Common thread

While many of us in Australia in late January were lamenting the end of our summer holidays, considering Lleyton Hewitt’s prospects in the Open or reflecting on Steve Waugh’s contribution to Australian cricket, in India a tide of humanity was on the move. In their saris, salwar kameez, kurtas, t-shirts, trousers, lunghis and banians, people from Assam to Kerala, from Gujarat to Jharkhand, along with others from around the world, were gathering in Mumbai for the World Social Forum (WSF).

The crowd was a kaleidoscope of colour and sound, reflecting the variety of languages and cultures of the participants. Every group had its coterie of pounding drums and bells: everywhere there was dance and movement. Few conforming corporate suits and ties here: this was a march of the Dalits (the lowest of the major caste groups), the Adivasis and Nagas (two of India’s principle indigenous groups), the farmers, fishers and rickshaw pullers, transvestites and peace activists, the marginalised from India and the world, drawn to five days of debate, discussion, and cultural performance by the Forum’s slogan ‘Another World is Possible’.

Conceived around a kitchen table in Paris four years ago, the WSF was envisaged as an international forum for people in civil society who share a desire and commitment to shaping a world centred upon the human person. It aims to counter-balance the World Economic Forum held in Switzerland each January and opposes the domination of neo-liberalist values, the flow of capital as the determining factor in international relations, as well as any form of imperialism. The WSF styles itself as a ‘non-organisation’, neither a neat political platform nor a process in which the participants are required to come to agreement or adopt common positions. There are no conference declarations thrashed out around the committee table. Rather, the idea is to create a space for open ended discussion of social and economic alternatives to capital-driven globalisation, for sharing experiences and creating  networks, for creating friendships and alliances.

The founders, Francisco Whitaker, from the Brazilian Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission and Bernard Cassen, the president of ATTAC in France (an international movement for democratic control of financial markets and their institutions), took just six months to bring the idea to reality. The first Forum, held in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, attracted 20,000 people. Its success guaranteed a world stage for the politics of transformation. The original organisers drafted a  Charter of Principles and set up an International Committee consisting of more than a hundred delegates from NGOs, associations and movements around the world, including representatives from Caritas Internationalis, Oxfam, Greenpeace and Corporate Watch. The Forum process now includes regional meetings as well as an annual world gathering. The meeting in Mumbai was the fourth such gathering, and the first to be held outside Brazil. Its scale was enormous: over the five days, 100,000 people took part in some 12 conferences, 36 panel debates, 1060 seminars and workshops in rooms and halls seating anywhere from 50 to 4000. Each night a plenary session at the main open air stage attracted tens of thousands. Scheduled and unscheduled cultural performances continued day and night on the ten stages set up throughout the centre.

In the midst of these events recurring themes emerged: the central place of women as agents of global
change, the debilitating infection of patriarchy in religion and culture, the profound consequences of the war in Iraq for future world relations, the need for effective accountability mechanisms to monitor international movements of capital, and the role of poverty in undermining human rights. The quality of debate was high, yet the overwhelming impression was one of ordinary people taking the opportunity to share their experiences. An evening seminar heard the moving testimony of a young Bhutanese refugee growing up in a camp in Nepal. Similarly, a young Dalit women spoke of repeated and systematic rapes in her village at the hands of upper-caste men, who justify their actions as a manifestation of the divine will. These stories, simply put, weighed as powerfully as any intellectual discourse. Other testimonies of dance and music conveyed the importance of performers’ cultures and values, forging a new unity among the outcast and marginalised.

I attended the Forum as part of a large delegation convened by two Indian Jesuits, Joe Xavier and Louis Prakash. The group—the South Asian Peoples’ Initiative (SAPI)—enabled some 1650 of the poorest and most marginalised people in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to take part in the meeting. They hosted 17 seminars on topics as far ranging as indigenous rights in the Asia-Pacific to housing for tea-plantation workers in Sri Lanka.

Billeted in schools and institutions across Mumbai, the delegation met each day at breakfast before moving to the forum proper. At the end of the day we returned for a more leisurely (but still chaotic) dinner, afterwards chatting in smaller groups about the day’s events.

Such an initiative raises a number of questions concerning the role of religious groups in a multi–faith and pluralist world. SAPI grew from the desire of the Jesuits in India to faithfully represent the poor and marginalised people with whom they work. Because of the diverse nature of the group, however, SAPI could not associate itself with any one particular religious, cultural or ethnic group. It was the creation of a secular organisation that best enabled the Jesuits to carry out this aspect of their mission to the poor and marginalised.

At a meeting of SAPI delegates at the end of the week it was agreed that, by ourselves, we could do little in the way of changing the world, whereas united anything is possible. One Dalit performer spoke of his joy not only to have performed in front of the world but also to have felt for the first time a closeness between Adivasi and Dalit. A young Jesuit recalled the Pope’s call for global solidarity and the importance of creating new metaphors, narratives and symbols capable of energising societies for a more humane world. Having spoken of the power of the symbolic, however, he then stressed the importance of action; ‘It is one thing to talk about solidarity and quite another to live it. We have not only lived a typical discourse on solidarity, we have seen it in practice’.

I left the WSF with similar thoughts. What is it that brought this huge and diverse group of people together so forcefully? Was it just the dream for a better world? Or perhaps the ambition for otherwise unattainable political clout? While there were certainly political demonstrations and manifestos presented, most delegates simply wished to tell their stories—in words, dance or theatre, or through their presence—and to have those stories heard and acknowledged. The global narrative has no room for these people, whose values are superfluous to the quest for economic growth.

The violence of war, rape and forced eviction comes only at the end of a long process of cultural and social disenfranchisement. Ordinary people do not have inherent disagreements with corporate elites, but resent the stripping of meaning from their lives. A glimpse of freedom unleashes questions and powerful energies.

A delegate from Canada felt that his country had become anaesthetised by the dominant ideological discourse and dumbed down meaningful public debate. He described people in his country as tired. One cannot help wondering whether the same has happened in Australia. In an atmosphere where the divide between rich and poor gets wider, where the ideology of practical reconciliation overrides the rights and hopes of indigenous people, and where we persist with an inhumane, complacent and costly treatment of asylum seekers, one wonders whether there is space for the powerless to give voice, and value, to their experience. The World Social Forum represented a significant victory for civil society over political partisanship, left or right. We could do well to become more invested in it. 

David Holdcroft sj is the Coordinator of the Jesuit Social Sector for the Australian Province, and completing a Masters in Theology.




submit a comment

Similar Articles

Encountering the homeless

  • Jane Mayo Carolan
  • 06 June 2006

Jane Mayo Carolan confronts poverty in Australia.


Cuban rhythms

  • Jacqueline Dalmau
  • 05 June 2006

Jacqueline Dalmau’s Cuba.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up