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The World Social Forum after Montreal

By Pierre Beaudet, Intercoll (Canada), October 2016.

The last World Social Forum in Montreal came to an end last August 13th, after four days of deliberations and meetings. The balance sheet still has to be made, and there will be plenty of discussions,. There are certainly positive aspects that were reached in Montreal, in addition to some negative ones. This situation gives way to a complex debate at the WSF, where, in the next months, decisions will be made regarding how to continue this great adventure.

“W” in the Forum

The poor number of granted visas to enter Canada drew a lot of attention, and for a good reason. At first, the decision of moving the WSF up “north” (since 2001, it was held in the “south”) was largely discussed. For many, it was time to give the “north” a better spot on the alter-globalist movements’ stage. And Montreal seemed like a natural choice, considering the enthusiasm of popular movements and battles in this town. However, we knew there were many risks. On one hand, the fact that Canada and its G7 partners were acting as a “besieged fortress”, disposing of an operated and well designed device to close doors on people, represented a serious obstacle, of which no one had been duped. On the other hand, the higher costs of organizing the Forum up north brought forth further complications. But finally, the International Council decided to move forward, based on promises made by the organizing Committee of Montreal.

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However, ultimately, the bet was lost. Hundreds of visas were declined. There was never enough money to help partners from the south. The Montreal Forum was international, with a small “I” due to limited participation from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Participation was also limited from the European side (with the exception of France) as well as the United States of America. This failure is a tough one. We can put the blame on ineffective governments for the current situation, but it would be a mistake to not take into consideration the other side of the problem. In reality, the organizing committee was unable to build an accurate strategy to limit the effects of visas being arbitrarily issued by the government. Beyond the disappointment of hundreds of people and organizations, this failure instills doubt on the current process which, after all, depends on the capacities of local organizers.

The two forums

Besides the “W” issue in WSF, the Forum has allowed interesting exchanges to take place between groups, organizations and networks. We have seen this in the “spaces” organized by the networks on union struggles, education, Palestine, international solidarity, climate change, fights for emancipation, etc. These spaces permitted for in-depth exchanges based on the experiences of many countries, often carried out over several days, with specific times reserved for brainstorming on strategy and organization. We did more than just talk at these events, we developed ideas, which was the case for many ongoing battles. On the other hand, there was a pre-selection of themes and resource personnel to give these meetings a consistency and a capacity to go over common places.

Credit goes to the groups who got together to think of processes comparable to “popular universities” elsewhere in the world. At the end of these exercises, the activists, who made up the majority of the attendees, were satisfied.

Alongside these “popular universities”, there was the citizen Forum that, according to WSF tradition, had to include all sorts of initiatives, in addition to unifying cultural events. In Brazil, India and Tunisia (just to name a few), the Forum became a large popular gathering, crossing the usual borders of organized movements. Today, we must say that it is not quite what happened in Montreal. In reality, there were few citizens, especially few young people, people living further away from Montreal and even less from the rest of Canada. In short, the Forum in Montreal did not become a large unifying event, moreover the information on the Forum, before and during the work, was deficient (a lot of people, even in Montreal and Quebec, simply did not know that the Forum even took place!).

Let’s take into consideration that this kind of situation has also happened outside of Montreal (in Caracas, Dakar and Nairobi, for example). The attractiveness of a forum depends on many factors. If popular movements, which are the foundation of the Forum, get more attention (it was the case for Brazil and Tunisia), it is easier to capture the attention of the public. It is clearly not the case in Quebec today. But there are also many organic factors within the organizational dynamics of the forums. In Montreal, the organizing committee decided to function mostly with individuals, regardless of their experiences and capabilities. We presented this way of thinking as the expression of a “free” and “fulfilling” organizational culture, by affirming, more or less explicitly, that the organizations were not capable of surpassing their tendencies to impose their priorities. So they organize themselves on their own basis, without being asked to participate on an effort of global mobilisation, as we expected, for example, at the Summit of the Americas in 2001. This “logic” of the organizing committee was incompatible with the process which would have put emphasis on the movements’ energy.

The future of the Forum

Before Montreal, there were successful forums, often because “planets were aligned”. Brazilian and Tunisian organizations had put all their effort into the Forums, because, in a way, it was part of their timing. Citizens were informed because of an enormous work of mobilization and information, several months in advance, in a context where change was in the air. It is not the same today in many regions around the world, where the winds of change has blown so strong during the past years.

It would be too easy to say that the Forum has run its course. On one hand, popular movements strengthen throughout the years and are now capable of surviving. Defeats and current decreases are certainly not the end of the story, we just have to look at the hard battles conducted throughout the world, in Quebec, France, USA, Brazil, etc. These enormous battles showed us the urgent needs of convergence, solidarity and a strong intellectual and political effort to break down issues and establish new ideas. The Forum, that encountered its ups and downs, is an ideal place for the establishment of a new internationalism and can continue while changing.

The discussion has already begun regarding more thoughtful processes that put the emphasis on popular movements and strategic objectives that answer current needs. The next forums will probably be thematic, with composite leaderships anchored on particular realities, national or regional. They will be more prepared, on the economic front as much as the organizational one led by representative groups and less on well intentioned individuals. They will be more able to identify priorities and stimulate the converging action of the participants, without becoming a prescriptive, hierarchic and constrained environment.