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Another world

The Enron debacle and Argentina's economic collapse have focussed attention on corporate-driven globalisation and its harsh side-effects. WALDEN BELLO looks at the World Social Forum and its efforts at launching a counter offensive.

Thousands of anti-globalisation activists gather for the "march for peace" during the opening of the second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

PORTO ALEGRE is not exactly a Third World city. Located in Rio Grande do Sul, one of Brazil's more prosperous states, this city of 1.2 million people is First World when it comes to infrastructure and social services. In fact, it ranks near the top in terms of the country's "quality of life" index. The city has played host to the World Social Forum (WSF) for the last two years. It has also emerged as the centre of the growing movement against corporate-driven globalisation.

The World Social Forum emerged as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of the global crowd in Davos, Switzerland. Proposed by a coalition of Brazilian civil society organisations and the Workers Party that controls both Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the idea triggered strong international support from organisations such as the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique and Attac, an influential Europe-wide organisation supporting a tax on global financial transactions, and received financial support from progressive donors like Novib, the Netherlands Organisation for International Development Cooperation.

Driven by this energy, the first WSF was put together in a record eight months. The Financial Times called a televised trans-Atlantic debate between a representative of the WSF and some luminaries attending the WEF a collision between two planets, that of the global superrich and that of the vast marginalised masses.

Since its first meeting, the stock of the WSF has risen. "Already put on the defensive as a gathering to discuss how to maintain hegemony over the rest of us", as one of the debaters on the WSF side put it, the WEF received a further blow when it was forced to hold its 2002 meeting away from Davos since the Swiss Government could no longer guarantee the security of its corporate participants. Providing protection for WEF 2001 had necessitated the country's largest security operation since World War II provoking protest from within the country.

Thus, the WEF has moved to New York for 2002, and it is not clear when and if it will return to Davos. But as observers point out, "a great part of the attraction of the WEF is the `ambience' of Davos as a retreat high up in the Swiss Alps. Without this, it is headed for oblivion."

The centrepiece of this year's gathering in Porto Alegre (from January 30 to February 4) was 26 plenary sessions structured around four themes: the production of wealth and social reproduction access to wealth and sustainable development, civil society and the public arena and political power and ethics in the new society.

The anti-establishment forces gathered in Porto Alegre after a tumultuous year. Perhaps the apogee of the anti-globalisation movement came during the Group of Eight Meeting in Genoa in the third week of July, when some 300,000 people marched in the face of police tear-gas attacks. Shortly after the Genoa clashes, in which one protester was killed by police, there was speculation in the world press that elite gatherings in non-authoritarian countries might no longer be possible in the future. And indeed, Canada's offer to hold the next G-8 meeting in a resort high up in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta seemed to confirm the fact that the global elite was on the run from the democracy of the streets.

Then came September 11, which stopped a surging movement dead in its tracks. The next big confrontation between the establishment and its opponents was supposed to take place in late September in Washington, D.C. during the annual fall meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unnerved by the prospect of a week of massive protest that was expected to draw some 50,000 people, the Bretton Woods twins took advantage of the September 11 shock to cancel their meeting. Without a target and sensitive to the sea change in the national mood in the U.S., organisers cancelled the protest and held a march for peace instead.

The establishment followed up on the unexpected opportunity to reverse the crisis of legitimacy that had been wracking it prior to September 11 by pressing the developing countries to approve a declaration launching a limited set of trade negotiations during the Fourth Ministerial of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Doha, Qatar in mid-November. Third World Governments were told that unless they agreed to talks leading to greater liberalisation, they would have to take responsibility for worsening a global recession that had been accelerated by the World Trade Center attack.

Taking no chances, the WTO secretariat and the Qatar monarchy had worked to limit the number of legitimate NGOs attending the meeting to about 60. This ensured that the massive demonstrations on the street that characterised Seattle, which had served as a context for the famous developing country revolt at the Sheraton Convention Center, were not present in Doha, and under these circumstances, developing country revolt at the Sheraton Convention Centre, were not present in Doha, and under these circumstances, developing country opposition collapsed.

Reversal of fortune

Had the WSF meeting been held in late November or December, the mood of people attending would have been different. The Bush administration would have been riding high after its devastating triumph in Afghanistan. However, in the last few weeks, history, cunning as usual, had dealt Washington two massive body blows: the Enron debacle and Argentina's economic collapse.

Enron has become the sordid symbol of the volatile mixture of deregulation and corruption that drove the U.S. "New Economy" in the 1990s and helped lead it to what is possibly the worst global recession since the 1930s.

Burdened with an unpayable foreign debt, its industry in chaos, and 2,000 of its citizens falling under the poverty line daily, Argentina serves as a cautionary tale of the disaster that awaits those countries that take seriously the neoliberal advice to liberalise and globalise their economies.

These twin disasters have brought back with a vengeance the crisis of legitimacy that the global elite and its project of corporate-driven globalisation were experiencing prior to September 11. Porto Alegre provides the perfect site and the perfect moment for the counter-offensive on the part of the movements that believe that "another world is possible."

The writer is the executive director of the Bangkok-based policy and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines.

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