No. 35, September 2003

NO. 35 (Sept. 2003):


Appendix I: Ford Foundation -- A Case Study of the Aims of Foreign Funding

Appendix II: Funds for the World Social Forum

The World Social Forum and the Struggle against 'Globalisation'
I. How and Why the World Social Forum Emerged

The fourth gathering of the World Social Forum (WSF) is to take place in Mumbai in January 2004. This would be an event of unprecedented international visibility for India, and is already a subject of great curiosity, discussion and debate among circles opposed to what is termed 'globalisation'. A number of insightful analytical articles have already been written on the WSF, both in India and abroad.1 Our purpose here is to gather some of these perceptions, substantiate certain points, and add a few further points.

The Seattle demonstrations and thereafter
The emergence of the WSF can be traced (in a contrary way) to the remarkable international upsurge of protest and confrontation that took place in the wake of the November 1999 conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at Seattle in the US. That WTO conference, wracked by disputes among the world's richest economies, was disrupted further, and crucially, by a great storm of protest in the streets. The over 50,000 marchers were a very diverse mass, including anti-capitalist propagandists, anarchists, campaigners for the abolition of third world debt, environmentalists and even, remarkably, sections of U.S. organised labour. The conference ended in a fiasco without completing its agenda. For those fighting against globalisation, Seattle was a signal victory, evidence that such a fight was possible and worthwhile.

For the next one and a half years, a series of protests inspired by Seattle seriously disrupted every major gathering of the leading international powers and institutions, including the World Economic Forum (WEF) meet (a gathering of representatives of the world's leading corporations and countries) at Davos in January 2000; the IMF-World Bank spring meeting in Washington in April 2000; the WEF summit at Melbourne in September 2000; the IMF-World Bank annual meeting in Prague in September 2000; the European Union (EU) summit in Nice in December 2000; the Davos meet in January 2001; the Quebec economic summit of the Americas in April 2001; the EU summit in Gothenburg in June 2001; the WEF meet in Salzburg in July 2001; and the World Economic Summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) in Genoa in July 2001.

Inevitably, the summit chiefs and the corporate media accused the protesters of carrying out acts of meaningless destruction.2 However, the main immediate thrust of the protesters' actions was quite straightforward: to physically prevent the delegates gathering and thus prevent these conferences from completing their agenda.

For that agenda was, broadly speaking, to turn the screws tighter: to yank open third world economies even further to invasion and occupation by imports, foreign investment, and privatisation; to devalue labour power (directly and indirectly) further in both advanced industrialised countries and the third world; to concentrate capital even more greatly than at present; and to sort out disputes among the leading imperialist powers in this game.

Demonstrations alone have never ultimately blocked the plans of international capital, but the wave of militant demonstrations at Seattle and after was at least remarkably effective in disrupting "business as usual". At Seattle, the conference's inaugural session was cancelled as the delegates — including the head of the WTO, the UN Secretary-General, the US Secretary of State, and the US Trade Representative — were virtually imprisoned in their hotels on the first day; and on the following days, as demonstrators fought cat-and-mouse battles with the police on the streets, the trade talks inside broke down. During the Washington Fund-Bank meet, the US government had to shut offices in a sizeable area around the two institutions' headquarters, and demonstrators managed to block many top officials — including the French finance minister — from reaching the venue. At Melbourne the Australian prime minister, John Howard, and the world's richest man, Bill Gates, were trapped along with other delegates at the venue. Since the entrances and exits were blocked by 30,000 demonstrators, the delegates had to be ferried back and forth by helicopters and boats. At Prague the conference centre was completely blocked for hours, and many prospective delegates stayed away from the event. At Nice, the authorities' attempts to keep out 100,000 protesters kept the delegates themselves in a state of siege. A NATO conference scheduled to be held in December 2000 at Victoria (Canada) was cancelled for fear of demonstrations, as was a World Bank development meet in Barcelona in June 2001. At Davos in January 2001, what the Financial Times described as "unprecedented security" (including mass arrests and a shut down of road and rail) did not prevent hundreds of protesters making it to the site. At Quebec, the entire focus of attention shifted from the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas to the demonstrators. And in Sweden, the inner city of Gothenburg was converted into a virtual battlefield.

Each successive meet attempted to place larger areas officially out of bounds by erecting legal and physical barricades. These efforts peaked in Genoa, where a four metre high iron fence protected a large deserted "red zone" near the venue. Inhabitants were not allowed to receive visitors for days, and sharpshooters manned terraces and balconies. Even this level of quarantine was insufficient for the leaders of the world's eight most powerful countries, who stayed on the cruise ship "European Vision", guarded by minesweepers, specialist divers, and units with anti-aircraft guns. Rail and air traffic to the city were stopped; motorways were blocked; bus, underground and tram traffic were largely shut down; and large numbers of people were turned back at the Italian border. Revealingly, the very authorities who talked of a 'united Europe' and were busy removing national restraints on capital flows aggressively used national borders to block the flow of protesters. Hence the slogan of the marchers in Prague: "Open up the borders, smash the IMF".

The slogans and causes of the participants in this series of demonstrations varied greatly, ranging from the reformist to the revolutionary (and even, in the US, a few chauvinist ones). But as the Economist3 put it, by and large what the marchers "have in common is a loathing of the established economic order, and of the institutions — the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO — which they regard as either running it or serving it." The rallies indeed became schools to their heterogenous participants: many previously non-political forces, or forces limited to single issues, were exposed to broader political perspectives and were radicalised in the course of their experience. And far from flagging, their strength appeared to be growing: at Genoa a record 150,000 protesters overcame extraordinary hurdles and managed to reach the city.

For those behind the project of a united Europe — the European corporations — the unprecedented involvement of organised labour in these protests was a particularly ominous sign. The European corporations and their political representatives, in the course of fashioning a single superpower, are moving step by step to strip the European working class of all its security and social rights. A militant working class challenge joining hands across borders would endanger their project.

The response: repression
From the start the protesters had to face considerable repression. At Seattle-1999 tear gas (canisters were sometimes fired at protesters' faces), truncheons, plastic bullets and concussion grenades were used. Over 600 were arrested, often merely for handing out or even receiving leaflets within the giant "no-protest zone"; the national guard was called out; night-time curfew and martial law were declared. At Davos 2000 and 2001, the police used water throwers (at below-freezing temperatures), tear gas and warning shots; at Washington April 2000 tear gas, pepper gas (some demonstrators were sprayed in the eyes) and truncheons; at Nice, stun grenades and tear gas; at Quebec, water-throwers, tear gas and rubber pellets.

The Gothenburg EU summit of June 2001 marked a turning point. The Swedish police not only attacked the protesters with horses, truncheons and dogs, but, for the first time in the post-Seattle protests, fired live ammunition. Three protesters were wounded, one seriously. British prime minister Blair nevertheless asserted that people were "far too apologetic" about demonstrators who disrupt gatherings of world leaders. "These guys don't represent anyone. ... I just think we've got to be a lot more robust about this."

In line with Blair's sentiments, the repression at Genoa was unprecedented. Demonstrations were banned in a large zone. The police had the power to stop and search anyone in the city. There was a complete ban on distribution of leaflets. On the first day of the conference, police shot in the head Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester who allegedly threw a fire extinguisher at a police van; the van then reversed over Giuliani where he lay on the ground, killing him. On the night of July 21-22, the police stormed the school building which served as the dormitory of the protesters. Those sleeping there were beaten with steel torches, wooden truncheons and fists so badly that 72 were injured; more than a dozen had to be carried out on stretchers, some unconscious; and many had to be hospitalised. All were eventually released without charge. According to Amnesty International, detainees were "slapped, kicked, punched and spat on and subjected to verbal abuse, sometimes of an obscene sexual nature ... deprived of food, water and sleep for lengthy periods, made to line up with their faces against the wall and remain for hours spread-eagled, and beaten if they failed to maintain this position." In addition, "some were apparently threatened with death and, in the case of female detainees, rape."4

Eighteen months later, the Italian police confessed to a parliamentary inquiry that they had fabricated evidence against the protesters: one senior officer admitted planting two Molotov cocktails in the school, and another admitted faking the stabbing of a police officer. A Guardian investigation at the time of the protests had found that certain 'demonstrators' who committed acts of looting and attacks on reporters were in fact provocateurs from European security forces. Not surprisingly, "few, if any" of these persons were arrested.5 This was, then, a pre-planned assault by the leaders of Europe on the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement.

More sophisticated response required
While "robust" repression remained an essential tool of dealing with the movement, it was not sufficient. For, contrary to Blair's assertion that "These guys don't represent anyone", it was clear that indeed they represented vast and growing numbers affected, in some cases even ruined, even within the imperialist countries themselves by the current processes. Early on, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that "Seattle and Washington reflect how large the antagonistic audience has become, and the lengths to which participants will go in their desire to shut down or impede the spread of globalization".6 The aggressively pro-'globalisation' Economist, in an editorial titled "Angry and effective"7, lamented that "The threat of renewed demonstrations against global capitalism hangs over next week's annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank. This new kind of protest is more than a mere nuisance: it is getting its way." It warned that "it would be a big mistake to dismiss this global militant tendency as nothing more than a public nuisance, with little potential to change things. It already has changed things", counting the Multilateral Agreement on Investment as its first victim.

The Economist traced the effectiveness of the protests not to the methods employed but to the fact that they "enjoy the sympathy of many people in the West.... Many of the issues they raise reflect popular concern about the hard edges of globalisation — fears, genuine if muddled, about leaving the poor behind, harming the environment, caring about profits more than people, unleashing dubious genetically modified foods, and the rest. The radicals on the streets are voicing an organised and extremist expression of these widely shared anxieties.... the protesters are prevailing over firms, international institutions and governments partly because, for now, they do reflect that broader mood. If their continuing success stimulates rather than satisfies their appetite for power, global economic integration may be at greater risk than many suppose."

A sophisticated response was required. At Melbourne, at a conference site besieged by demonstrators, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab commented revealingly that "If I have learned one thing from here, I will try in future to install a dialogue corner where some business people here and some people in the street could meet in a safe corner and just exchange ideas." The Economist noted that the Czech president tried unsuccessfully "to broker a meeting between the protesters [at Prague] and the boss of the World Bank.... Mr Havel has since managed to set up a forum on September 23rd that will be attended by Bank and Fund officials and by assorted opponents of globalisation."

Such efforts are not new: The Bank, Fund, U.N., and other such institutions have for some years been sponsoring parallel NGO meets at each major international gathering. Indeed, at Seattle, in December 1999, the WTO itself hosted a parallel Social Summit the day before the opening of the WTO conference, where the new International Labour Office Director-General Juan Somavia spelled out the programme: "What we need today is a more fruitful collaboration between the ILO, the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank with the objective of creating a Social Chapter within the incipient structures of world governance.... We need to create structures where the fears and anxieties of civil society can be fully aired and addressed."8

At the same gathering, former WTO Director General Renatto Ruggiero warned that "if all actors in today's global economy are not included to address the widening range of public concerns within this global system... they may turn to alternative solutions that could possibly destabilize the entire architecture of the global economy.... Certainly we must continue to advance trade liberalization within the multilateral system. But unless we achieve a consensus and cooperation with all the political actors, we cannot build the necessary support for trade liberalization and the global economy."9

The efforts of the 1999 Seattle Social Summit to engage the protesters in consensus-building for trade liberalisation were, to put it mildly, unsuccessful. And through all the militant protests that followed, it was clear that those sponsored efforts at consensus-building with the protesters, organised as they were under the auspices of the same international bodies that were the targets of the protests, carried no credibility with the marchers.

World Social Forum is given shape
It was during the following turbulent year, 2000, that the "alternative" to Seattle-type confrontations took shape — with remarkable speed, starting within three months of the Seattle events.

According to a member of the International Council of the WSF, in February 2000, Bernard Cassen, the head of a French NGO platform ATTAC, Oded Grajew, head of a Brazilian employers' organisation, and Francisco Whitaker, head of an association of Brazilian NGOs, met to discuss a proposal for a "world civil society event"; by March 2000, they formally secured the support of the municipal government of Porto Alegre and the state government of Rio Grande do Sul, both controlled at the time by the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT). In June 2000, the proposal for such an event was placed by the vice-governor of Rio Grande do Sul at an alternative UN meeting in Geneva.10 The World Bank website dates the WSF to this meeting, referring to it as "a new organizational perspective launched in June 2000 in Geneva by the major organisations of civil society".11

This political trend, which was already present within the protest movement, stepped up its efforts to influence it. A group of French NGOs, including ATTAC, Friends of L'Humanite, and Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique, sponsored an Alternative Social Forum in Paris titled "One Year after Seattle", in order to prepare an agenda for the protests to be staged at the upcoming European Union summit at Nice. The speakers called for "reorienting certain international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO... so as to create a globalization from below" and "building an international citizens' movement, not to destroy the IMF but to reorient its missions." While strongly endorsing the project of the European Union (one of the central aims of which in fact is to strip the hard-won rights of European workers and their various forms of social protection), the organisers called for a Social Europe, "on the basis of a Third Way [ie neither capitalism nor socialism], that could implement policies against unemployment, insecurity, and the undermining of workers' rights."

The organisers had considerable success in foisting this agenda on the protest demonstrations at Nice, where the general secretary of the European Confederation of Trade Unions (ETUC) declared that "all components of civil society must play a major role in the construction of the European Union. The message of our demonstration is unmistakable: There needs to be the incorporation of the trade unions and NGOs into the decision-making structures in Brussels.... We agree that Europe must become more competitive, yes. But the new Europe must also contain a dignified quality of life for all its citizens."12 This vision of a happy family of European labour and capital would warm any corporate chieftain's heart.

Let us take a closer look here at the two principal authors of the World Social Forum: ATTAC of France and the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) of Brazil. It is worth looking at the background of these two forces.

ATTAC: devoted to dialogue with international financial institutions
ATTAC is an NGO platform that aims to build a coalition of diverse groups — farmers, trade unions, intellectuals — for a reform of the world financial system. Its name is the French acronym for Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens. It was originally set up in 1998 by Bernard Cassens and Susan George, the editors of Le Monde Diplomatique, to campaign for the Tobin tax. This is a tax long ago proposed by the American economist James Tobin, whereby speculative financial transactions would be taxed at the rate of 0.1 per cent in order to raise funds for productive and socially desirable purposes. (While ATTAC has broadened its concerns in the past several years, it has not abandoned its base in the Tobin tax proposal.) Tobin, a Nobel Prize-winning establishment economist who has advised US administrations, in no sense considered his proposal radical, anti-corporate or anti-globalization — indeed, he envisioned the tax revenues being administered by the IMF (ATTAC wants the United Nations to do so instead). At any rate, given the dominance of financial sector activity, and the hectic pace of speculative transactions worldwide, the Tobin tax stands nil chance of being actually enacted by any country wishing to remain in the existing world financial institutions, international capital flows and international trade; the country that made such a tax law would immediately be punished by the world financial community withdrawing capital from it. To be effective, it presumably would have to be enacted by all countries in the world, or at least the leading powers, which could then impose it on the rest of the world. The Tobin tax proposal is a mirage.

Apart from the Tobin tax, ATTAC advanced three other propositions at the World Social Forum: the reform of the World Bank and IMF; a global commission to slow down multinationals and increase competition; and "a procedure of mediation for countries of the 'Third World' in debt, where creditors and debtors should name their representatives and who then have to come to an agreement in regard to an arbitrator". All this was to be achieved through "dialogue" with governments and international institutions like the Fund and Bank.13

This understanding is also reflected in the work of one of ATTAC's leading lights, Susan George, who argues against a write-off of the Third World debt, and instead for its "creative" renegotiation. She indeed defends the institution of the IMF: "Should the South seek to replace or abolish the IMF? Even if such a Herculean feat were possible, this strikes me as the wrong goal, precisely because the Fund is supra-national and because it is an instrument. If enough pressure and political skill were applied, it could become an instrument for governments more enlightened than that of the United States under Reagan."14 While the intellectuals of ATTAC prominently occupied platforms and press conferences at each major post-Seattle protest, their actual politics starkly contrasts that of the protesters who called for writing off the Third World debt or "smashing the IMF".

Nor does ATTAC have much in common with the traditional trade union goal of defending jobs. In a May 2001 document (The rules of the new shareholding capitalism), ATTAC upholds the right of the sack: "Clearly, the right to capitalist property includes the right to hire and fire. The question is knowing up to what point. As far as we are concerned, we want job-cuts to be the last resort, once all other possibilities of guaranteeing the survival of the company have been exhausted."15

For ATTAC the militant anti-'globalisation' protests failed in a crucial sense: they lacked the 'constructive' development of 'alternatives'. According to Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC, "The failure of Seattle was the inability to come up with a common agenda, a global alliance at the world level to fight against globalisation".16 Hence the need for WSF. Says Bernard Cassens, the first president of ATTAC, "We are not just protesters, our ambition is to propose credible alternatives to show that another world is possible by once more putting the economy and finance at the service of society."17

To whom were these alternatives to be proposed, in whose eyes were they to be "credible"? Evidently, to those in charge of the existing world. ATTAC has been courted by various European social democratic governments: "In September last year (2001) the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, both facing closely fought elections in the near future, agreed to set up a joint working party on how to regulate financial markets. The leadership of ATTAC France have held several meetings with Jospin's chief of staff. The French National Assembly passed a resolution in November supporting the Tobin tax on international financial speculation. Perhaps because of this courtship, the ATTAC leadership did not mobilise its considerable influence against the war in Afghanistan. This courtship will continue at Porto Alegre. Among the notables present will be Danielle Mitterrand, widow of the former French president."18 It is alleged that at various forums ATTAC have intervened to exclude discussion of issues such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and prevent discussion of state racism, immigrant rights, and explicit references to fascism and Islamophobia.19

Indeed ATTAC sees no wrong in receiving funds from ruling quarters in Europe. The French business daily Les Echos (10/1/02) reported that "Last year ATTAC received 300,000 Euros in grants alone. Among the contributors were the European Commission (of the EU), the French government's Department of Social Economy, the National Ministry of Education and Culture and a whole host of local governments." According to the daily Le Monde (1/2/02), "ATTAC and Le Monde Diplomatique received 80,000 Euros from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help them organise the World Social Forum." Les Echos (1/2/02) comments accurately that "The financing of the NGOs, whose role is not always transparent, often comes from multinational corporations who prefer to back them discreetly so as to be able to use them for their own purposes. It would appear that these are two opposing ideologies. In fact, more and more these ideologies are becoming intertwined."20

Of course, ATTAC's construction experts ignore the fact that a genuine alternative cannot merely be mounted on top of the existing structure, but must be preceded by clearing away the burden of the past.

Workers' Party: instrument of IMF rule
The other important force initiating the WSF, the PT of Brazil, can hardly be termed an opponent of globalisation. When the first three WSF meets took place, the PT was in power only in one province of Brazil, Rio Grande de Sul, whose capital is Porto Alegre. At the time it was celebrated for its "Participatory Budget" process. In this, an assembly would be held of associations representing various sections of society — including trade unions, NGOs, and employers' associations. First, from the funds available, the amount required for the province's contribution towards servicing the foreign debt would be subtracted. Then discussion would begin on how to spend the remainder, with each association allowed time to speak to ask for funds for its concern, and a vote at the end on all the proposals. None of the priorities may be funded, if there are not sufficient funds for them.21 Clearly such a procedure has nothing to do with opposing 'globalisation'. What it does is to set various exploited social sections against one another and dissipate resentment for Bank-Fund austerity measures. Indeed the IMF publication Finance and Development, edited by the World Bank's Chief Economist, praises the PT's "participatory budget" as helping to "reduce the administrative and social constraints on economic activity and social mobility".22

Now that the PT has been elected to power at the national level, its anti-'globalisation' pretensions have been dropped. In order to "confront the fear that had taken hold of investors, both foreign and Brazilian" before his election, "Lula [Luis Ignacio Silva, the head of the PT and now the president of Brazil], in a 'letter to the Brazilian people,' had committed himself during the campaign to maintaining the budget surpluses required by the IMF. When he took office, he not only did this, but he went further and surprised Wall Street by increasing the budget surplus from 3.5 percent of GDP to 4.6 percent" — a remarkable extraction from a poverty-ridden economy in recession. Unsurprisingly, "Officials at the IMF and World Bank in Washington have praised the stringent fiscal orthodoxy imposed by the new government." For the critical position of president of the Central Bank, Lula appointed Henrique Meirelles, the former president of global banking at FleetBoston Financial, and "well known in US financial circles." International investors are reassured: Since Lula took office on January 1, 2003, Brazil has received some $5.6 billion in foreign investment.23 Lula has also kept a distance from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, one Latin American leader who is disliked by international capital.

As Brazil continues to service its debt and attract foreign capital, its basic interest rate, at 26.5 per cent, strangles domestic investment: interest now accounts on average for 14 per cent of the cost of production in Brazil and as much as 25 per cent in the steel and auto-parts industry. More than a third of the population is officially considered poor, and 15 per cent destitute. "Unemployment in the greater São Paulo region, Brazil's industrial and financial heartland, has risen to over 20 percent. Brazil's economic policy makers remain under IMF surveillance, obliged to make payments on the $30 billion of IMF loans that the previous government negotiated, which gives very little space for the economy to grow." Brazil's policymakers now talk the language of the IMF: "If budget surpluses can be sustained, once growth picks up next year, as they anticipate it will, they believe that they will at last be able to shift surpluses from paying debt and toward social development, education, health, and improving roads and other infrastructure."24 It is elementary that a policy of extracting budget surpluses can only contract economic activity, making the possibility of social development even more remote.

Little wonder that "Some of the left-wing members of the PT were openly criticizing [Lula], and the party leaders were threatening the most acerbic critics with expulsion if they voted against the government's reform measures." The left-wing members would have contrasted Lula's present positions with his words to the Havana Debt Conference in 1985:

" Without being radical or overly bold, I will tell you that the Third World War has already started -- a silent war, not for that reason any the less sinister. This war is tearing down Brazil, Latin America and practically all the Third World. Instead of soldiers dying there are children, instead of millions of wounded there are millions of unemployed; instead of destruction of bridges there is the tearing down of factories, schools, hospitals, and entire economies.... It is a war by the United States against the Latin American continent and the Third World. It is a war over the foreign debt, one which has as its main weapon interest, a weapon more deadly than the atom bomb, more shattering than a laser beam...."25

The context of class struggle in Latin America
Indeed the emergence of the WSF needs to be seen against the background of not only the upsurge of militant protests against the world's leading financial institutions and bodies. It must also be seen against the great wave of struggles of workers and peasants sweeping Latin America since the Mexican Zapatista uprising of 1994, and more particularly in the last few years: a flowering of other movements on the land question in Mexico inspired by the Zapatista uprising, many of them armed; an extended and political Mexican student movement; the continuing guerrilla war led by FARC and ELN in Colombia; the continuing guerrilla war in Peru; a near-insurrection in Ecuador against IMF-imposed policies, resulting in the fall of a government; mass mobilisations in support of the Chavez government in Venezuela, in defiance of the Venezuelan elite and US imperialism; the militant direct occupation of land by the Movement of the Landless (MST) in Brazil; the remarkable Argentinian popular uprising and occupation of factories and sites of political power in 2001-02 in defiance of international investors, forcing repeated defaults of payments on the foreign debt; the Bolivian anti-privatisation struggles, including the successful struggle of Cochabamba against the privatisation of water; and others. Thus Latin America has become in recent years a particularly important zone of class struggle in the world, in confrontation with international capital. Many of these struggles have been spontaneous or led by amorphous forces, in search of political moorings and a vision of the future. Hence the importance for international capital of channeling them, too, along the `constructive' paths charted by organisations like ATTAC.

So it was that, in 2002, the Porto Alegre municipality provided approximately $300,000 and the Rio Grande do Sul state government (under which the municipality falls) another $ one million for the WSF, despite their austerity regime. In 2003, there was some increase in the money provided by the municipal government and a substantial cut in the money given by the state government (as a result of PT losing the state elections). However, the new PT federal government, headed by Lula, decided to compensate for the cut by the state government.26 ATTAC channeled European Union funds for the setting up of the WSF, and it is itself a recipient of European Union and French government funding (see Appendix II for details). Apart from this, other WSF funders (or 'partners', as they are referred to in WSF terminology) included Ford Foundation, which we will discuss later in this article — suffice it to say here that it has always operated in the closest collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency and US overall strategic interests; Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is controlled by the German Greens party, a partner in the present German government and a supporter of the wars on Yugoslavia and Afghanistan (its leader Joschka Fischer is the German foreign minister); and major funding agencies such as Oxfam (UK), Novib (Netherlands), ActionAid (UK), and so on.

Remarkably, an International Council member of the WSF reports that the "considerable funds" received from these agencies have "not hitherto awakened any significant debates [in the WSF bodies] on the possible relations of dependence it could generate." Yet he admits that "in order to get funding from the Ford Foundation, the organisers had to convince the foundation that the Workers Party was not involved in the process."27 Two points are worth noting here. First, this establishes that the funders were able to twist arms and determine the role of different forces in the WSF — they needed to be 'convinced' of the credentials of those who would be involved. Secondly, if the funders objected to the participation of the thoroughly domesticated Workers Party, they would all the more strenuously object to prominence being given to genuinely anti-imperialist forces. That they did so object will be become clear as we describe who was included and who excluded from the second and third meets of the WSF.

The WSF Charter
The charter of the WSF28 describes the Forum opaquely as "a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives", "an open meeting place for... groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism", a "plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context", and so on. However, the charter bars the WSF from any meaningful action. "The meetings of the WSF do not deliberate on behalf of the WSF as a body.... The participants in the Forum shall not be called on to take decisions as a body, whether by vote or acclamatiion, on declarations or proposals for action that would commit all, or the majority, of them.... It thus does not constitute a locus of power..." Thus the WSF organisers have strenuously and successfully resisted taking a stand on even such a glaring issue as the US invasion of Iraq.

The WSF's diversity has its limits. Some groups of "civil society"— or of the people, to use a clearer term — are to be excluded: "Neither party representations nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum." (The April 2002 Bhopal declaration of Indian organisations constituting WSF-India says that "The meetings of the World Social Forum are always open to all those who wish to take part in them, except organisations that seek to take people's lives as a method of political action".29) Thus any struggle which defends or advances its cause by use of arms would be barred: for example, had the Vietnamese liberation struggle existed today it would not be able to attend the WSF, even were it to wish it; nor would today's Palestinian or Iraqi resistance fighters. Examples can easily be multiplied.

Yet the same charter states that "Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity." (The Bhopal declaration of WSF India emphasises that the WSF does not intend "to exclude from the debates it promotes those in positions of political responsibility, mandated by their peoples, who decide to enter into the commitments resulting from those debates." In other words, they are not participating in their "personal capacity", but in their official capacity.30) Given that these persons are leaders of political parties, and given that as heads of state they lead military organisations, this would seem to negate the earlier clause banning party representations or military organisations.

Clearly the objects of the two clauses are different. The first is intended to block certain 'undesirable' radical parties and their fighting forces. The second is to ensure the presence of representations from the very governments carrying out globalisation.

While barring the participation of armed organisations, the WSF Charter mentions that it will "increase the capacity for non-violent social resistance to the process of dehumanization the world is undergoing and to the violence used by the State." (emphasis added) So the world is being dehumanized as a result of the intensification of exploitation; states are employing violence to accomplish this; yet resistance must be non-violent; failure to maintain non-violence will bar one from attending WSF gatherings.

On the other hand, the question of funding does not even figure in the charter of principles of the WSF, adopted in June 2001. Marxists, being materialists, would point out that one should look at the material base of the forum to grasp its nature. (One indeed does not have to be a Marxist to understand that "he who pays the piper calls the tune".) But the WSF does not agree. It can draw funds from imperialist institutions like Ford Foundation while fighting "domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism". Indeed, the WSF Charter makes clear that it is opposed to all "reductionist views of economy, development and history", meaning, presumably, Marxist analysis.

WSF 2001, 2002, 2003
The actual gatherings of the World Social Forum in 2001, 2002, and 2003 were marked by a sharp contrast. On the one hand there was the vibrant presence of masses of people — 5,000 registered participants and thousands of other Brazilian participants at the first event; 12,000 official delegates and tens of thousands of other participants at the second; and 20,000 delegates, at the third, which had a total attendance of 100,000.

One report describes how, at the meets, "Bank employees distributed leaflets with the title 'all bankers are thieves' and burnt dollar and euro banknotes. Metal and oil workers called for international solidarity with the Palestinians. In the morning the organisation of the homeless people occupied a building, which the city council had promised to convert into state-subsidised flats a year ago."31

There was a diversity similar to that of the anti-'globalisation' protests, ranging from workers, peasants and students to environmentalists, anti-debt campaigners, and NGOs. But the new addition was high-powered officers of international institutions, academics, and politicians. James Petras writes of the second WSF meet:

"The Forum was sharply polarized. On one side were the reformers — the NGO'ers, academics and the majority of the organizers of the Forum, ATTAC-Tobin tax advocates from France and leaders from the social-liberal wing of the Brazilian Workers Party. On the other side were the radicals from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, activist intellectuals, piqueteros from Argentina, representatives of left-wing parties, trade unions, urban movements and solidarity groups. There were significant differences in the social composition of the meetings and the public demonstrations. At the opening inaugural march, run by the reformist officials, the marchers were from a diverse array of groups. The unofficial march of 50,000 against the Latin American Free Trade Agreement was organized by the radical groups and included a large contingent of Brazilian workers, peasants and homeless, as well as militant internationalists from ongoing struggles in Argentina, Bolivia and other countries."32

Naomi Klein notes that, while "any group that wanted to run a workshop... simply had to get a title to the organizing committee", "there were sometimes sixty of these workshops going on simultaneously, while the main-stage events, where there was an opportunity to address more than 1,000 delegates at a time, were dominated not by activists but by politicians and academics."33 Petras agrees: "It was the well-known intellectual notables from the NGOs which crowded the platforms and informed the public about the movements in their regions... The official plenary sessions and `testimonials' were heavily biased in favour of NGO'ers and intellectuals, while the parallel workshops and seminars were the occasional site of fruitful exchange among activists from substantial movements engaged in the significant battles against imperialism ('globalization')."

Who was included
Despite the WSF Charter's prohibition of political parties, Lula, head of the PT and now head of the federal government of Brazil, prominently participated at all three WSF meets. For that matter the PT, the ruling party at the local and now national level, has been omnipresent at the WSF meets. And Lula, as part of his new presidential responsibilities, traveled straight from the WSF 2003 to Davos, to participate in the World Economic Forum meet. Thus it is possible to take part in both forums.

It is worth looking at the credentials of some of the other participants at the WSF. The French government — still more or less a colonial ruler in parts of Africa — has sent high-level delegations to the WSF, containing several cabinet ministers. Among those whom the organising body of WSF presumably considers "accept the commitments" of its charter were the French minister of cooperation (directly responsible for dealing with the foreign debt of the African countries — in particular former French colonies), the minister of housing, the minister of education, and so on. Also present at the WSF was a top-ranking delegation of the United Nations, a body in whose name several heinous wars have been fought since 1991. A special message from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was read out at the WSF — as it was also in the World Economic Forum at Davos.

At any rate the bar on political parties is selective: any number of representatives of political parties attend in their "individual capacities", and even hold important positions in the WSF bodies. The bar is actually an enabling provision, to keep out those the organisers wish to keep out.

Even some prominent representatives of the WSF have been embarrassed by the contradiction. According to Jose Luis del Rojo, the Italian coordinator of the WSF: "We have a problem. There are several thousand politicians present, many of whom are members of parliament, mainly from Europe, who voted for the US war against Afghanistan. Many of these had declared themselves to be against our movement. And now they are all here, giving interviews to the international press...We have problems especially with the French and Italian members of parliament. For example, there is the secretary of the Left Democrats from Italy, Piero Fassino, who spoke strongly in favour of Italy entering this war. These are the same people, who in Genoa, while the police was beating us up, called upon the population not to join the demonstration, in order to isolate us and leave us in the hands of the repressive state apparatus...This should be a Forum of local government politicians, but here we have prefects from Europe taking part. These people in their municipalities and regions have expelled immigrants. All this has nothing to do with our principles."34

Of the German delegation, "The majority was made up of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), like the Evangelische Entwicklungsdienst (Protestant Voluntary Service Overseas). The bulk of the delegation was formed by foundations linked to political parties, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Friedrich Ebert Foundation) with a total of 19 delegates, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) with 9 delegates, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Heinrich Böll Foundation) with 2 delegates and the DGB (German Federation of Trade Unions) with 7 representatives."35

An International Council member notes that certain UN organs were actively involved in the WSF despite the bar on intergovernmental bodies. "In order to partially overcome such dilemmas, a new form of participation was attempted in 2002 when it was decided that the WSF would have a new category of events: roundtables of dialogue and controversy. Through these roundtables, representatives of institutions banned from the list of official delegates can be invited to debate and discuss."36

NGOs are major recipients of financing from the very institutions that the WSF is purportedly fighting. "For the last decade", said the World Bank president to the WSF 2003, "we have held an active dialogue with the organisations of civil society, including through the projects that we are financing." Thirteen per cent of the World Bank's loans to various governments have to be channeled to finance the "participation" of NGOs. On this account, in 2001, the borrowing countries were indebted for a neat $2.25 billion to the World Bank37. The NGOs in turn do their political bit for the Bank and Fund. The Economist notes that "The IMF, long regarded as impermeable to outsiders, now runs seminars to teach NGOs the nuts and bolts of country-programme design, so that they can better monitor what the Fund is doing and (presumably) understand the rationale for the Fund's loan conditions. Horst Kohler, the IMF's new boss, has been courting NGOs. Jim Wolfensohn, the Bank's boss, has long fawned in their direction, but in the Bank too the pace of bowing down has been stepped up.... Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, has gone further. He has a board of NGOs (including some fairly radical ones) to advise him..."

While the bulk of the participants at the WSF were Brazilian (67 per cent at WSF 2002), the largest non-Brazilian representation was of those who had funds, or who could be sponsored by those who had funds — not social movements, but NGOs and parliamentary parties. Inevitably, the bulk of the deliberations were `constructive' in the sense that ATTAC uses that word. The 'dialogue' with the powers that rule the world has begun. World Bank president James Wolfensohn closed his message to the WSF 2003 with these words: "My colleagues and I have followed the debates of the last two World Social Forums, and we will discuss with interest the ideas and proposals that will emerge this year... We can work together much more closely."38

Who was excluded
While NGOs and political leaders of the existing system flooded the city's five-star hotels, there were significant absences at the WSF. Given the charter's bar on "political parties" and "military organisations", it was inevitable that popular insurgencies would be barred from participation by the organisers of the WSF. "During the first WSF, FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who have been carrying on a long-standing armed struggle against the Colombian government; they are the main target of the US's massive Plan Colombia] received a lot of sympathy from some participants. In Brazil, relatively strong anti-US sentiments are often reflected in solidarity attitudes towards Colombian rebels. Unofficial moves were even afoot to recruit internationalist brigades to travel to Colombia."39 However, for the second and third WSF meets, FARC representatives were not allowed to register as participants. The Zapatista fighters of Mexico, one of Latin America's most prominent anti-'globalisation' movements, too were excluded, presumably because they, like FARC, are an armed force.

The Cuban delegation too at WSF 2002 was not given an official status, nor given a prominent role. Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, battling intense US efforts at overthrowing his elected government, was not invited to WSF 2003. When he turned up nevertheless, he was not accorded space within the official Forum, despite his evident popularity among the participants.

Equally significant is the exclusion of an unarmed organisation, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation of the mothers of those 'disappeared' by the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1976-83. The MST (the Brazilian Movement of the Landless), although formally on the Brazilian Organising Committee of the WSF, was unable to do anything about this exclusion of the Madres — a sign of who really calls the shots. The MST could only send an invitation to the Madres to attend in their personal capacity, along with an air ticket for the head of that organisation, Hebe Bonafini. We reproduce excerpts here from her speech at a mass rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after the WSF 2002:


"We were in Porto Alegre on the occasion of the Second World Social Forum (WSF). More than 50,000 participated in this weeklong event. There were large numbers of people from all over the world, including thousands of youth.

"There were three different levels to this WSF. First, there were the small gatherings of those who were in charge, controlling things. They were led by the French, mainly from an association called ATTAC, and by others from a few other countries.

"Then there were all the commissions and seminars, where all the intellectuals, philosophers and thinkers participated.

"And then there were the rank-and-file folks. We participated at that level, and we discussed with all sorts of people. But the fact is that we were brought to the WSF so we could listen — not so the rank-and-file could participate.

"Fidel Castro was not invited to participate and nor were the FARC. That's a shame. Nor were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo invited.

"I went to Porto Alegre because I was invited in a personal capacity by the Landless Peasants Movement of Brazil, the MST. And it was important that I was there, because I, along with a few others, was one of the first ones to put forward our sharp criticisms of this World Social Forum.

"We said that 'Social Democracy' and 'socialism' are not the same thing. We said that the European Social Democracy had taken over and appropriated this WSF. We said that the French organizers [i.e., ATTAC] and their cohorts could, of course, participate in this process, but that they should not control it.

"We said that in our view, people had flocked to this WSF to fight and organize against globalization only to find out, when they arrived, that the organizers had staged the event so that all we were supposed to be talking about was 'putting a human face' on globalization.

"The people I spoke to heard a different message: I told them, in relation to Argentina, that we, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, had taken over the Plaza de Mayo — which is just in front of the President Palace in Buenos Aires — 25 years ago.

"And I said that today, taking up where we left off, hundreds of thousands of people are assembling regularly and are bringing down the new wave of country-selling presidents."40

Democracy at the WSF
Who decides who is to be invited and who not? While the WSF makes much of its commitment to openness and democracy, in fact its structure is opaque and undemocratic. According to Teivainen, an International Council member, "Formal decision-making power has been mainly in the hands of the Organising Committee (OC), consisting of the [PT-affiliated] Central Trade Union Confederation (CUT), the MST and six smaller Brazilian civil society organisations". Of those six smaller "civil society organisations", five are funded NGOs (Brazilian Association of NGOs; ATTAC; Justice and Peace Brazilian Committee; Global Justice Centre; and Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE). Teivainen points out that although CUT and MST are much larger in terms of membership, "Some of the participating Brazilian NGOs have better access to financial resources: for example, IBASE, a Rio-based research institute, has been an important fund-raiser for the WSF."41

The International Council for the WSF was founded in June 2001, and currently has 113 organisations (including the eight Brazilian OC members), though in practice many of them do not actively participate. As yet there is no clear division of labour and authority between the BOC and the IC. At any rate, as Teivainen, himself one of the IC members, states, "the WSF does not have internal procedures for collective democratic will-formation".

Whether democratically or not, decisions are taken. The WSF structure is, we are told, "horizontal" — a large number of groups interacting without any centralising force. In fact, however, some force decides who will be invited and who not; who will be given prominence at the plenary sessions and press meets, and who will be consigned to the oblivion of a workshop. A "vertical" structure has scope for communication and representation from below to the top, whereas a pseudo-horizontal structure has scope for only top-down decisions by an inaccessible body — there is no scope for representation of the mass. Naomi Klein, a writer sympathetic to the mission of the WSF, writes: "The organizational structure of the forum was so opaque that it was nearly impossible to figure out how decisions were made or to find ways to question those decisions. There were no open plenaries and no chance to vote on the structure of future events. In the absence of a transparent process, fierce NGO brand wars were waged behind the scenes — about whose stars would get the most airtime, who would get access to the press and who would be seen as the true leaders of this movement."

Hardly surprising, then, that the WSF sessions (as well as the Asian Social Forum held in January 2003 in Hyderabad) are being confronted by demonstrations outside their sessions. Twenty office-bearers of Brazilian unions (including of CUT) distributed an "Open Letter" to the WSF 2002, questioning the WSF, exposing the role of NGOs, and asking, "Is it possible to put a human face on globalisation and war?"42 Klein mentions how "the PSTU, a breakaway faction of the Workers Party, began interrupting speeches about the possibility of another world with loud chants of `Another world is not possible, unless you smash capitalism and bring in socialism!"

No less than three World Social Forums have taken place; they are only the beginning. The World Social Forum is a "permanent process", one that is to spread to new parts of the world — the next "open meeting place" is to be held in India, and thereafter, presumably, in other uncharted lands. If one could quantify discussion, unprecedented quantities have been generated by the first three meets. Yet, in stark contrast to the movement to which it traces its birth, the WSF has not yielded a single action against imperialism. As its charter states, it is not a locus of power. However, in entangling many genuine forces fighting imperialism in its collective inaction, the WSF serves the purpose of imperialism.


1. Thanks are due to Jacob Levich, who helped with the research. (back)

2.Their exaggerated concern about the destruction of a few shop fronts and automobiles is matched by their silence on the devastation of the living standards of Russia, much of eastern Europe and the Balkans, southeast Asia, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and other countries during the last decade caused by the international financial institutions. (back)

3. 23/9/2000. (back)

4. FAIR -- Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting -- "Media Advisory: Media Missing New Evidence about Genoa Violence", 10/1/03. (back)

5. FAIR, ibid. (back)

6. "USA: Seattle WTO Protests Mark New Activist Age", AP, 25/11/2000. (back)

7. 23/9/2000. (back)

8. "How Not to Fight Globalization?", Alan Benjamin, The Organizer, / (back)

9. Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

10. Teivo Teivainen, "World Social Forum: What should it be when it grows up?", (back)

11. Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

12. All quotations from Benjamin, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

13. "Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?", translated from the Austrian Marxist magazine Der Funke. (back)

14. A Fate Worse Than Debt, 1988, p. 226; emphasis added. (back)

15. quoted in La Verite, no. 32, Spring 2003, theoretical magazine of the Fourth International. (back)

16. Naomi Klein, "A Fete for the End of History", The Nation, 19/3/01; emphasis added. (back)

17. La Verite, ibid. (back)

18. "Parliament of the People", Alex Callinicos, February 2002. (back)

19. "European social forum: ATTAC pulls movement to the right", Workers Power Global, 3/11/02. (back)

20. all quotations from (back)

21. Benjamin, op cit. (back)

22. cited in La Verité, op cit. (back)

23. "Lula's surprise", Kenneth Maxwell, New York Review of Books 3/7/03. (back)

24. Maxwell, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

25. A Fate Worse than Debt, p. 234. (back)

26. Teivainen, op cit. (back)

27. Teivainen, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

28. ""World Social Forum Charter of Principles", (back)

29. (back)

30. See (back)

31. "Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?", cited above. (back)

32. "Porto Alegre 2002: A tale of two forums", (back)

33. Klein, op cit. (back)

34. "Second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre: Is another world possible?", cited above; emphasis added. (back)

35. ibid. (back)

36. Teivainen, op cit; emphasis added. (back)

37. La Verité, op cit. (back)

38. cited in La Verité, op cit. (back)

39. Teivainen, op cit. (back)

40. reproduced from; emphasis added (back)

41. IBASE is, indeed, a large Brazilian NGO, with a budget of $5.6 million by 1996. Patterned by its founders explicitly along the lines of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, over the years it has drawn large funds from foreign institutions, including NOVIB and Ford Foundation. It gathers substantial contributions from Brazilian big business; indeed it has extensive business activities of its own, including as an internet service provider -- funds for which were generated largely by a Ford Foundation loan -- see IBASE has also collaborated with the UN in several projects. (back)

42. (back)

Next: WSF Mumbai 2004 and the NGO Phenomenon in India


All material © copyright 2015 by Research Unit for Political Economy