Thousands of people from over 95 countries are expected to gather in Montreal from August 9-13 for a social movement summit called the World Social Forum (WSF). Participants will spend a week attending a great variety of workshops, lectures and cultural events — more than 1200 in total. Famed author Naomi Klein will be giving two talks that are sure to be among the highlights of this unique event, which is designed to allow social activists and scholars to grapple with a host of economic, social, environmental and cultural questions facing the contemporary world. And Klein is just one of a raft of influential speakers who will be engaging audiences at the WSF. The Forum will unfold throughout downtown Montreal at UQAM, Concordia and McGill as well as in many parks and other venues outside the universities.
An annual event that usually takes place in the developing world, the WSF is being held in Montreal following a decision made at last year’s event in Tunis to bring the Forum north, to a city which has been the site of striking social and political creativity over the last decade, with such movements as Quebec’s Maple Spring in 2012.
The WSF originated in 2001, in Porto Alegre, Brazil as a response to policies designed to accelerate globalization, a process seen by corporate leaders and governments as well as powerful institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF as the recipe for prosperity. NGOs and social movements from Brazil and from abroad gathered to examine the impact of globalization on the lives of working people and the poor and discuss how to alter globalization to redress the fundamental problems of inequality, environmental degradation and lack of democracy.
After its initial success in Brazil, international, national and regional forums were organized in India, Kenya, Senegal, Pakistan, Mali, Venezuela, and some 50 other countries. The discussions revolved around how to design and implement alternatives to conventional political, economic and social policies. However, the Forum was not conceived as an executive committee for social movements worldwide. It is an open platform aimed at exploring ideas, sharing experiences and broadening perspectives on how to effect change.
In 2008 with the eruption of the financial crisis, the idea that economic globalization is the wrong answer to many of the challenges that we face gained steam. Today in 2016 more than 70 per cent of the world’s population lives on less than $10 per day. In the rich countries of the North austerity is the new watchword and public services are threatened. Moreover, the prevailing economic and political system is failing utterly to address the looming disaster of climate change. War and militarization have thrown whole regions of the world into chaos, which is the source of the escalation of desperate and violent acts in so many countries.
Faced with this grave crisis, citizens and social movements are taking stock. What can we do? Is there another way, an alternative approach that can help us relieve these destructive pressures?
In recent years, the WSF has been buoyed by the popular demands for social justice and democracy in Southern Europe (the Indignados), North Africa and the Middle East (the Arab Spring), and even the United States (Occupy Wall Street). There is a growing awareness of the need to consider alternatives to policies that primarily benefit elites, as was evident in the US with the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Those gathering in Montreal for the WSF are also especially concerned with the growth of an authoritarian politics of hate and blame as embodied, for example, by Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland. This dangerous current seeks to exacerbate the rising repression against refugees, migrants, Indigenous peoples and many disadvantaged communities.
Changing the social and economic conditions that offer fertile ground for the resurgence of the extreme right is among the urgent tasks the groups and individuals meeting in Montreal will turn their minds to at the World Social Forum. As the WSF slogan puts it: “Another world is needed. Together it is possible.”
Pierre Beaudet is a member of the International Council of the World Social Forum and was involved in every stage of the process leading to the event in Montreal. He teaches at the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa.