The World Social Forum finished as it started, with a demo and a party. This time, the demonstration was against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The party was in the main assembly hall.
Porto Alegre, Brazil, has become a beacon for the left around the world, partly because of its unique experience in democracy, the participatory budget. As the global justice movement discusses how a better world might look, it becomes increasingly clear that this kind of citizens’ democracy is at the centre of that alternative.
For the last fourteen years, people here have discussed and decided all new public expenditures. What is most extraordinary about the budget process is that the poorest are the most active participants.
The forum illustrated that there are other kinds of participatory democracy as well. The most developed example is on the other side of the world, in the southernmost Indian state of Kerala. R.V.G. Menon of the All India People’s Science Movement explained that the literacy rate here is almost 100 per cent. The infant and mother mortality — and number of schools and hospitals — are at the same level as developed countries, despite an average per capita income of $1 per day.
The Left Democratic Front, until recently, the governing party in Kerala, handed more than 40 per cent of the total development budget to local community groups of forty or fifty households. They were asked to come up with development plans for their area.
“People’s participation included not only participation in the plans, but also in the implementation of these plans,” Menon explained. “The government knew that local people didn’t have the expertise to do the planning, so a network of retired technicians and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], mostly volunteer, were recruited to do the training.”
In Argentina today, people are taking democracy into their own hands, organizing neighbourhood councils that were spontaneous at first. Now, they are developing more structure. No one knows where this will go, but the development is exciting.
The people of Argentina mistrust all politicians. In Brazil, the Workers Party has managed to change the skepticism about politics that is rampant almost everywhere else in the world into a deep and genuine interest and even affection. The banner hanging behind the stage for the wrap-up rally said it all, “Here we have a better world.”
In the end:
- 80,000 people participated in the World Social Forum;
- they came from 150 countries;
- they represented 5,000 organizations;
- 15,084 were delegates;
- 15,000 lived in the youth camp;
- 43 per cent of the delegates were female.
As a speaker from India said, “Working for alternatives is not just a question of ideas and analysis, but also the experience of the other world we are talking about &We will probably never see a big nirvana in our lifetimes, but what motivates us is this little nirvana we experience from time to time.”