Anti-globalization: The World Social Forum
Whilst the representatives of the rich were junketing in Davos at the World Economic Forum, the representatives of the poor were meeting at the World Social Forum in Kenya. The six-day event in Kenya did not attract much international media attention. What is the World Social Forum? What are its topics of concern and why is it significant?
Globalization is the spirit of the times but the term is a euphemism for if we are to spell it out what we are essentially talking about is the globalization of capitalism. Capitalism has its strengths and weaknesses: it is good at producing wealth; it is good at product innovation and responding to relative scarcities; it is not so good especially in the sort-term at an equitable distribution of new incomes and it has a tendency (recognized by Adam Smith and also by Karl Marx, who nonetheless admired its transformative energy) to produce monopolies. Analysis of the downside of economic development and the division of labor started with Smith and continued with Marx. Social critics in Victorian England such as John Ruskin pointed out the significance of welfare, the right of workers to be healthy and to live in sanitary conditions and to receive an education that helped them develop their humanity rather than simply to be useful to capitalist production. Above all, Ruskin reminded his middle-class readers that we have only one life to live and whilst it is important to look to long-term development, present inequalities and present injustices matter. Economic change can not simply be about more production but must also be about enhancing the quality of human existence.
The World Social Forum is an attempt to provide a framework in which those concerned with the plight of poor people in the context of global economic development can make their voices heard. It is intended to be an open-space wherein those grappling with issues of social and economic justice as well as sustainable development can articulate their concerns. Ideally it should allow poorer people engaged in social action to speak to the wider world. It has been criticized by traditional leftist movements for being vague and ineffective and for being dominated by Non-Governmental Organizations rather than by the direct representatives of the poor. It has been criticized from the right as ignoring the fact that in the long-run market-led growth has positive outcomes with respect to incomes, welfare and liberty. It reminds the world that the poor need attention now and has adopted as its mission that notion that ‘Another World is Possible’.
Any economic change has winners and losers. This is as true of a fall in the dollar exchange value in the United States (exporters benefit and importers are penalized) as it is with respect to the plight of (say) hand-loom weavers in India as a result of China’s strengths in textile production. In theory, if we are looking at economic change through the lens of economic welfare, change is to be promoted in the incomes of those who benefit are greater than the losses to those who miss out, making compensation possible at least in theory. A problem is that with the rate of change in some countries being so rapid, the poor are brushed aside in the rush to domestic economic growth. International measures for compensation are also weak. Think just how long it has taken for debt-relief to be discussed and applied. The World Economic Forum is aware of this and have attempted to look at the plight of those who miss-out as a result of (what I would wish to call, partial) globalization (Sub-Saharan African is largely untouched by the modern phase of globalization; agriculture remains regulated even if Doha round is successful and there is no world-wide market for labor services). The World Social Forum, whatever its organizational problems, is consistently focused on airing the issues that relate directly to poor people and this gives a sense of urgency that may not always be felt elsewhere. The criticism that it is too focused on Brazil and Latin America was partly answered by the fact of the Kenyan meeting. The downside of globalization will usually be experienced as particular problems in particular places and will often require a change in domestic policy. However the problems will share common features with problems elsewhere and hence allow for the possibility of learning from sharing as well as raising the possibility of greater effectiveness in the communication of concerns to global institutions such as the World Bank. It seems unfortunate that the issues that motivated the World Social Forum in Kenya were largely ignored by the international press. In the interest of building global partnerships for development, dialogue would help.