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The World Social Forum and its governance: the hundred-headed monster

by Francine Mestrum

(Remark by Torsten Trotzki: The following text is the result of a translation made by using the translation tool of Google. So please be aware that the text might contain some wrong interpretations!)

The 12th World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Tunis, two years after the 'Arab Spring' that toppled the former regime and established a government led by Ennahda ("Renaissance movement '), a Islamist political party.

The real success was in terms of participation and political terms. Young people in the region were massively present, Tunisians felt that international solidarity with their revolution was real, and participants were able to see that the WSF has recovered the best of his past experiences.

It was much needed! For international participants, mainly from Europe and Latin America were rather skeptical about the future of the process. In addition, the WSF was followed by a meeting of the International Council precisely where the future governance of the WSF was the order of the day. The success of FSM2013 blocked the road for those who wanted to end the international board, or the process itself. That said, nothing is set, everything remains to be (re).

And horizontal structures

The question of how the WSF is governed is not easy to answer. The WSF is an open space, which means it has no leaders, it is not representative and is open to everyone and all those who accept its charter of principles. It consists only of self-organized events.

However, this principle of a horizontality IC, contrary to the hierarchies, is beaten by breaking relatively heavy structures that were created during the last decade.

First, there is the International Council, originally a seminary leaders of social movements and intellectual assets globally. Meetings were confidential. Soon, it was perceived as elitist, meeting in 5 star hotels. Its task was to define the strategy of the WSF.

After the Mumbai WSF in 2005, was first proposed restructuring and its objective was formulated as the promotion and expansion of the WSF process by giving greater visibility and defining it as a process and not an event.

The expansion was mainly in the IC itself which meanwhile became an organ of more than 150 members, with six boards, a small liaison committee and working groups at all costs.

In political terms, however, it lost power. It passed first to a secretariat in Sao Paulo who made the daily work and kept control over the whole process. Mumbai emerged but also local organizing committee who challenged the power of the Brazilian Secretariat.

Today, in 2013, it is clear that the major power is effectively in the hands of the organizing committee Maghreb and a new instance was created in Brazil - GRAP: Grupo de Apoyo y Reflexion al Proceso del FSM - nobody knows the composition or the actual influence. The secretariat was abandoned and the IC has become a rudderless ship.

Necessary debate

Faced with such mismanagement, an urgent debate is imposed, especially as many members of the IC in a feeling of abandonment settled. Indeed, for the last meetings of the IC, there was hardly a practical agenda. The liaison committee which should have been renewed in 2012, was in fact dissolved. The various committees of the IC no longer work, the strategys commission is monopolized by a single member ...

The debate was held in Tunis, friendly enthusiasm and optimism was therefore welcome.

There were several observations made:

  • First, the total gap between the ICs on one hand and the WSF on the other hand, that as process as well as an event. As several participants pointed out, the WSF 2013 was a success, rather despite than thanks to the existence of the IC.

  • Then the 'new political culture' which the WSF process has always prided itself does not exist. Certainly diversity is respected, but power relations spoil everything, being hidden by a horizontal fictitious serves only this elsewhere.

  • Finally, in the absence of rules and methodology for balancing power relations, there is no democracy within the IC. Members know more or less who has the power - a small core of Brazilian and French members - but it occurs only rarely openly. As for the local organizing committee, it is not part of the IC and its members are not known officially.

All this must be seen now in the context of a major conflict between the Brazilian social movements and a total lack of trust between the participants in the meetings of the IC. In terms of human relations, the situation is very difficult and friendship among the members of the IC is either superficial or sectarian. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the meetings are difficult to sustain beyond a half-day.

Also mention that the GRAP hired a part-time secretary who is currently the most urgent work, and had a permanent meeting room at his disposal in a 5 star hotel in Tunis.

Another IC - is it possible?

The IC at Tunis spent two half-days for a debate on its future. A summary report was prepared on different contributions introduced in recent months. Although this report was welcomed, it was not taken into account in the debate. Three working groups were set up: one on urgent measures, including the location of the next meeting of the IC and the WSF, a second on the restructuring and strategy of IC and a third on the strategy of the WSF process.

Very few decisions were made. The location of IC remains to be defined next. Although towards the end of the debate -  the horizon cleared a little and denunciations and accusations became more scarce - it remains that the most important points are more or less excluded from the debate.

I want to mention four:

  • Before you can decide about the future of the IC it is necessary to confirm or re-formulate its tasks. It is that before just one possible strategy can be developed. These tasks will of course depend of power relations within the WSF process. If the organizing committees continue to exist, they should join the IC. GRAP as to its existence must be formalized and its role clarified in order to avoid 'overlappings'.

  • Then it will re-discuss the resources needed to operate the IC. Its meetings are expensive, especially if one wants to pay for the plane tickets of its participants. In the past, a solidarity fund with contributions by movements of the North was used to pay tickets for representatives from the South. Today, several movements in the South are much richer than those of the North. Another solution was proposed at the meeting in Dhaka, namely a flat fee to be paid annually by all members of the IC. This matter is urgent and needs to find an effective and sustainable solution.

  • Third, the political dimension. It manifests itself in two new ones. At the forums in Latin America, conflicts were updated each time of presence of men or women politicians, even presidents, at the forum. For some institutional politics has no place in the WSF which is a sort of open meetings for social movements, called 'civil society'. Strangely, this debate has not taken place in Tunis, where yet the government openly supported the WSF and a delegation of the IC was invited to the presidential palace. Whatever formula is chosen, it does not seem acceptable to make decisions which depend on the country in which the WSF stands. Especially it will consider alliances and political connections to possible social movements. If the IC can work with an Islamist government, it should be able to accommodate a president allied to social movements.

    The second level policy review for the PCB and political debates within it. The world has changed since 2001, we are experiencing multiple crises and geopolitical changes are underway. In addition, new young players appeared to challenge the dominant system and also the operation of the WSF and its organs. So far, policy debates have been avoided in the IC, for fear of divisions. It seems to me essential to reserve space for these debates, the only way to gradually build convergences and go beyond sectarianism.

  • Fourth, the IC has an urgent need for democracy, transparency and accountability. No proceeding may survive if there is no trust between its members. However, the trust can not be installed if decisions are made outside of meetings, if requested reports are ignored, if the accounts are not submitted, if power relations remain hidden behind the veil of horizontality.

And now?

Many questions remain open. If the WSF is to survive - what after the success of Tunis everyone wants - it will rethink its governance. If the IC is to survive, it will have to reconstruct and democratize. If the WSF wants to repeat its  success, it will organize on where social movements have a need and are directly involved in its programming.

An IC where large and small social movements, including trade unions, feel at home to discuss policy and strategy to follow, could provide intellectual guidance for the WSF. Besides the thematic forums that are already organized, the IC could propose organizing committees to focus on a few topics on which events could be organized. There would be no way to impose a 'political line', but to bring out the main currents of different thoughts about certain topics. This could help the movements present at the WSF to inspire and better prepare their own seminars.

The open space is a great idea, but it has little meaning if it leads to the juxtaposition of unlimited and often overlapping themes.

Twelve years after Porto Alegre, the relevance of the initiative of the founders of the WSF is confirmed. Now is the time to renovate the formula and do everything in order not to be squandered. The time has come to open space for new generations and make a space for reflection and strategic action.


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