The future of the World Social Forum and its International Council.

Report submitted to the Casablanca World Social Forum’s International Council meeting, December 2013

Summary

This is a preliminary report based on 28 in-depth interviews conducted within the framework of the working group and process of reflection on the future of the World Social Forum’s International Council (WSF-IC). I conducted 28 (twenty-eight) interviews in the period between the 4th of November and the 9th of December. The length of the interviews varies between 52 (fifty-two) and 152 (hundred and fifty-two) minutes. The amount of the material collected prevents a thorough analysis given the time allowed. However, although a great degree of nuance and diversity is inevitably lost in this short report, it is nonetheless possible to call attention to the following areas of convergence as highlighted in the interviews.

First, discussing the future of the IC would best be done in the context of a wider reflection on the future of the WSF as a whole. Second, a reflection on the congruence between activists’ aspirations, WSF’s visions and IC’s practices would help guide the conversations on the future of the IC and the WSF. Third, issues of democracy and decision-making practices were indicated as central to understand the tension between aspirations and achievements on the one hand and, on the other, to address the often unflattering perception by outsiders of the IC’s internal practices. Fourth, a self-reinforcing process seems to connect a) the real or perceived hiatus between WSF’s visions and IC’s practices, b) forms of democracy and decision-making performed, and c) activists’ disappointment and disengagement. Fifth, conducting the exercise of self-reflection of which this report is part can help to collectively negotiate a common way ahead for the WSF and for the IC, whichever form they may end up assuming once the process in under way. Sixth, to be truly transformative this exercise should be extended to activists from current social movements and civic and community-based organisations. Seventh, these new activists should not be considered as invited guests but as co-makers of the future of the WSF and of the IC.

Context and Methodology

As part of the working group whose work started in Monastir in July 2012 and whose utility and indeed need was confirmed at the Tunis IC meeting in March-April 2013, I undertook a set of in-depth interviews with people involved in the work of the IC over the years. In particular this work is part of a larger effort conducted in close collaboration with Gina Vargas and Francine Mestrum but situated in a larger framework of engagement that included a much larger number of individuals. This work is integrated by a questionnaire whose analysis will be presented in a different document. I conducted 28 (twenty-eight) interviews in the period between the 4th of November and the 9th of December. The length of the interviews varies between 52 (fifty-two) and 152 (hundred and fifty-two) minutes. The amount of material collected is matched by the thoroughness with which the issues discussed were treated. This, I believe, produced an invaluable and detailed collection of the breath and width of the wisdom generated in an around the World Social Forum and its International Council. This collection is still in the making.

The geographical and gender distribution of the interviewees is so summarised. Geographically: Europe: 10; Latin America 7; Africa 5; North America 5; Asia 1. Gender-wise: Female 11; Male 17. This schematic summary introduces already some elements of caution when considering the preliminary outcomes of this exercise. Some of this elements I spell out in what follows.

First, the length and number of the interviews has not allowed me to cover as much of the IC as I endeavoured at the planning stage. Originally I had in mind to interview all the present IC members and perhaps walk back in time to converse with those members who have been less active of late. I hoped to do this before the Casablanca meeting. This has not been possible and the process will be continued in the following months.

Second, given the time taken by the actual process of arranging and conducting the interviews I could not transcribe them in full. Therefore the analyses at this stage are preliminary and based on the notes taken during the interviews. Further and more complete analyses will follow in the near future.

Third, the sample is skewed by some factors that need to be taken into account at the outset. As I had in mind to conduct as complete a set of interviews as possible of the whole IC membership I did not care about sample composition. I privileged the time factor. Whenever an appointment could be set I would conduct the interview. Some appointments could not be set in the time allowed and those interviews could not be conducted. I will return to the comprehensive original list of present and past IC participants and conduct the remaining interviews starting from early January next year.

Fourthly, so far only three members have not acknowledged reception of my invitation for an interview and four had to decline due to their busy schedules but invited me to contact them again in the future. The time span might not allow to make much of this for at least two obvious reasons. On the one hand, it is the end of the year and everybody is very busy with many other things and, on the other, email addresses may not be in use anymore (but not cancelled and therefore not producing a return error message). I am therefore inclined to consider the engagement of the interviewees so far as very welcoming of this research. To summarise I contacted 35 members so far and I could undertake 28 interviews.

Fifthly, and this more closely related to the nature of the present document, I am confident that the completion of the interviews and their full transcription would produce a more accurate picture and counter-balance the biases that a reliance on the interview notes only might produce. These limitations notwithstanding, the conversations I had so far seem to raise a number of issues that point towards some general thematic and issue areas. I believe this initial notes may prove useful as an initial picture of the IC and its work. In fact, I believe that these interviews provide an initial and useful picture of the WSF as a whole and some aspects of its work.

I wish to add here also a personal note. The process arranging these interviews and engaging in these in-depth conversations has proved for me very inspiring. It was an unmatchable chance to observe the sedimentation of years of work and activism in the WSF but by no means only as all activists I had the chance to talk to could claim several decades of experience in social movements in almost all regions of the world. This has given me a unique insight on the wisdom of the people I talked to on something I care very much about: justice and change, for sure, but many other things to. And last but not least, the individual and combined “text” of the interviews is one of the most extended (already at this stage) example of activists self-reflection and self-theorising I know of. In other words, the explanations given about the origins, contexts, development and projections into the future of the WSF, constitute a uniquely sophisticated reflection on social movements and society, on activism and activists. I can only account for all this in the work that will follow this preliminary report.

On the Content of the Interviews.

What follows summarises some of the large thematic/issue areas which were touched upon in all or most of the conversations in a way or another. In future reports and papers I will provide nuance to these points but for the time being they may I hope serve as pointers for the beginning of a conversation.

I am aware that highlighting converging issue areas might flatten complexity and eliminate diversity. This is true. Simplified narratives do often behave just like this. And narratives do get formed and spread according to very specific dynamics that have to do with group processes, power, cultural codes, social roles etc. In fact, simplified narratives, though often enticing, can be less so if looked at from the point of view of the activist challenging dominant narratives (precisely) and the social processes they entail. This reminds me of a case from ancient Greek mythology. Procustes was a bandit who would torture passers-by with a unique tool, the bed that made him (in)famous. The torture consisted in forcing the body of the kidnapped person to fit the bed. If too tall, the person would be cut, if too short they would be stretched. Unifying narratives at times do just that. When unifying narratives are imposed on single individuals who supposedly are depicted (represented) by those narratives, this can at times feel as a torture. This forceful imposition of simplified narratives causes enormous pain to those on whom this torture is imposed and it leaves out enormous emotional and experiential wealth. This loss, eventually, turns the narratives into empty devices. Except, of course, for those who perfectly fit the size of the bed.

This very phenomenon, the flattening of complexity and denial of diversity through joint narratives, has been observed by many interviewees as far as the WSF and its IC are considered. A reduction of diversity has been noticed in the IC in particular, as those who didn’t perfectly fit the original narrative left or were marginalised as their unique approaches could not find place in the formulation of joint narratives within the IC. On the other hand, though, the need for a rallying unifying narrative has been mentioned by many as a necessary device to bring the WSF back to its role of prominence within the global justice and solidarity movement (though this expression has been mentioned not to fully represent the most recent wave of protests and movements). Many would recognise in these words, the description of a line of friction that has often been replicated in social movements across time. This recurrence makes it very compelling indeed and has inflamed the interest of activists and researchers over centuries.

The Importance of the Journey

These questions about the tension between difference and unity introduce perhaps the main recurring point in the reflections collected in the interviews. A steep parabolic trajectory is perceived as to describe the WSF journey. From a very rapid expansion to a very rapid contraction. From a blazing convergence to an exploding atomization. The questions raised in the interviews with reference to this were. Why did it happen? Why was the WSF so successful so fast? Why did it lose momentum? Are reasons to be searched for in its internal dynamics, constitution and work? Or, conversely, is the curve of its development determined by larger social and political factors at the global level? Further, was the original message of the WSF misguidedly framed (or deluded, or naïve, or…) so as to inevitably disappoint those who were originally attracted to participate? Or, it is instead the case that the WSF vision now is out of sync with the current conjuncture? Are these dynamics of rise and fall a mere projection of the judging eye perhaps biased by enthusiasms or disappointments that are not fully related to the object on which they attach themselves? Is the perceived decline of the WSF a mere perception indeed? Or is it fruit of a mistake on the part of those who claim it has lost its initial innovative energy?

This are the questions that are raised in the interviews and that, among others, might be useful to address. These questions point perhaps towards a first point of convergence. Discussing the future of the IC as organisational structure cannot be separated from a thorough assessment of the WSF as whole. In other words, the future of the IC cannot be discussed as separate from the future of the WSF as a whole.

When discussing this large area of interest it has been very instructive to learn how the interviewees frame the history of the WSF within the large history of anti-systemic and workers’ movements, in relation to the Independence, civil rights, ’68 and the more recent alter-globalisation movement (among others). Such large breath of historical perspective is perceived as important but also useful in order to gain “perspective” on the ebbs and flows of the WSF process. Moreover, when assessing the WSF historical positioning, it was felt that careful attention could be paid to regional and national dynamics. Doing so would help understand the differences in contribution, impact and follow ups of the WSF’s regional chapters. But as announced earlier this is not the place to conduct a thorough analysis of the theoretical and historical analyses that I had the chance to be introduced to in the interviews. I will on instead by mentioning another large area of convergence.

Democracy, Decision-Making Practices and Trust.

Whereas placing the IC and the WSF in context is considered a precondition of a thorough reflection about its possible future developments, and whereas the comments on its trajectory and on the nature of its work may be partly due to recurring misconceptions, it is also widely understood that some of the perception on the role, structure and work of the IC are not devoid of foundations and can be useful to consider when reflecting on internal change and closer adaptation to changing contexts. The nature of the work conducted by the IC and the way in which it is accomplished, or perceived to be accomplished, were discussed at length in the interviews. The conversations, in particular, and this could be a second area of convergence, pointed at the relationship between vision, values and practices. In other words, it was widely acknowledged that the tension between aspirations and achievements has often generated disappointment and sometimes frustration. This has happened not only to potential allies and external observers but also among engaged activists and members of the IC. This seems to point at least two large areas of concern, internal and external, so to say, but also at their inevitable interaction (the overlooking of which, or a divided and stark attention to which, can generate a general sense of inadequacy). In other words, on the one hand the interviewees are concerned with the actual dynamics from the point of view of their understanding and engagements with them, but on the other hand they reflect on how certain dynamics are perceived from the outside by commentators, actual and potential allies, funders, etc. The underlying explanation is that even if the IC came to determine that its work is correct and done in the best possible way from its point of view, it still would have to measure itself with the responses its work generates outside of its inevitably limited area of engagement. This could be called perhaps a sort of “reality check”.

Issues of democracy and decision-making practices were often indicated as central to the debate about the tension between aspirations and achievements and about the perception by outsiders of the IC’s internal practices. This seems to constitute a third area of convergence in the interviews. In particular, issues of democracy and decision-making were spelled out, among others, in terms of transparency, accountability, guidelines, trust and responsibility. In slightly more detail, increased democracy in the IC would, at least, entail that guidelines of action would have to be collectively devised and mechanisms of accountability thought of and implemented. This could help engage lack of transparency and accountability caused by the impossibility to trace responsibility. The effect of these combined could be considered responsible for the increasing lack of trust among IC members and the consequent disruptions to their ability to work together.

This mechanism of negative escalation, consequence perhaps of a not fulfilling enough engagement with forms and structures of democracy, seems to be a fourth area of broad convergence among the interviewees. The claimed lack of trust, possibly caused by an unclear structuring of the IC, eventually extends to the members of such real or perceived informal subgroups. This process is recursive and expansive in a manner eventually implicating all the work produced by the IC and all the people involved in it. This mechanism, therefore, does not only undermines and de-legitimises the IC’s work but it also drains the energy of its members. Consider, for instance, the consequences of, on the one hand, the disappointment created by the mismatch between stated group and individual values and, on the other, the need to account for (justify at times, to one’s constituencies or more generally to the “outsider” the nature of the practices to which they participate in the IC (shame and anger are emotions often associated by the interviewees to these mechanisms). This point is congruent with what noticed above already. In fact, democratic practices and emotional (dis)engagements are tightly linked and this understanding constitutes a possible analytical convergence in the IC.

Where to next?

The perception of the IC’s limitations, the acknowledgement of the importance of the historical trajectory, the acceptance of the relevance of the geographical context of its origins and of the individual contribution to its journey were always complemented by both a theoretical understanding of the social and personal processes at play in the WSF and in its IC and by a set of detailed reflections on what could be done to follow on from that achieved knowledge. The theoretical frameworks are too sophisticated to bend themselves to the abridged version that I could provide of them here, so I will postpone this exercise for the time being. As far as possible strategies to find a useful way ahead for the IC I will say few words in what follows.

A fifth area of convergence, can be highlighted with reference to the welcoming reactions to the present process. This process, to repeat what written above, started formally in Monastir in July of 2012 (but informally perhaps much earlier). It has been repeatedly stressed that a self-aware process of reflection on the present state of affairs (and how this had come to be), is a crucial precondition to collectively imagine a collaborative way ahead. Specific suggestions referred to the use of technological tools to strengthen the relationship among members and the extension of its work. For instance, online conferencing tools and others might both reduce the need for face to face meetings and extend and deepen the participation to the IC work. I mention this here not only because of it almost universal recurrence but also as an illustration of what I found a very pragmatic and proactive attitude enacted by those with whom I spoke. Further very practical considerations referred to organisational matters of great relevance and detail that will be considered in further documents.

One more compelling argument made even more often than the previous and which could be considered a sixth area of broad convergence in these interviews. The IC’s work might be greatly strengthened if its membership is extended to include members who are in closer connection with the new developments in global activism. The points made were not limited to generic invocations of Occupy, Indignados and other recent movements. More in detail instead a call was made for a deep, thorough and circumstantial investigation of who and where are the current creators of alternatives and reflect with them what a WSF-like open space of convergence and collaborative work could look like for the years to come and what organisational structure could it have. This point raises the question of the WSF nature as a space of convergence and challenges its own very ability to currently represent that mission. It is not a judgement on its supposed or otherwise role with respect with the contemporary global actors of change. It is, instead, an availability to question, investigate, reflect together with an enlarged group of activists from around the world. There is one image that was called to me when issues of “expansion” (as they are often called in the IC) were discussed: a dinner invitation. One final point of convergence can be describe in the following terms, with relation to the dinner image. There seems to be a belief among the people I interviewed that expansion is not possible if a mere invitation is extended, no matter how convivial, sisterly, open etc. that invitation may be. Whoever will join the IC (or whatever else it may become), should not be assumed to be content with sitting and eating and feeling grateful for the hospitality. For the IC convivial vision to be truly extended the future diners would have to be able to discuss the menu, the ingredients, the cooking, and the times of the meal (and the music to listen to).

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