FRIDAY, JANUARY 16, 2004 by
Anuradha M Chenoy.
Times of India
In the contest of ideas, civil
society is the battleground. It is this space that
states attempt to capture, political parties seek to
influence and business corporations try to control.
This is the place of organisations, where
alternative ideologies also have to explain their
worldview, because it is here that ideas get their
legitimacy and where hegemonies are countered and
In a context where globalisation based on a singular
neo-liberal approach is being universalised and
fundamentalism aspires to colonise the minds of
people, a collection of social movements are
attempting to engage in a public discourse that
opposes such policies and develop an alternative
This social movement organised in Brazil since 2001
has come in the form of the World Social Forum to
Mumbai. It engages thousands of individuals, NGOs
and social movements from all over the world in a
dialogue under the focal theme: Another World is
Official policy-makers tend to take the people they
make policies for as granted. There is thus a narrow
and elitist consultation on issues that can impact
the lives of millions.
Whether it is the decision to go to war, change the
constitution or alter economic policies, governments
believe that once they are voted into power they
have free reign for the next few years.
Social movements, NGOs and autonomous individuals
are increasingly challenging such decisions. Social
movements like the World Social Forum popularise key
concepts in the public sphere.
Take, for example, concepts such as neo-liberalism,
imperialism or property rights and patents. Not long
ago these were terms of specialised lectures in
exalted universities or part of some debate among
Left party newspapers.
Similarly, environmental issues like the height of
dams or the impact of uranium mining, once the
research of scientific laboratories, now constitute
public debates in villages.
Since the attempt of a movement as the social forum
is to move people out of the tunnel of dogma into
the domain of critical thinking, the best atmosphere
is that of an open space.
Since the argument is that there is no one way, the
alternative too must have multiple strategies and
methodologies. Those who are committed to the goals
of democracy, secularism, peace with justice, gender
equality and social and economic equity are welcome
to share this open space.
And if they support neo-liberal globalisation, war,
patriarchy, communalism, or chauvinist and
militarist ideologies, they can stand on the other
side of the debate, till they are convinced that a
better world is based on ethics rather than real
Would an ordinary citizen gain by learning about the
nature of the state, the value of human rights, or
how patriarchy and militarism intersect? Would it
interest her to know that there is a women's court
on crimes against women or a people's tribunal
against American war crimes in Iraq ? The answer is
yes, even if she disagrees.
Hearing the voices of noble laureates Shirin Abadi,
Joseph Stiglitz, internationally known theoreticians
and activists like Walden Bello, Samir Amin,
Emannuel Wallerstein and others at the social forum
will be part of a memory that can be recalled at
times of adversity, when there seem to be no
Cynics will dismiss the event on counts of
impracticality or idealism and ask if NGOs and
social movements have any impact? After all, there
was a war in Iraq despite the millions who
But look deeper and the results are clearer. The
peace movements prevented dozens of countries from
supporting America 's aggressive policies. Europe
got divided, most Asian countries remained firm
about not sending their forces despite pressure and
Washington lost international legitimacy as its urge
for empire was exposed.
Some have questioned the expediency of spending
large funds on events like these, but compare it to
the price of a combat helicopter that each state
possesses, or the cost of fighter aircraft, and the
WSF with all its costs will be a mere fraction of
each of these.
Others have questioned the foreign-funded events and
foreign-aided NGOs. But no agency has laid out an
agenda that opposes the broad aims of this forum.
And if these funds help social movements and NGOs
come together to discuss strategies to mobilise
civil society and promote social cohesion, it is
better than funding movements that promote
sectarianism, fundamentalism and violence. After
all, the cost of debate is always less than that of
Being organised in India by the women's labour,
dalit, tribal and environmentalist groups together
with individuals from the Left and socialist parties
and hundreds of NGOs, allowed these groups to
clarify some of the doubts that they had about each
other and highlighted the necessity and trials of
such rainbow alliances.
This experiment had its own logic. Many smaller
social forums were held in cities all over India to
mobilise for this larger event. Similarly, social
forums were held in other countries in Europe ,
Latin America and Asia that generated their own
In a situation where alternative politics is being
sidelined, the World Social Forum questions
globalisation, war and sectarian politics as part of
an ongoing effort to look for a viable alternative
and contest current policies.
No one-time effort can offer solutions, but it can
throw up ideas that ultimately change our realities.