Report on the World Social Forum in Mumbai, January 2004
By Giuseppe Caruso
19th March 2004

The fourth WSF has represented one of the most eventful occasion of the civil society in the Indian Subcontinent. The WSF-Event has seen the direct or indirect participation of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world who added up to the crowd (around eighty thousand people) who participated in the events, seminars, conferences, theatre performance, dances and music concerts during the six days of the WSF 2004 that took place from the 16th to the 21st of January in Mumbai, India.

But the WSF is more than the Event itself: the WSF is a global Process and is an Organisational Structure that facilitates the gathering of thousands of organisations and movements from around the world to share their struggles and their knowledge on the effects of neoliberal globalisation.

In this brief report from Mumbai, the three aspects of the WSF will be mentioned to describe the creative intricacies between these three complementary souls of the WSF 2004. Their being so closely intertwined, and their recursive interaction with each other, is what has given life to the most interesting cultural and political phenomenon animated by the civil society at the global level in the past 4 years and, in particular, to this last Indian edition.

Some of the specific characters of this Indian version of the WSF will be highlighted to tell the richness of a process that can move from continent to continent keeping its genuine flavour but adding to it the touch of the local character and specificities.

The Event

Around eighty thousand people attended the WSF 2004 in Mumbai. The WSF welcomed its visitors with a program of dozens of panels and conferences and the impressive number of 1200 plus workshops and seminars self-organised by the participants.

For the first time the organisational structure of the WSF has left more space to the participants to organise big events like conferences and panels that were prerogative of the organising committee in the previous editions of the WSF. The choice has proved successful for at least two reasons.

1) More space has been left to the participants to give shape to a WSF not simply packaged by the organisers to be used and consumed by the participants but organised together in a fully horizontal dynamic. The most important consequence of this decision has been that for the first time the events organised by the participants have not been completely shadowed by the events organised by the organisers, therefore creating the feeling that the WSF IS what the relatively small number of organisers wants it to be. The WSF is moving toward a more open organisational structure from, at least at this stage, the point of view of the setting up of the program.

2) The other relevant reason of success of the new formula adopted by the WSF 2004 refers to the organisational aspect of designing such a huge program. The commitment of the program committee has been reduced considerably due to the limited number of big events that it has organised. This moves toward a clear choice from the part of the WSF organisers to reduce the dimensions of the organisational structure in order to avoid the concentration of responsibilities (and power) in the hands of few organisers with the perceived risk of transforming the WSF in a piloted event 'hijacked' or 'used' by political groups more involved in the process and with higher institutional knowledge in the organisation of huge events like the WSF. The nature of the WSF must be preserved allowing the smaller organisations to be active and fundamental part in the organisation of the WSF. In this direction the strategic choices of the Indian Organising Committee have to be considered an important step ahead in the process of building a better, more democratic and more participative WSF.

Along with the partial withdrawal of the Organising Committee from the organization of the biggest events in the Forum, two other factors are distinctive of the Indian WSF:

  1. a strong commitment in involving groups and individuals from Asia and Africa, realities for several reasons (not all to depending on the work of the Brazilian organizing committee of the past editions of the forum) strongly underrepresented in the first three forums in Porto Alegre; and
  2. a strong commitment in bringing on this global stage the issues that afflict Indian society (the so called biggest democracy on the planet): in special manner the issues of casteism and communalism.

Apart from conferences and panels, seminars and workshops on all possible aspects of the struggle of the peoples against the ill effects of globalisation, an impressive cultural program has been designed by the organisers. Music, theatre, street theatre, dance, film, artistic exhibitions of all kind animated the spaces of the Nesco ground in Goregaon, Mumbai to stress the colours, forms, moves, and sounds of the struggles of the people against marginalization, injustice, war.

So much has been offered, by the organisers and by the same participants, that sometimes the impression of being overwhelmed by what surrounded us caught many of us. This feeling of not being able to catch the spirit (of what we thought should be the spirit of such an event) of the WSF has sprung some of the critiques that have been voiced by many parts.

A political convention, a carnival, a business fair' What exactly is the Event WSF' The three adjectives are all used in a fairly derogatory manner and all of them indicate that generally, from each side and from the perspective of each group (or group of groups) of actors involved in the WSF in different ways, a certain feeling of discomfort is widely shared. But what really happened in the WSF' What was actually the WSF'

It was definitely a carnival and a space to voice and perform the choreographies of the struggles of hundreds of big and small movements from all over the world. It was a political convention in which members of the left parties from the four corners of the world did present their programmes and sought for alliances on a global scale but also tried to find support for the local, especially Indian, political and electoral fights to come. A business fair' Maybe, if the hundreds of stalls are looked upon with stiff criticism and if the attempts to ruthlessly market the colours of their own movement by activists with drums of all kinds and dimensions are to be seen as sterile competitions between competitors more than as the joyful expression of the specificities of the different movements trying to make their struggles and their reason known on this extraordinary global stage.

But if this and much more can be said of the WSF, it might as well mean that it's nature is variable and flexible enough to escape (for now) to clear definition and comparison with anything else known... which is, in itself, an important strength.

The process

Complex, too complex for the Indian context, it was said, to organise an event like the WSF in a context where not only the same concept of Social Forum was slightly less than completely unknown (also among the activists who were supposed to organize it), but where the political and social forces involved in the organisational process had a record of scarce collaboration among each other and one of high lack of reciprocal trust. To this, serious concerns about the non-collaboration of the local Maharashtrian and the central Indian governments were added.

But the Indian organising structure set up to work on the realisation of the fourth WSF has shown that the WSF, as a globally shared project to overcome neoliberal globalization, can help put together forces of varied and sometimes apparently incommensurable backgrounds. To the shared aim of organising the WSF event, few more ingredients must be added to the recipe of the success of the Indian WSF:

  1. the institutional experience of the components of the IOC, trained in the organisation of big events (everything is big in this subcontinent of 1 billion people),
  2. the knowledge accumulated globally in three years of WSF organising process and,
  3. a fierce and open internal debate at the Indian level among all the actors involved in the organization of the WSF 2004.

The outcome of this components were a sophisticated institutional structure that sees as the decisional body the Indian General Council that includes all the organisations involved in the WSF process. The IGC is open and it has been integrated during the process by 65 more organisations that joined the initial 135. The members of the IGC joined the India Working Committee that formulated the policy guidelines to form the basis for the functioning of the WSF India process. The IWC consists of 67 organizations nominated from the IGC and is indicative of the Indian social, political and economic diversity. To the two bodies mentioned must be added the two executive bodies of the institutional framework of the WSF India. The India Organising Committee is the executive body of the WSF 2004 and is responsible for organising the event. The IOC consists of 51 individuals, each being a member of one of the eight functional groups dealing with the different aspects of the organizational effort. The Mumbai Organising Committee consists of organisations based in Mumbai that are represented in each functional group.

This institutional/organisational structure has proved to be instrument of democratic negotiation between the many different instances represented and part of the overall process. Moreover, this articulated structure, together with the international body of the International Council and together with the Brazilian Secretariat of the WSF are perhaps showing the way ahead for the building of a more consistent and more transparent and democratic institutional structure for the future WSFs to substitute to the present and often not completely able to keep the ambitious promises of the WSF Charter of Principles.

The Indian organisational/implementing structure The operational/implementing body of the WSF India has been the Mumbai office. The volunteers and the paid staff of that office, actually implemented the decisions taken by the various bodies of the WSF India organisational structure. The Mumbai office, where who writes worked from early October to the end of January, was an incredible 'open space' that managed, in between sometimes overwhelming difficulties of political, technical and practical nature, to make sure that all the aspects of the event were taken care of in the appropriate way.

An office started by a handful of people, during the days that preceded the start of the event the WSF Office in Prabhadevi had 37 computers installed (almost all of them running linux) and more than 50 volunteers working on them coming from almost every corner of the world (discounting the total absence of volunteers from Africa). In this inspiring environment more than the WSF 2004 has seen his gestation and birth. Global alliances of individual and movements have been cultivated in the months of the strenuous organizational work. Friendships that will move beyond national boundaries have been started, and a compact group of committed 'global' volunteers has been trained to the organisation of such an event. The skills and the passion, the knowledge and the enthusiasm built and cultivated in the office of the WSF India, will definitely prove one of the most important contributions of the Indian WSF process to the global movement against neoliberal globalisation.

The experience of the WSF India and the organisational process of the ESF-UK The WSF India has to be considered, altogether, a very successful event: not only for the evident outcomes of the event in terms of participation of individuals, organisations, and media representatives, but for the important contribution to the global process of the Social Forums. This contribution has perhaps been the most painful aspect of the process for the local organisers because has taken place through the exposition of a number of serious limitations of the WSF as a process at both the global and the local levels. These limitations and their exposition (often in blunt form) have constituted a great deal of experience and knowledge that has to be shared and build upon in the organisation of the next global, regional, and local forums.

In what follows I will schematically mention some relevant of considerations on which, I believe, some reflection from the side of the organizers of the ESF in the UK could contribute in building up on the previous institutional knowledge built in the past WSFs, and in particular in the last one in India, moving away form the risk to repeat the same mistakes over and over again (as sometimes has happened in the past global or regional Social Forums).

The values

The three most important values on which the Social Forums are built, are those, as clearly stated in the Charter of Principles, that claim for:

  1. Sustainable use of resources
  2. Even and just distribution of those resources among the people of the whole planet
  3. Inclusive and participatory systems for the allocations of those resources.

On these values the actual organisational effort of the world, regional and local social forums should be founded. In this spirit and building on the indications deriving from the experiences of the past editions of the WSFs and ESFs, the next ESF to be organised in the UK should take into consideration some of the following lessons so far learnt.

Reduction of the resources used The ESF-UK should be organised during the warm season, in a smaller centre than the capital city (possibly away from any metropolitan areas), perhaps in the countryside, and on public land. Doing so would reduce dramatically the use of resources due to drastic reduction of renting, construction and running costs, according to the letter of the values mentioned above. To practically implement such principles, it could be possible to imagine, plan and realise the site of the next ESF in a way similar to that in which many of the music summer festivals are organised in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Just and equal distribution of resources To ensure a more just and equal access to the resources mobilised, directly and indirectly, by the ESF, the Organising Committee should facilitate the setting up of a camping site for all the participants with the necessary arrangements for prefab structures or roulottes for those who really need such facilities. IN this way there wouldn't be any unbearable disparity between those who (as in India en elsewhere) are hosted in the 'solidarity accommodation camp' and those who are hosted in five star hotels.

Inclusion and participation in the management of the resources mobilised A reduced mobilisation of resources would dramatically reduce the organisational effort and the structure appointed for it. This would allow smaller organisations not to be marginalised in the actual organisation of the event by those with greater institutional experience (and, often, greater technical arrogance, in the organisation of big events) like, for instance, unions, parties, big NGOS, etc. This could, perhaps, also avoid the so called risk of NGOisation of the forums or their hijacking by parties as feared from different parts. Moreover, this would increase inclusion and participation and participation in the management and distribution systems of the resources mobilised

One more organisational issue Besides the points above mentioned, one more aspect has been put in the foreground by the last WSF India that need to be carefully considered in organising the next ESF. A specific framework should be thought for solid and consistent knowledge building across the world and the sharing of it between organising committees of world, regional and local forums. A clear deficit in this building and sharing has been experienced in every edition so far of both regional and global forums (the case of Brazil being an exception, because the Brazilian Secretariat is, de facto, an institutional structure for such building of institutional and organisational knowledge), resulting in severe waste of resources. Lacking that framework, a clear effort should be done by the organisers of the ESF-UK to contact and/or facilitate the contact between those who were members of the offices staffs in the previous editions of the world and regional forums and those who will staff the office of the ESF organising committee in the UK. The experience of those individuals would contribute a great deal to the new organisational effort.

The expected outcomes of such commitment would be a dramatic reduction of the misuse and waste of resources (human and material) experienced in the office structure of, at least, the last WSF, and a progressive creation of an alternative institutional and organisational knowledge based on the core principles expressed in the Charter of Principles of the WSF.

By Giuseppe Caruso