For another world

Published: Wednesday 15 June 2005

-- World Social Forum, Challenging Empires edited by Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, Peter Waterman The Viveka Foundation Delhi 2004

Many in India got to know about the World Social Forum (wsf) when its fourth meet was held in Mumbai, last year, many more that when a meet of its Asian chapter -- the Asian Social Forum -- had been held in Hyderabad in 2003. The media reports of the meets largely lacked empathy: many derided them as assemblies of antediluvian socialists, some condescended to call them well-meaning but utopian and others lampooned them as a carnival.

There was very little sense of the actual discussions, seminars and workshops held over a balmy January week in Mumbai. The book under review tries to fill this gap. It brings together 55 articles, which describe the global context in which wsf emerged, the manner in which different movements and ideologies have shaped the forum and the ways in which the movement has evolved.

The shortfalls first

The book's first section, 'Antecedents', describes the context within which the forum has taken shape and within which it continues to unfold. One of the editors, Jai Sen, begins his proem by citing social scientist Michael Hardt's comparison of the wsf with the non-aligned movement. This in my view is a little far-fetched. The wsf is a totally different kettle of fish. That apart, the editors have tried to include a range of perspectives: from the feminist (Johanna Brenner) to the anarchist (Andrej Grubacic). This is indeed laudable and also in the spirit of the forum. How-ever, the editors could have done well to include a dialogue amongst the proponents of these diverse perspectives. In fact, this lack makes the compilation quite akin to what some critics of the wsf describe the forum as: an amorphous debating club.

There is also very little critical analysis on the background, which is germane to movements such as the wsf. Of course writer after writer does talk of globalisation and neo-liberal government policies the world over. But there is little analysis on how these policies got consolidated on the debris of post-Keynsian development economics. This is a glaring omission because one stream within the wsf -- a very vocal one at that -- is still steadfast in its loyalty to the 'old world ideas'.

Then, a better job The other sections, however, do a much better job. Section two contains personal accounts of meetings. There are also very useful selections of "official" documents of the wsf. Sections three and four comprise critical engagements with the forum and the ideas at its basis, as well as those that emerge from it. This openness is praiseworthy. But does it further the debate? Or is it an attempt to sneak in through the backdoor those who share wsf's stance, but consider the forum as a weak opposition to globalisation?

The final section, 'Looking beyond', contains possibly some of the most thought-provoking articles of the collection. An interesting piece here is Maria Suarez Toro's 'Draft criteria for a proposed women's summit about the state of the world'. The article takes issue with the un conferences on sustainable development from a feminist perspective. Arguing that the gains for women have largely frozen since the fourth world women's conference in Beijing in 1995, Suarez Toro presents a compelling case for a "women's conference about the state of the world". But how does the wsf figure here? Suarez Toro argues that the forum with its umbrella scope can be a good facilitator.

The book is a useful compilation. But is another world possible as the wsf claims?

It is. But that would require many more struggles and lot more internal critical engagement amongst those who comprise wsf.

Oindrila Mitra is an activist and a freelance journalist

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