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.

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?


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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope