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The World Social Forum 2013

Another World is Possible with Dignity for All and a New Political Culture


'Dignity'! The slogan stated in over 14 languages, about fifty thousand people gathered in the capital city of Tunisia in northern Africa, the country where the Arab Spring began. They were there to articulate their aspirations for 'another world' as against the present corporate driven neo-liberal thrust that is shaping, or rather distorting all dimensions of life worldwide. They were also there to express their solidarity with each other and find the resonance that gives moral strength and adds new co-travellers for the challenging journey they have decided to undertake. That the articulation was theoretically diverse and multi-dimensional contributed to the richness of the event, added to its attraction and hopefully to its outcomes.

The Context

The WSF was initiated in 2001 in Brazil as a response to the ill effects of what was characterised as the neo-liberal regime propagated by the World Bank and IMF along with multi-national corporations. Organised parallel to the World Economic Forum at Davos, an annual conference of the world's corporate CEOs and other economic leaders, it was to articulate the social aspirations of peoples of Latin America. It was also responding to the need for a new radical political culture that was not built on a centralised ideology and vanguard structures to lead forces of change, but an open, inclusive one that allowed for pluralism in thought and action, with multiple ideologies interacting democratically to forge new alliances and creative political formulations. The overwhelming worldwide response it received converted it into a series of global events with an international secretariat and an International Council. This Forum in Tunis was its twelfth edition.

Tunisia provided an appropriate environment for the WSF, given that it has in the recent past experienced a people's movement that ended a two decade long dictatorship. On 17th Dec. 2010, the self-immolation of a street vendor in a small town in southern Tunisia in reaction to the police throwing away his cart provided the provocation for a collective explosion of spontaneous protest across the country. "The revolution to us means first and foremost 'freedom'! We can now speak what we feel. This is such a good feeling!! We would not give it up for anything...... 14th January 2011 was the first day one got up to feel a big change. The dictator, President Ben Ali, had left." Freedom of expression was the key achievement of the Tunisian revolution of December 2010-January 2011, identified by all Tunisians we spoke to. The dictatorship that existed 19 years before the revolution did not allow expressions of dissent and this created an extremely hierarchical social structure and an environment in all institutions that did not allow free expression, even in universities. The police force was then spread in large numbers all over the city, now evident only at specific locations.

But some people felt that security was better earlier and life has become more unsafe after the revolution Also, a second shock came when the election results were announced and the Islamists had won. University teachers and students we spoke to were disturbed by this development since they felt it would take them to another kind of closed social system or fascism. On the other hand, we heard the Islamists in Tunisia were in cahoots with the US! Clearly, Tunisian society is suddenly politically awake and excited, engaging with issues of political and governance structures as it builds a democratic nation.

The events witnessed/participated in at the WSF included the following:

The Opening March

The excitement began to build with the process of registration in a tent at the centre of an avenue right in the heart of Tunis. Those in the queue imbibed the spirit with music and drums beating around them. The programme for the four days is pinned on the tent along which the queue moves and so one could use the waiting time to identify the meetings one would like to attend. The opening of the WSF-2013 was with a march which was a grand spectacle, with thousands of persons walking down the main avenue of the city with flags and banners, singing, dancing, beating drums and shouting slogans. Walking together for over four kilometers, there was a sense of togetherness and common purpose, even though people were from different regions of the world-- from the Philippines and India to the US, Canada and Latin America. The differently abled and groups working with them led the march.  Trade unionists with a Marxist perspective, Social democrats with a holistic vision of social justice integrating ecology, feminism and democracy, Tunisians espousing the Islamist perspective and moving close to the US, Tunisians savouring the freedom and fighting the Islamists, Palestinians struggling for the basic right over their homeland, Chouchan refugees from Libya in Tunisia seeking support for their struggle to keep the refugee camps going while the government attempts to close them down without rehabilitation, European and north American civil society groups and think tanks on development policy issues, all were there organising their own events at the WSF.

French and Arabic were the most frequently heard languages, but English was in use as well. Translations across these languages made for rich interaction, but where translation facilities were not available, it was frustrating to lose the opportunity.

Seminars, Workshops and Convergence Meetings

There were plenary and parallel events happening over the three days, covering issues such as: social security, food security, universal health care, gender justice, climate justice, cultural diversity and rights, conflict resolution, role of youth in change, new forms of activism and culture of social change movements and civil society. I attended 8 of these over four days, as well as was observer at the first evening meeting of the International Council of the WSF, including three SADED/VK organised workshops:

  1. 'Understanding the dead-end dynamics of making Nepal a republic', where Uddhab Pyakurel was the main speaker. There was great interest in others to understand the situation in this transitional democracy, where so many people had participated in a popular movement for political change.
  2. 'Imagining a Framework Climate Treaty with Equity, Justice and Science at its Core' organised by VK, where Soumya Dutta was the main speaker. He highlighted the fact that policies for sustainable development and climate change were not being formulated in consultation with the communities dependant on natural resources who were the most affected. Thereby, they were not proving to be effective in diminishing the impact of environmental degradation. For instance, carbon trading mechanisms had been instituted and used, but with simultaneous increase in emissions by all developed countries. What were being called 'green technologies' were still extractive of natural resources. Vijay Pratap pointed to developmental and lifestyle that provided options to the present unsustainable model.
  3. 'Challenge of Reimagining Socialism with Democracy, Feminism and Ecology as Integral Framework for Global Transformation', which was combined with the session on 'Coalition building and joint struggle for just ecological transition and against corporate power in Europe and Globally' announced by the Alternatives to the EU-Finland represented by Thomas Wallgren.


In all three, the major participation besides the SADED/VK and its network members was of Tunisian students and faculty of the university. It was extremely heartening to see their enthusiasm in discussing the developmental issues related to democratic politics and climate justice. The Tunisian revolution was always a hot topic that we were all interested in understanding from them and for which they always gave an animated response. These were also useful occasions for interaction between the Indian groups and between the Indian and Finnish partners.


Kepa's session 'Dialogue on enhancing people-centred economy by widening transformative spaces in and between civil society, state and economy itself' effectively brought together issues of the current anti-people trends arising out of the economic models which also brought environmental degradation in their wake, across the world and in the specific case of Columbia and India. It ended with Jarna Pasanen and Marko Ulvila posing an analysis of the contemporary consumption patterns and how they can be made sustainable. 

Annapurna Pluriversity Colaborative, had organised a session titled 'Learning Grounds: Ecological Audit and Interpretation of Social Movements and Social Media'. Besides participants sharing their analysis and concerns about civil society for social change, there was an interesting formulation about sustainability education and learning gardens that Prof. Pramod Parajuli has developed and operationalised at Prescott College and Portland State University.

The La Via Campacina's session on Food Security and People's Health Movement's session on Power Structures for Health Governance, the Transformative Social Protection Campaign to Reclaim People's dignity, as well as the Convergence session on Health and Social Security on the last day were focussed on the negative trends in global actions of corporations and other commercial interests in these spheres and the involvement of nation states in promoting them, such as through Free Trade Agreements. How some European political executive heads were getting involved in commercial ventures such as of health services, was information not often discussed. What was highlighted was the fact of European countries own services getting privatised and decreasing access to the poorer sections in their countries, issues were till the last decade generally being concerns in the context of the 'developing countries'. There was a coming together of a large number of groups and networks across the world on these issues, and we need to see how it can influence global agendas, especially the post-Milleniumm Development Goals agenda, but more so how all can come together to influence transnational corporate power as well as provide support to the local and national struggles.

Civil Society Mechanism of Committee on World Food Security had organised a session on 'Which investments for the right to food?' It was largely a presentation of the idea formulated as 'Responsible Agricultural Investment' (RAI), which is envisaged to be developed by local, country and regional consultations to develop a people's manifesto on food security. Issues of small farmers and women farmers were discussed as central to the agenda.


Definitions of Dignity 

Through all these one could see that 'Dignity' was defined in various ways, the common denominators being 'freedom of expression' and 'ensuring access to basic needs'. Cultural rights and expressions of diversity were a third focus. A significant section of the participants came from the Arab world, especially Palestine. The issues of Palestinian people occupied much space and reflected the aspiration for sovereignty as a nation. The Tunisians were, of course, animatedly expressive of this as the achievement of the 'Tunisian Revolution'.

Respecting ecological linkages, strengthening social security systems, and universal coverage of basic public services were other common themes. Even the large section of participants from the industrialised countries, such as France and Canada, voiced concerns about the destruction of social security systems that is happening in their countries. That their societies are the source of much of the environmental degradation and its fallouts on the poorest communities across the world was also acknowledged and an issue being raised as a serious concern within their own societies.  

Some contested issues were the role of the state versus that of societal institutions and communities; where should the emphasis of action lie? Should food security be only about legal entitlements so the state is bounden to ensure provision of a minimum quantum of food grains, or is it to be more comprehensive about food production systems, and about food sovereignty as well?


The Responsibility

The kind of response that came from ordinary Tunisians as soon as they recognised us as Indians was extraordinarily warm and welcoming. While their exposure to India was largely through Bollywood films, their admiration was obvious. The front-ranking role several Indians appeared to play in the WSF organisational process was notable as well. This, together with the degree of freedom and diversity that we have in our country, gave an overwhelming sense of the responsibility that India owes to the world.

One came away feeling energised because the germinating possibilities of 'another world' were visible. How far we are able to learn from the common people and incorporate their world view in the struggle will make it truly 'another world', otherwise it will only be rhetoric.


Ritu Priya