January 20, 2004
The delegates gathered in Mumbai must engage widely to give globalisation a human face
Discontent can be heady. It can also fuel a colourful roadshow. The World Social Forum has come to Mumbai and an amorphous community of social activists, anti-globalisation polemists, environmental agitationists, cultural conscience keepers and anything-goes anarchists has set up temporary base. Arundhati Roy has strummed the opening tune of anti-imperialism: America's efforts at empire-building must be debated no longer, she decreed, it's time for action. Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner from Iran, has made a case for universal human rights, for every earthling's entitlement to a life free of poverty. Mustafa Barghouti has given depth to a popular WSF t-shirt legend, "we are all Palestinians". And as the WSF sessions unfold, an entire spectrum of views against globalisation are bound to be expressed â€” from nuanced arguments for reform to shrill war-cries against anyone or thing to the right of Fidel Castro. Therein lies the trouble. The first WSF was organised in Brazil in 2001 as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, a meeting of the moneyed and influential usually scheduled in luxurious Alpine resorts. Its charter speaks of rallying opposition to neo-liberalism and imperialism, its slogan is Another World Is Possible.
In the popular WSF narrative, there are three pillars of an America-led evil empire: the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation. Around this core group of villains are scattered sources of discontent: branded goods, patriarchal legal frameworks, American junk food, biotechnology, Third World debt, etc. It's an open house. One would have to be incredibly heartless and unforgivably unrealistic not to acknowledge that WSF delegates represent real, urgent problems with the international order. The IMF, as economist Joseph Stiglitz has documented and as the Fund has been forced to concede by member countries, makes its decisions in an extremely rarefied and unaccountable manner. The WTO, Cancun showed, is still unable to deliver the benefits of fair trade to Third World farmers. Developing countries are struggling to secure their cultural and genetic heritage from western programming and biopirates. And negotiating global social and environmental protocols is critical for rich and poor countries alike. Trouble is, gatherings like the WSF, with their rhetoric often floating away from fact and nuance, often appear in danger of slipping to another world altogether, into a commune mentality, as it were. Global financial institutions and superpowers cannot be wished away by painting suburban trains. If the WSF has to improve our world, if globalisation is to be humane, its leading lights must engage with those much despised financiers and corporates. The future does not lie in a bubble.
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