Please tell us about this year’s World Social Forum and its dominant themes.
SANUSHKA MUDALIAR (SM): The World Social Forum (WSF) 2009 was held between January 27 and February 1. It was held in Belém which is in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The organizing committee reported early in the week that they had registered 92,000 people. The activities at the WSF are organized around central objectives that are defined by the WSF International Council through a consultative process. ( See the WSF’s objectives)
The financial crisis is clearly dominating people’s thinking and analysis across a range of social justice issues. The choice of the Amazon as the venue this year was designed to support the participation of local indigenous communities and place a central focus on the environment and natural resources. The war in Gaza and human rights abuses in Palestine were also very prominent.
Having said that, the WSF involves literally dozens of events happening simultaneously during each session every day so the dominant themes really depended on the sessions attended.
How and why did AWID participate at the WSF?
SM: There are different views about the value of the WSF and questions being asked about its role and function. We decided to go because it is basically the only open venue for social movements, organizations and initiatives from all over the world to come together. It is a political space that enables networking and discussion, and it convenes important actors within the women’s movement and other social movements. It is a great place to “take the pulse” of current discourses and debates, and to consider the relationship between the women’s movement and women’s rights activists within other social movements. It provided us with an opportunity to reflect on the direction of our work on development issues, aid effectiveness, funding and young feminist activism by learning and listening to others.
CECILIA ALEMANY (CA): Working with DAWN, WIDE, IGTN, REPEM, and Action Aid International we held a panel on alternative development paradigms from a feminist perspective. In this panel, speakers from all the co-organizers presented their perspective on development paradigms and the current international systemic crisis from a feminist perspective. The remaining challenge is how to connect these theoretical debates with the existing strategies that women’s groups are developing at the regional, national and local level.
AWID also participated actively in panels organized by other organizations. This included a panel on Poverty and Rights organized by Amnesty International and Civicus. In this workshop we shared understandings and strategies on how to move towards a human rights-based approach as the way to reduce poverty and inequality. The panel discussion included practical and analytical proposals to go beyond the ”povertology” approach that puts women and girls in a victimized position or identifies them as agents of change responsible for and capable of ensuring development for whole villages or communities. We also participated in a panel on Funding for Adult Education and Gender Equality organized by the International Council for Adult Educators. In this session we discussed how the crisis of the international system as well as the current trends in aid and development cooperation impact on access to funds for education at the national level.
How did women’s rights activists and organizations organize at the WSF, how was their presence felt?
CA: Women’s groups were active in different ways, through their own organizations activities, through the Feminist Dialogues, in common activities organized among partners from the women’s movement and other social movements. So their presence was important, but one’s impression would vary depending on the meetings or workshops attended. There was a cluster on gender equality that was trying to promote some synergies and support among women’s groups activities, but this was not really related to the Feminist Dialogues. In sum, several women’s groups were present in Belém, and there were several centres of interest and articulation.
SM: There were some really great activities and convenings in different spaces across the Forum. Unfortunately there was no Women’s Tent so there was no central meeting place for women’s groups to come together during the week. On the final day, which is reserved for alliance-building and strategizing between groups working on different themes, a Women’s Assembly was held that provided an open space for groups to share important insights and calls to action. The Women’s Assembly also discussed and approved a Declaration.*
What were your personal impressions of the WSF?
SM: This was my first WSF and it is very hard to sum up all the different impressions I had. It was great to feel the energy of the opening march and the large assemblies and to participate in a process of thinking through, engaging with and sharing ideas about the process of social change. Overall it is a huge and chaotic event, but that in itself was a reminder of the texture and complexity of the work we’re engaged in. At the same time, it was clear that within movements we often talk at cross-purposes, or approach debates from such different angles that it is hard to know where to start the joint conversation.
Also there were young people everywhere! WSF participants were overwhelmingly young, with loads of local students coming just to see what it is all about. It is a fabulous thing for Brazil that so many citizens are exposed to the inner workings and debates within social movements.
CA: I have attended most of the previous WSFs and I always approach it as a moment to see allies, identify potential common actions, listen to what other organizations are thinking and doing and see friends from all the social movements. This time, the distance between the two university campuses where the WSF was being held made it difficult to find people, but the geographic location was really positive. For the first time, indigenous groups’ vision of the world appeared very strongly at the Forum. Their vision of the current crisis is that we are facing a crisis of the model of civilization. The fact that we were in their territory gave them the necessary strength and presence to influence the discourse of all the western – or traditional- social movements.
Now, coming back to our daily work and offices, the challenge will be to not forget that the “right of well being” proposed by the indigenous groups is not so different to the human rights perspective, including women’s rights, and also economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. We speak different languages, and we have different cultures and styles, but the need for social justice, equality, climate change justice and a more equal and democratic system from the local to the global is a common pledge. The way to do it and how, is still an open debate and everyone will find different answers. For those who expected a unique answer or paradigm coming from the WSF, Belém was not the space to go. What we should learn from the current crisis and the past century is that we shouldn’t build an alternative world system on a unique answer or vision.
What did you take away from the WSF? Are there any particular sessions that stood out for you?
SA: It reinforced for me how important it is that we each carefully consider how the global space relates to our specific area of activism. The fact that there is such active debate on the value and purpose of the WSF is a reminder that social movements haven’t yet fully explored what it is that we want from our global interactions and how we can use them most effectively when we go back to our day to day work.
The inter-movement panel that was organized as part of the Feminist Dialogues was a really thought-provoking discussion. Speakers working on labour issues, farmers rights, LGBQTI and sexual rights, and indigenous organizing together with feminist activists talked about attempts by these social movements to engage with feminism and women’s rights. Speakers were candid about the challenges involved in getting past discrimination, existing pre-conceptions and identity differences, and the difficulties of articulating joint agendas across social movements. The discussion provided some interesting examples of the internal lobbying that is often required to bring women’s rights issues to the table within a movement.
What, if anything would you like to see done differently at the next WSF?
CA: In spite of the very real political and financial challenges, it would be great if another WSF is held. If so, it would be useful to recover the methodology used in past Forums where the Forum Secretariat identifies similar sessions proposed by different groups and suggests that the groups consider merging and holding a joint activity. Although the merging was entirely voluntary, it often promoted interesting alliances and synergies. Regarding the women’s movement, there is no short answer on how to strengthen our visibility and interaction during the Forum, however it would be desirable to have more sharing of information before and during the Forum and more clearly identified points to meet and network.
* The full declaration follows here
Cecilia Alemany is Manager of AWID’s Influencing Development Actors and Practices Strategic Initiative.
Sanushka Mudaliar is Manager of AWID’s Young Feminist Activism Programme