January, 2005
Another Forum is possible, if...!
Nicolas Haeringer

With its return to Porto Alegre, the World Social Forum is set for a change of approach, both in terms of its preparations and during the event itself.

In the wake of Mumbai, everyone following the fortunes of the Social Forums - at whatever level - agreed that the time had come for a rethink. Many outsiders felt that the Forums were almost totally bogged down, incapable of drawing on the proposals resulting from the Forums to give concrete form to this alternative world; insiders were less critical. But no one can deny that the Forums are faced with the challenge of rendering visible some elements of this alternative world, both in terms of form and content, without breaking with the fundamental principle of avoiding a definitive declaration. It is true that the Social Forums are only 5 years old. But they have established themselves as an ideal platform for alternative-globalisation struggles and movements. At a time when certain events tend to give us the impression that there are in fact no, or very few, alternatives - from Bush’s re-election in the face of a largescale anti-war movement to Lula’s inability to implement promised reforms - it is more important than ever that the Forums help to keep hope alive. Even if this means that expectations of the Forums are contradictory: they need to be more popular and proposition-oriented, more international and participative, radical but realist, diverse but credible, and so on.

The Forum’s International Council has therefore decided to introduce a number of major changes in the 2005 WSF preparatory process.

Another programme

The decision was taken that the programme for the 2005 Forum would be made up of independent activities. At the first three events, the activities organised by the Forum (the Brazilian Committee or International Council), ranging from panels and accounts to round table sessions for discussions and debates, were given the highest profile both in the programme and at the physical Forum site. Only these activities were translated. Which meant that the "official" activities had the highest media profile. They set the general tone for the Forum. The independent activities, on the other hand, were relegated to second place, even though the participants showed growing interest in them, and despite the fact that many of them were far more innovative and comprehensive that the big conferences where the speakers repeated the same things they had said at the previous Forum.

This tension between official and independent activities came to a head at Mumbai. The big conferences were held in enormous - and empty - halls, while the Forum’s alleyways were always full, and several independent activities were overflowing with participants.

Getting rid of the official activities did however present a risk - primarily the risk of increasing the confusing aspect of the Forums. This risk was strengthened by the fact that organising the Forum based exclusively on activities proposed by its participants could make some of them feel that, with all the activities on the same level, they were being forced into competition with each other: competing to be visible and attract participants, competing for the right to translations provided by the Forum, and so on. Getting rid of the official activities could therefore seriously harm the coordination of independent activities.

Consult, register, discuss: participate!

The Forum was faced with a challenge on several levels. The Forum needed to be built from the bottom up, based on the priorities of the organisations participating in the Forum, whilst ensuring that each organisation could prepare its participation well ahead of the event and link up with other organisations with similar areas of interest. Simultaneously, the participants needed to be encouraged to make the most of the Forum - and the preparatory process - to draw up action plans and produce proposals.

In following these goals, the process for organising the Forum was divided into three phases, designed to avoid the risks involved.

The first stage was the consultation phase. It was aimed at producing a definition of the Forum’s main focus areas based on the concerns of the organisations likely to take part, rather than on the discussions of the International Council member networks and movements. This phase was a huge success, with over 1,800 organisations taking part, demonstrating that there are many people out there keen to transform the Forum into as self-built a process as possible. Unfortunately, the mass of responses did not allow for a methodical and accurate analysis of the results of the consultation process. Eleven Forum terrains were then identified taking into account the consultation process and adding elements provided by the members of the International Council’s Contents and Methodology commissions.

The second stage was the registration phase. It was meant to come before the third stage, the discussion phase. However, for various technical and time-related reasons, the two phases took place simultaneously. Over 4,000 organisations registered and proposed close to 2,650 activities. Eleven distribution lists were opened, one per terrain, to simplify the task of coordinating these activities, on a voluntary basis.

In addition, a 2-hour slot, from 6.00 pm to 8.00 pm, will be available every day during the Forum for organisations who want to meet up independently and spontaneously.

The discussion process unluckily did not succeed in getting as far as planned. Discussion lists were opened, but too little time was spent on designing the methods for facilitating the discussions. You can see an attempt to take the process further on the site www.portoalegre2005.info.

This kind of process is very similar to that adopted by the Workgroup on Solidarity Socio-Economy (WSSE). The idea was to systemise the process and apply it to other groups and subjects. However, the WSSE’s experience proves that, although creating links between organisations working on the same or similar subjects is essential to the construction of concrete alternatives, it does not happen all by itself, it takes time, and it requires specific resources and methods.

Long live the memory !

The Forum’s memory is based on three projects:

  • the Nomad project, aimed at broadcasting live and archiving the audio files for some conferences;
  • the Communication group’s project, which will gather journalism, both written and audiovisual, about the Forum;
  • the "Propuestas" project, whose goal is to collect the proposals drawn up at the Forums. Proposal panels will be set up in each of the 11 terrains so that everyone has the chance to present their main alternative proposals. A database will also be used before, during and after the Forum to collect texts written as a result of Forum activities as well as the proposals presented on the panels, plus any other proposals that people wish to add.

The entire contents of these projects will be accessible via the Forum’s official website, as well as on the site www.memoria-viva.org. These projects, concerned as they are with the Forum’s memorial, are part of a general movement to give thought to the Forums’ documentary legacy and the best way of preserving it so that it is not left untouched in archives but continues to feed into the Social Forum process.

The Forum as a learning process

The changes that have been introduced to the Forum’s preparatory process demonstrate a central aspect of the Forums: it is also a learning process. This naturally means that not everything that was planned at the start could be carried out: the organisers themselves are learning about the changes they are introducing. This explains, at least partially, the problems mentioned above concerning the consultation and discussion phases. In order to make progress, there needs to be acceptance of the fact that, to be a learning process, the Social Forums must also be forums for experimentation, even if that means making mistakes.

Despite all the problems, the new methodology for organising the Forum can now be termed a success: it has allowed individual organisations, rather than just the organisers, to get more involved in the construction of the Forum itself. All these elements, if they are reviewed and analysed, will go to enrich the overall process. With this prospect in mind, we need to position our work in the longterm, without devoting all our time and energy to preparing just one Forum.


The WSSE has always used the Forums as a platform to bring together the different solidarity-based actors and compare, discuss and exchange ideas. This year, the network will try to take this "reaching out to others" approach a little further: it is organising activities with groups which do not necessarily identify themselves with the solidarity-based economy but which share with the WSSE the goal of finding global economic alternatives, alternatives that are fairer and more human, such as, for example, the International Forum on Globalization (IFG).

* Nicolas Haeringer