, it was wondered, can the IC do to ensure that those events take place in coherence with the spirit of the WSF rather than getting unduly legitimation by the WSF endorsement? It was agreed after a brief conversation that a strict adherence to the Charter of Principles will be necessary and the practice of the open space philosophy.

Following, the conversation moved towards another crucial issue of the agenda, earlier introduced in Rabat and now further developed. What can the IC do to ensure some degree of continuity or indeed unity among all the events that will bear the WSF torch around the world in 2010. Indeed the metaphor of the Olympic torch was used and a common slogan and a common logo are to be developed soon towards this aim. Small groups of around eight to ten people worked to draft proposal for possible slogans. A degree of convergence was discovered on returning to the plenary on the spirit of urgency that the slogan should communicate. Examples are Let’s build another world now! Or Together for another world now! The principle of plurality has been remarked once more to avoid suggesting that this process should lead towards a global campaign but to a multiplication of existing or new campaigns in the spirit of the WSF.

In the afternoon of the second day Taoufik ben Abdallah presented in detail the current work of the African and Senegalese organising committee for Dakar 2011 and while sharing the excitement of all involved it also did not hide the enormous challenges, financial and human that such an endeavour implies. However he confirmed the support of the Senegalese government and that of some old donors of the WSF. Moreover, he stressed vigorously that a fundamental novelty introduced by the Dakar forum will be the aggressive fundraising strategy aimed at raising internal resources inn Senegal and Africa to consolidate the ownership on the forum. This however has to be considered a fully World SF rather than an African Social Forum. All partners and all members of the IC should consider themselves at home in the whole organising process. He added also some remarks on the extent to which the whole year 2010 will be considered by the organising committee a long mobilizing march towards Dakar 2011. This process will be launched later this year with a seminar in Dakar to which all IC members will be invited and where the inclusive mobilization strategy will be highlighted by the participation of important social movements from Senegal and wide range of partners from the whole continent, old and new members of the WSF African Council. This seminar will also give all the opportunity not only to meet and design articulations for the year to come but also to imagine a shared strategy on presenting the Dakar 2011 strategy to respond to the crisis and develop alternatives from the vantage point of West Africa.

Questions were asked from the floor which echoed the congratulations for the work already done and the wishes and promises of support for the hard work ahead. What would be the relationship between NGOs and social movements and will there be a strong prevalence of the formed as was the case in Nairobi? What will be the role of culture in the event? Will it be possible to maintain the WSF devoid of multinational corporation encroachment? Will the Dakar forum be fully designed for self-organised events or are the organisers thinking of setting up special events and what would be the way to contribute to the organisation of such events? What are the expected numbers in the forecast of the organising committee? What would be the articulation between IC commissions and functional groups in organising committee? Would we have the chance as IC to reflect on the fundamental role of migrations in the world today from the West African crossroads of important fluxes of migrants? The members of the African process for Dakar, responded to the questions reassuring that the organisation will be conducted in full respect of the principles of the WSF Charter and that the lesson learnt in Nairobi will become a solid foundation on which to bring the new forum. For other more specific issues the IC members were invited to actively contribute to shaping the answers by participating in the efforts starting from the Dakar forum in a month time which will officially launch the true organisational process.

The first half of the third day was dedicated to the work of the IC Commissions: Strategy, Resources, Communication, Methodology and Expansion. In the first and longest session of the afternoon choral reports were made by members of each commission.

The Communication committee presented first. Due to the intensity of the conversation that had touched on issues not immediately related to the task at hand (designing a communication plan for the 2010 year of forums and for the mobilisation towards Dakar) the commission could not complete its work and will meet again in the night. However the presentation touched on crucial issues of communication in the forum and with the outside and on the substantial issue of difference between information work, with mainstream or alternative media, and the communication that best embodies the values of the WSF. It was indeed clear in the presentations made by several members of the group that substantial ground had been covered on issues of interpersonal relations in the commission’s open space, on efficiency and productivity versus faithfulness to the values embraced by its members, on the nature of communication and its impact on the overall methodology of the WSF year-long 2010 process and beyond, the role of facilitators and contributors both directly involved in the work of the group or from a wider territory of potential contributors to its work, and on further issues of such import.

Next presented the Resource Commission. The spokesperson of the group updated the plenary on the finances of the forum and their allocation for the year to come but most importantly it invited all to reflect on the fundamental constraints that the forum has to be ready to face in the years to come. These constraints are due to donor fatigue and to the considerable loss in the value of their endowments that the foundations of Europe and America have to face as a consequence of the crisis. Moreover, some funders might also start revising their funding policies and recalculate their costs and the benefits they derive in the engagement with the forum. Although, was added by another member, the forum cannot allow funders to lead its policies and visions, yet donor constraints could give the forum some needed focus. Indeed as someone noticed, the message that seemed to come across from this presentation did resonate what previously reported by the communication commission and by others during the whole meeting: it might be useful to return to the central values of the WSF and redesign a vision statement on the basis of a more sophisticated strategy that could successfully be communicated to old and prospective funders. This process may indeed facilitate focus within the WSF as asked for by several members in the previous two days, consolidate the position of the WSF with current funders and, finally, entice new partners to join its journey to contribute building another world.

The Expansion commission reported on process of accepting new members to the IC on the basis of the application recently received (two of which were accepted and two were postponed due to lack of information on the applicants). The process of selecting the new candidate for admission to the IC had also generated a lively conversation on criteria for admission. Past contribution to the forum, future potential input, regional relevance and sectoral balance were all considered when assessing organisations that may have been excluded if assessed on a stricter application of the guidelines of the expansion commission. In particular if the Rabat work of the commission focused on the indigenous sector, given the conversation of the previous days, this time the commission suggested that extra efforts were to be put in welcoming environmental organisations and networks. It is also customary of the commission to set the date for the following IC meeting, that was fixed for the 5th to 7th of May 2010 in Mexico City.

Next, the methodology commission presented its work. Its ambitious and so much needed work to create a compendium, a memory of the past experiences of the forum in the 10 years since its inception, has and will generate in the following months a set of documents among which the compendium itself and a set of guidelines for future forums. At the heart of the elaboration of the members the acute awareness that methodologies are not ideologies and are context specific and cannot simply be transported from one forum to the next. However, a spirit is common to the WSF and that spirit was highlighted in their presentation. A key issue that attracted particularly the attention of the floor was that of the agglutination process by which the commission facilitates the process of convergence of several self-organised events into wider ones giving the possibility to activist from different parts of the world working on similar issues to share their experience and present more compelling cases to their partners during the events. It was also suggested that the fragmentation of the events does not necessarily extoll the multiplicity of views of the forum but it may indeed generate a feeling of chaotic confusion which is hard to navigate and therefore disempowering both for organisers and participants.

Intense and identity searching debate took place in the Strategy commission as well, as previously in the communication and resources commissions. It was reported that the now clearly understood loose mandate of the commission did not help to facilitate as fruitful a conversation as it could have. Moments of confusions about what was that the members were going to discuss generated moments of impasse and the call to go back to the drawing board. The plenary heard that in the next weeks a new set of guidelines will be drafted to guide the work of the commission. At the same time a new questionary will be circulated to the members of the IC so that they could contribute to the analysis that will inform the strategy of the commission and of the whole IC.

The questions of the questionnaire on which the members were asked to reflect, were the following:

What is your analysis of the current crises? What are the possible alternatives? What should the role of the WSF be in such context? A further subject of conversation in the commission was the organisation of an international day at the USSF were the recurrent theme of the 2010 world forum events would see a direct resonance in Detroit. Finally to help the strategic thinking of the commission three new position papers will be circulated by the facilitators on the issues of poverty, war and environment. The meeting ended with two brief presentations by the working group on the 2010 forums and by the working group on the liaison committee. Finally one of the organisers of the next meeting said few words of welcoming to the next IC in Mexico City.

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