16th World Social Forum: Towards global solidarity for a just world

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Kathmandu is set to become the epicenter of social justice activism this month as it hosts the 16th World Social Forum 2024 (WSF) from Feb 15 to 19. Over 1,200 civil society organizations from more than 90 countries have already registered for the event, setting the stage for a remarkable gathering of social movement representatives, human rights defenders, and social justice activists. The organizers are expecting almost 30,000 people to attend this five-day event. The participants will deliberate on a wide range of social justice issues, including those relating to climate justice, inequality, human rights, democracy, gender justice, labor rights, displacement, conflict, and social protection. The Nepali civil society organizations that have taken on the herculean responsibility of hosting such a mega-event deserve accolades. In the context where civic space is being curtailed across the world and there are limitations on holding such events in many countries, it is noteworthy that Nepal remains one of the few countries where space for expressing dissent is comparatively unconstrained.

Journey so far

The WSF emerged as a response to the challenges posed by the hegemony of neoliberal globalization and the resulting rise in inequality. It was conceived as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, where the Forbes billionaires hobnob with the political leaders of the richest countries. Intended as a space for global solidarity, dialogue, and mobilization, it sought to provide an alternative platform to discuss, amplify and address issues of social justice. With the slogan of “Another World is Possible”, the first WSF took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, drawing inspiration from Latin American activism. The slogan was in response to the infamous quote associated with Margaret Thatcher, declaring ‘there is no alternative–TINA’ (to neo-liberal capitalism). 

Since its founding, the WSF has traversed the globe, adapting its focus to contemporary issues of social, economic, and ecological justice. From Porto Alegre to Mumbai, Nairobi, Dakar, Tunis, Montreal, and Mexico, the WSF has continued to evolve. Additionally, national, regional, and thematic social forums were created to further foster deeper dialogue and solidarity. 

Impact and effectiveness

While the WSF offered a vital space for discussion, networking, and mobilization, its success in bringing about tangible changes is still up for debate. Its approach for promoting global solidarity and the open dialogue it encourages, enabling people to exchange experiences, struggles, and solutions to common challenges, are what make the forum effective. It has contributed to exposing injustices, raising awareness about a wide range of social justice issues and to promoting discourses on alternative models of development. One of its strengths is its ability to unite people and groups from all over the world by providing a common platform for diverse viewpoints. This inclusivity promotes diverse perspectives, which helps to perceive complicated global challenges in a more comprehensive way. While many activists may not have the chance to attend the WSF, primarily due to resource constraints, the forum serves as a platform that advances the unity among diverse local struggles and encourages coordination among movements at local, national, and global levels. 

The WSF’s effectiveness also lies in its role as a counter-narrative to mainstream economic and political ideologies. The forum facilitates critical discourse, inspiring participants to envision and strive towards a more just and equitable world. While the WSF may not always produce tangible outcomes right away, it has a long-term impact on influencing global discourses, policies, and movements.

Challenges and ways forward

The WSF is not immune to challenges and criticism. The rise of right-wing populism and the resulting shrinking of civic space have created a more hostile environment for social activism and dissent. The increasing influence of corporations and financial institutions risks the co option of the WSF, which could weaken the forum’s core principles and dilute its messages. At the same time, the fragmentation of social movements has made it more difficult to build a broad coalition for social change. In the digital age, questions also arise about the WSF’s adaptability and continued relevance. 

In addition to the external challenges, there are also some criticisms of its internal mechanisms. A primary concern is that the WSF lacks concrete actions; it struggles to turn debates into real outcomes. However, it is important to recognize that in many contexts, speaking up against injustices and building solidarity can be considered as successful ends in themselves. Issues with inclusivity also arise, with NGOs sometimes occupying the space of social movements. Although the WSF ethos strives to eliminate the barriers of ‘logos’ and ‘egos’, these do often surface at the expense of more resourced organizations drowning out the voices of the most marginalized. Despite encouraging democratic participation, the dispersed and decentralized form of WSF has come under fire for having little effect on global governance.

Despite these challenges, the WSF remains a vital platform for dialogue, learning, and collaboration. To ensure its continued relevance, the WSF needs to embrace the energy of young activists and adjust to the demands of the digital era. The initiative by the WSF in Nepal to create the Inter-Continental Youth Forum as a dedicated space to amplify youth voices is a step in the right direction. Similarly, it is important to strengthen connections between diverse movements. The WSF can play a pivotal role in facilitating cross-collaboration and dialogue between environmental, social justice, and human rights movements. As the WSF charts its way forward, it must not only aim for concrete outcomes and action plans but also enhance coordination mechanisms within its decentralized structure. This coordinated effort can lead to more effective collective actions, ensuring that the WSF becomes not just a space for dialogue but a catalyst for tangible and transformative change.

As Kathmandu prepares to host the World Social Forum 2024, let us hope that its organizers and participants can address the challenges and adapt to a changing world, ensuring the WSF continues to be a beacon of hope for a just and equitable world. Let us hope that the WSF in Kathmandu can revive the momentum of the World Social Forum and not only reaffirm that ‘another world is possible’ but enable paving the way for the realization of the envisioned ‘another world’. As Margaret Mead eloquently put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

ActionAid International

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