More certainties than doubts for a successful virtual forum
Assessment of the World Social forum 2021 - Towards the virtual and physical forum in Mexico 2022
The last Sunday in January was the culmination of a veritable nine-day marathon, with almost 800 activities proposed by 1,300 organisations that animated the 2021 virtual World Social Forum (WSF). Nearly 10,000 people from 144 countries took part in this year’s forum. The next step will be the WSF to be held in Mexico in 2022, if the pandemic permits.
"What we have just experienced is a link in this 20-year chain of the World Social Forum, a stage of confirmation and reinforcement," explains Rita Freire, journalist and communicator, head of Ciranda.net - an information platform on alter-globalisation created in 2001 - and a member of the facilitation group that set up this virtual forum. She does not hide her surprise and enthusiasm, given the size of this gathering which exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts.
Starting point and dilemma
Rita Freire goes back and looks for a starting point to take stock: it is the Porto Alegre Resistance Forum in January 2020. "We had set great challenges. We reached a consensus that, in order to continue, we had to ensure a reactivated, vigorous WSF, with a real capacity for gathering and impact, as well as a clear commitment to social struggles," she recalls.
The pandemic has forced a change in the roadmap, but not in the demanding targets proposed. The big question was whether this edition would strengthen the WSF. The answer today is positive: "From the very first day, January 23rd, when the virtual opening march took place, we realised that we were experiencing something really incredible: sharing of experiences, videos, reflections from people coming from the remotest corners of the world, as well as substantial contributions from social movements and organisations, in languages we did not always understand.
"The virtual can be an ally of living, real processes. It must be recognised, though, that for many people, the digital is not a viable medium, especially in countries lacking the means to connect to the Internet. There is a second contradiction we are faced with, which is difficult to resolve at the moment. In order to communicate, we use devices, mobile phones whose components include raw materials from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where these natural resources are the cause of wars and conflicts. Yet another contradiction: for the time being, we have to rely on monopolistic media, such as Facebook, Zoom or YouTube, without having our own free, strong and sovereign tools.
"We can use the virtual, without forgetting that it is not necessarily wonderful or fair and that in many cases it reflects a privilege that is the product of an unacceptable operating system," observes Rita Freire. She recalls that the very birth of the forum in 2001, in Porto Alegre, was made possible thanks to the appeal launched worldwide via the Internet. And that, at a later stage, the media and the social networks essential to the anti-globalisation movement began to be created and strengthened.
Convergences for contesting power
Rita Freire said that it was a good idea that the 2021 forum had been organised on the basis of specific thematic axes. The activities required "prior dialogue between organisations, consensus and convergence, which reinforced an important exercise for social actors; all this without ignoring the differences and possible conflicts that need to be resolved internally. For months, this forum proved to be a broad participatory process.
"Many of the debates at the current WSF were focused on the alternatives of a post-pandemic planet, both in environmental, economic and informational terms, as well as on the constitution and strengthening of democracy, on feminist struggles, migration, indigenous people and ethnic minorities," she said.
The essential thing is, precisely, to understand this constant dialogue between social actors, not just as mere intellectual rhetoric, but with a view to "strengthening convergences, imagining joint actions and mobilisations for the future, in short, suggesting global proposals that make it possible to contest the power of those who hold it", she stresses.
"Many of the proposals discussed at the WSF reinforce this future hope," adds Rita Freire. She lists a few examples: Google workers are advancing the idea of building a single global union; indigenous communities in Mexico are developing alternative forms of the Internet; free media are seeking to strengthen themselves; organisations are planning a major campaign to ban poverty and are anticipating concrete proposals at the national level to move in that direction. Not to forget also the debates on the role of the states in situations such as the one we are currently experiencing, the importance of public services, the suffocating burden of debt for the Global South countries, etc.
The process is continuing and the WSF is planning another forum in Mexico next year, if the pandemic permits. “Nothing can replace a hug. We can't dance together on the Internet," the Brazilian journalist points out. She is convinced that face-to-face and virtual meetings will have to be combined. "Mexico could be like a centre, a heart of the event that is linked to the rest of the world, a multicentric and polycentric formula. A World Social Forum configured as a global topic, where the strength of movements and organisations is expressed with real impact. The possible dream of a mobilised global civil society, challenging the hegemonic system and building viable post-pandemic alternatives, the foundation of a fairer and more equitable world, concludes Rita Freire.
Sergio Ferrari, journalist PR, Switzerland
Translation Olivier Guerdat