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Coordination without centralisation

The 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre left the Brazilian organisers, both in Porto Alegre itself and in Sao Paulo, completely exhausted. 'We knew we couldn't go on like that, just organising bigger and bigger events. Something had to change,' said Ze Correio Leite, a member of the Brazilian secretariat. But a visit to their Sao Paulo offices as they prepare for the 2005 WSF finds Ze and his colleagues full of energy and enthusiasm. 'I so like working here; I'm learning so much. We do a bit of everything,' commented Marcello, computer expert cum member of the outreach team cum all round administrator. What had changed?

December 1, 2004
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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The catalyst was Mumbai – the 2004 WSF. Out of necessity, the Indian Organising Committee had to look to the resources of the movements, to voluntary labour and the social economy rather than buying in services or using public infrastructure as they had been able to do in Porto Alegre -governed as it then was by the Workers Party, one of the instigators of the WSF.

It was radical, environmentally conscious architects who turned an old industrial site on the outskirts of Mumbai into an extraordinary Forum village of old warehouses and hessian tents. It was Mumbai’s extensive social economy who provided the cheap and delicious food round every corner. It was techno-activists and committed journalists who set up and organised the Forum’s media centre. This fusion of ends and means, a consistency between the values of the Forum and the way its physical and social infrastructure was organised, also opened up the organisation of the Forum. The architects, social economy providers, and techno-activists were all respected and involved as full participants.

Mumbai exemplified another innovation: a programme which was the result of extensive consultation. In Mumbai, the Indians brought a constructively questioning approach to the International Council (IC) of the WSF. The result is dramatic in every way. Physically: instead of taking over the big Catholic University in the suburbs of Porto Alegre, creating a little town of its own separate from the local people, WSF delegates will talk and plan alongside local participants in tents by the side of the river Guaiba that runs through the heart of the city. Politically: the programme is being decided through a six month process of consultation with all the campaigns, networks and projects who have participated in the WSF. Over 1,500 organisations have responded with the themes around which they want the Forum’s activities to be organised. Groups have then registered their seminars under 11 themes which came out of the consultation. The IC has agreed around six facilitators for each theme whose job it is to identify gaps (important topics for the theme not covered by seminar proposals), encourage mergers, identify cross-cutting or ‘transversal’ issues across the themes, and ask groups to spell out what outcomes they are planning for – in order to ensure that seminars lead to activity of some kind. The method is one of co-ordination without centralisation. The overview is a widely shared one rather than the monopoly of small organising groups. Much depends on the political integrity and nous of the facilitators but they are part of a team and nominated from an organisation affiliated to the IC.

There will be very few officially organised events, beyond those organised through the facilitators and participating groups which will introduce each theme. The whole process has a relevance beyond the WSF. Certainly we can learn from it for the Europe Social Forum. It would imply very much more emphasis on pan-European co-ordination and a continent wide process of consultation on the programme which could only strengthen a process of European convergence from below.

Behind the energy and enthusiasm there is still a little apprehension, a fear of chaos, but that’s inevitable with any experiment. It is reinforced by the absence of a supportive municipal government. At the municipal elections last month the PT, after over 15 years of being in government, was defeated by a motley alliance of parties of the left and the right. The new mayor has committed himself to the WSF and the participatory budget – a sign of how deeply rooted they are in the city’s political life. But the new leadership is technocratic, lacking any real belief in the importance of either initiative. It looks like the WSF started to innovate its way out of dependence just in time. What will it take for the ESF to do the same?

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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