The World Social Forum and the World Economic Forum: any room for convergence?
The World Economic Forum gathering held in January in Davos, Switzerland, took place a few weeks before the World Social Forum in Dakar, Senegal. Both discussed global challenges and what might be done to remedy them. But they did this from fundamentally different standpoints epitomising their focus on elite advocacy and grassroots activism respectively. Just what is the value and contribution of these networks in shaping a new world agenda after the global economic crisis and what is the potential for their cooperation and even merger to advance a progressive global consensus?
Ideational networks and global debates.
Both the WEF and the WSF are informal forums for interaction amongst non-state actors (and increasingly with governments and international organisations) to interpret global developments and influence policy responses to them. They are non-profit organisations that act as epistemic networks in the sense that they seek to promote the primacy of certain ideas, ideologies and theories as panacea for global problems. They represent ideational communities that attend them and seek to promote greater coherence within these communities in the hope that doing so would enhance their influence on global public policies.
Broadly speaking, the World Economic Forum accepts the dominant neo-liberal economic paradigm, especially the need for economic liberalism, liberal democracy and a managerial state. This is partly because it was founded by business groups called European Management Forum, which was renamed the World Economic Forum in 1987 as it expanded its focus from business management to economic policy.
No wonder that it attracts captains of multinational business, business brokers, leaders of international economic/financial organisations and governments from industrialised and emerging regions. Generally, there is a limited presence of civil society.
The World Social Forum, on the other hand, defines itself as an independent and non-partisan open space for engagement amongst organisations concerned about alternatives to neo-liberalism and the creation of a world order that is united, just, democratic and fair.
Organised by members of global social movement, the forum has provided space for a coherent expression of displeasure about the negative consensus of globalisation of neo-liberalism. It is dominated by social movements, civil society networks, trade unions, youth and women groups, lobbyists, peasant associations and academics.
The WSF sees solutions to economic problems as the promotion of stronger regionalism, state-led development, and stronger international regulation of markets. Most importantly, it has helped put social justice, equity and rights at the centre of global public policy debates and promoted debates on health, education and social protection.
WEF 2011: from a forum to an epistemic network
The WEF on 26-30 January attracted well over 1400 business leaders from both the old and emerging economies and 35 heads of state/governments including President Zuma. The nineteen strongest economies were represented at ministerial level and above. Some from civil society and media also attended, but the forum belongs to the business and governments.
The meeting was held in Davos, Switzerland, a wealthy small nation which used ingenuity and guile to become powerful, while the WSF meeting in Senegal, a small and poor country, a fitting venue for discussions focused on under-development among other problems of the global economy.
Of course, the central concern at Davos was to propose ways of promoting the improved recovery of the global economy economic growth and how this could be linked to the green agenda. It also aimed to look at how to make economic growth more inclusive by ensuring a role of previously marginalised economies.
WEF also discussed concerns about the effect of high sovereign debt, the manipulation of exchange rates, currency wars, and volatile commodity prices on the recovery of the global economy. It expressed hope that the global economic recovery will intensify, inflation will stabilize, and the international financial mechanisms will be strengthened enough to prevent another collapse of the global economy. So, the central concern is to make the current system work better.
In response to criticism about the neglect of developmental question, the Davos meeting called for stability in food prices and a boost to food production. Of course, the WEF's concern was the disruptive effect of food riots on business rather the need to promote people's access to affordable food.
While it has been criticised for elitism and expensive taste, the WEF is the premier gathering of global leaders in business, politics, technology and innovation, a potentially beneficial networking opportunity for those seeking answers to global problems. It is also an opportunity for diverse state and non-state interests to harmonize their positions on the global economy.
The WSF: a gathering of masses.
The World Social Forum meetings on 6-11 February attracted delegates from over 50 countries to discuss a wide variety of topics related to a desired aftermath of the global economic crisis.
Hundreds of break-away meetings were held in tents pitched on the grounds of the Cheik Anta Diop University. Like-minded organisations put together open theme discussions.
The presidents of Senegal and Bolivia as well as former president Inacio Lula of Brazil addressed the opening plenary. They too were expected to make do with modest facilities with meetings taking place in tents and in open spaces on the university campus.
In general, discussions were critical of the current global economic system, pointing to many of its fundamental problems including a jobless economic growth, growing inequality, deepening poverty, man-made climate change, disease and poor countries' external debts.
Delegates called for transformation rather than the reform of the global economy, especially by tightening financial regulations, strengthening the role of a developmental state, improving social security systems, enhancing food security, containing executive pay, improving industrial production and entrepreneurship and the conclusion of international negotiations designed to put together rules to regulate international economic activities.
There was a particularly strong focus on climate change and how the Durban Conference of Parties in November 2011 could be used to clinch a binding deal on the basis of the principle of common, but differentiated responsibility. The proposals were that the deal should include specific emissions reduction goals and targets, an adaptation funding mechanism, technology transfer commitments, and recognition of development needs of poor countries.
The push for greater protection and promotion of people's rights to health, education, social protection, shelter and basic food cut across all meetings, although there was focused discussions on global health and food sovereignty.
Also widely discussed was the growing agency of the poor through their struggles to cause change in their countries as evidence in North Africa. There were strong calls for a social democracy as opposed to snob democracy of elites.
Room for Cooperation
The growing gulf between the platform for political and economic elite, on the one hand, and that of civil society, on the other, is occasioned by fundamental differences on problem definition and end-goals. The former is seen as in favour of improving the status quo, while the latter wants transformation.
Yet, the two forums can complement each other by finding ways of taking on board the concerns from the other side and by talking to each other. This would require both forums to send delegations to each other's meetings.
This is important because clearly civil society has to ensure that its views are heard by those who take major decisions on world affairs. But also because the elite must be concerned about alienating the people their decisions affect daily. They should desire inclusive conversations also.
But cooperation must not degenerate into mere inclusion of civil society in platforms of global power that are not open to alternative ideas. But it must mean a willingness to really listen to the views of those representing the 3 billion people left out to fight for survival on less than US$2 a day by the current economic system. There can be no long-term and sustained prosperity at their expense.
The governments of the south and those from the north concerned about inclusion and social justice should not be satisfied with participation in platforms of global power like the WEF, but should use them to promote integrated global dialogues. They are better positioned to act as bridge-builders between the WEF and WSF constituencies, provided they also participate in or visibly support the latter and display a positive attitude to civil society activism. The governing ANC and SA government should take a lead in this regard.
Views expressed in this opinion piece do not represent those of the IGD and its partners.