9 February 2006 Edition

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A Tale of Two Worlds

International - World Social Forum and World Economic Forum

This is a tale of two worlds: one, the world of exclusivity and billionaire interests met in Switzerland, a country with a per capita GDP higher than most of the big west European economies. The other world of civil society, equal development and social justice, met in Venezuela and Mali.

The recent World Economic Forum (WEF) saw conservative German Prime Minister Angela Merkel meet UN Goodwill Ambassador for refugees Angelina Jolie. Jolie was there to speak in the name of billions of people suffering from hunger, who of course were not invited to speak themselves. Also in attendance were Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and film star Brad Pitt.

Amid much self-congratulation the WEF decides the future of the world economy. This year the forum dealt with "projects in hunger, anti-corruption, financing for development", but all against a background of pushing for the introduction of so-called "public-private partnerships", a by-word for the privatisation of public services.

The President of the European Central Bank admitted that "developing countries finance the industrial nations", and called the situation "intolerable in the long term". The richest man in the world, Bill Gates, professed alarm at the spread of tuberculosis and the inaccessibility of universities to three quarters of the US population. But they were unable to connect these problems to the concentration of wealth in the hands of ever fewer corporations, the massive debt faced by third world countries and so-called "preventative war" — policies the WEF has advocated in the past and continues to advocate.

While more than 2,000 representatives of the world's elite were at the WEF, around 100,000 people were at it's counterpart, the World Social Forum (WSF) in the Venezuelan capital Caracas between 24-29 January 2006. In contrast to the WEF, the discussions were among people who daily confront the impact of global capitalism through unemployment, social and economic exclusion, lack of health care, and other problems. There were also exciting meetings -- though maybe not as glamourous -- taking place. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met US peace activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey, a US soldier, was killed in Iraq.

While in Davos Indian corporations distributed free curry dishes to potential investors, in Caracas Indian trade unions participated in a "march against imperialism".

Hugo Chavez

World Social Forum discussions tend to be more practical than those of the WEF and this year, they focused on whether the WSF should remain a space for mere reflection and protest or should begin to design campaigns for concrete action. The discussion could not have a better host, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called on the Assembly of Social Movements, a coalition of 300 organisations and networks active within the WSF framework, to "draw up strategies of power in an offensive to build a better world". Earlier, in a rally organised by the global Vía Campesina network, Chávez had stated that he hoped that the WSF would not become simply a forum for "revolutionary tourism".

That the meeting had taken place in Venezuela had its advantages for participants. The country's leader shares many of the values and objectives espoused by the WSF. Participants got a first-hand view of the changes brought about by Chavez's "social revolution" including myriad social programmes to bridge the social and economic divide.

For Ecuadorian indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso, the call made by Chávez "is one more commitment to step up the struggle", while Brazilian activist Giannina Andrade remarked that "social movements continue to play a leading role".

The debate on the politicisation of the Forum will continue through the Karachi meeting this March and on into Nairobi next year. "It is the peoples and social movements, not the leaders, who must mobilise and exert pressure on the governments, because without mobilisation, nothing can be achieved," said Belgian activist Eric Toussaint, president of the Brussels-based Committee for Cancellation of the Third World Debt.

Indigenous people

The participating civil society organisations continued to build a platform for future action, starting with indigenous people, who are planning their third continent-wide conference for October in Guatemala. Vía Campesina, a global movement, and the Confederation of Latin American Rural Organisations also called for "global uprisings" on 17 April, International Day of Peasant Struggles, and 16 October, World Food Sovereignty Day.

Meanwhile, the Fourth World Education Forum, held during the Sixth WSF itself, called for the defence of free, public, secular, mandatory and quality education that promotes a culture of peace.

A great deal of discussion also focussed on the concept of democracy. Participants spoke of countries that had been "liberated through elections", such as Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia, but stressed that "it should be the people who develop their own projects". During the Forum itself, hundreds of indigenous representatives from northwestern Venezuela staged a march to protest the coal mining concessions on their ancestral lands granted to transnational corporations from North America, Europe and Brazil.

Because of the dramatic health situation in sub-Saharan Africa, the region that is most heavily affected by HIV and AIDS, the Forum also agreed to make the right to health care one of the central themes of the 7seventh WSF to be held next year in Nairobi, Kenya.

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