Critically engaging with the principles underlying the World Social Forum

A discussion note towards a Workshop at the WSF at Belém, Brazil

Date and time : January 29, 8:30 - 11:30 am

Location : UFPA Professional University, LP Pavilion, Auditório Joé Accúrcio

Organised by : CACIM, India (

CACIM, January 14 2009 – final version[1] BUT COMMENTS ALWAYS WELCOME !

The WSF (World Social Forum)’s Charter of Principles[2] has come to be quite widely celebrated as an unusual and very creative constitutional document that promotes horizontality, diversity, non-linearity, autonomy, and multi-polarity. In many ways, it is one of the strongest expressions of the core principle of the Forum, of being an open-ended open space[3]. Although perhaps noone has actually said this, some have come close to suggesting that it is a remarkable and perhaps even historic document, making manifest many of these quite new organisational principles of emerging movements across the world.

On the other hand, both the concept and the practice of the Forum have also come to be quite widely contested since its formation in 2001, and where most recently there has been a prominent suggestion that it is perhaps time for it to pack up[4]. An extensive debate has followed[5]. This proposal was also preceded by a seemingly low intensity but high-powered and extensive debate about – and struggle over - the future of the Forum, and in particular that it needs to be given a more articulated political programme[6]. And this is also aside from an even longer debate about the exclusions of fellow-travellers from the WSF that the Charter has brought about, such as of the Zapatistas – who many believe were an inspiration for the global justice movement in general and for the WSF in particular[7].

Aside from (and notwithstanding) the controversies however, there is much evidence however to suggest that the organisers of the Forum have also struggled over these past 7-8 years since its formation in 2001 to interpret and make manifest the Forum as envisioned in its Charter. This has been not only in terms of the evolution of the design and the globalisation of the Forum but also in the form and content of the series of rules and procedures they have progressively formulated over these years, and also perhaps of the organisational and policy decisions and resolutions that they – primarily in the form of the WSF’s International Council – have taken[8].

One of the responses of the organisers of the Forum to the intense criticisms that it faced following the Nairobi Forum in January 2007 was to suggest that what the Forum needs is a more clearly defined set of "organising principles". Significantly, this was seen as a set of principles "aside" from (but complementing) those articulated in its Charter of Principles – and not a revision of the Charter. In other words, that the ‘rules’ of the Forum needed to be spelt out. It has accordingly taken steps to constitute a commission on this, which has been working over the past year and has published a certain number of documents in this direction, and with which we have already taken some steps to critically engage[9].

The objective of this project – which is part of our larger project of critically engaging with the Forum (see WSF) is to engage with the WSF’s Charter "and" also of all the rules, procedures, statements of principles, and practices that it has formulated and practised over these years.

The idea of this project is to bring together all the documents that have been generated by the WSF’s IC and by all its various commissions and committees – thereby addressing one objective of our larger project, to chronicle the Forum; to make these systematically and publicly available (as has been our practice right from the beginning; see OpenSpaceForum); to study all the documents to, in particular – in this project -, to see the degree of manifestation, consistency, and/or contradiction with the Forum’s Charter; and to use all of this to promote debate about all this, within the body of the Forum, on the specialised listserve that we run (WSFDiscuss), and given the significance of the WSF as a world experiment – also, as far as is feasible for us, in wider social and political circles.

As a part of this initiative, we are organising Workshop on this subject at the upcoming world meeting of the WSF in Belem, Brazil, on January 29 2009; along with organising some other related meetings there. In particular, we are organising two meetings that are of direct relevance to the subject of this meeting, and we urge and invite you to also attend those meetings as well. First, on the significance for the WSF of the participation for the very first time of the indigenous peoples of the world (how much is the WSF willing to change itself, in order to take on board the radically different worldviews of indigenous peoples ? What should be the organising principles that allow this merger confluence to take place ?); and second, in terms of asking the World Social Forum – and the so-called ‘global justice movement’ of which it is said to be a part – how it is addressing the world as it stands today and is opening up before us, and also to open conversations with other movements for social justice :

January 29, 12:00 - 15:00 :

The Politics, Potentials, and Meanings of the Belém Forum : The Significance for the WSF of the Participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the World

Location : UFPA Professional University, LP Pavilion, Auditório Joé Accúrcio

Co-organised by : CACIM, India, and NFFPFW - National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, India

January 30, 15:30 - 18:30 :

Facing the Future : The World Social Forum, the Global Justice Movement, and Beyond

Location : UFPA Professional University, LP Pavilion, Room FP-04

Co-organised by : AFM - Articulación Feminista Marco Sur; CACIM, India; Democracy and Social Movement Institute, Sungkonhoe University, South Korea; and ARENA - Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives

Come and join at these meetings as well ! For details on both meetings, as well as a Discussion Note on each, please see

This debate – about the organising principles that should underlie the World Social Forum – is crucial to its future, and also, it could be argued, to the future of the global justice movement. We are very glad to be able to confirm that we have received a lot of interest in this event and a number of people who are excellently placed to contribute to this crucial debate have so far confirmed their participation (as below). We propose that one objective of this meeting should be to be to be very concrete - and to formulate either some recommendations to the International Council of the WSF or even, if felt appropriate, a framework of such principles.

At the same time, the debate around organising principles is not going to stop with the Belém Forum, and so we would be very glad to hear from anyone who is interested in and/or already working in this area but who will not be able to come to Belém. In addition, we would also like to be informed of documents and/or websites that we could and should consult for our work; and, of course, to receive copies – in hard copy or soft – of any and all relevant documents that can supplement and inform this debate.

Speakers-Participants at this meeting (as of January 13 2009)

Amit Sengupta - General Secretary, All India Peoples Science Network, and Member, IWC of WSF India

Andrej Grubacic - Anarchist, historian, social critic, teacher; presently associated with the Global Commons Foundation, San Francisco

Cindy Wiesner - Political Coordinator of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance in the US; represented the Miami Workers Center as the co-chair of the Outreach Working Group on the National Planning Committee for the US Social Forum in June 2007

Gina Vargas - Veteran Peruvian feminist sociologist; founder of the Centro Flora Tristan in Peru; associated with the Articulación Feminista Marcosur in Latin America and the Program of Democracy and Global Transformation in San Marcos University, Lima; member of the WSF International Council

Nicolas Haeringer - PhD candidate at the Dauphine University (Paris 9) in sociology; works on the dynamics of social forums, through participant observation and action-research

Raphael Hoetmer - Adjunct Director of the Programa de Estudios sobre Democracia y Transformación Global (‘Study Programme on Global Democracy and Transformation’), at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima, Peru

Thomas Ponniah - Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University, co-editor with William F Fisher of Another World Is Possible, Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (London : Zed, 2003), and member of NIGD

Tord Björk - Student of global social movement; Chair, Friends of the Earth Sweden


[1] This is the final version of a note prepared by Jai Sen for CACIM, and supersedes the first three drafts, dated May 10 a first and second, November 6 2008, and November 19 2008. For details on CACIM, see (external link)

[2]World Social Forum Organising Committee and World Social Forum International Council, June 2001 – ‘World Social Forum Charter of Principles’; dt June 10 2001. Revised and approved version of original April 2001 Charter. Available at [ The process of formation of the Charter is also of some interest, including some controversies and confusions that existed at the early stages. See : Jai Sen, December 2003d – ‘A Tale of Two Charters (Or : ‘Another Charter Is (Im)Possible !’). 8 pp. Available at; (external link) and : Jai Sen, December 2003c – ‘Two Charters of Principles : A Comparison’. Comparison of Original April 2001 WSF Charter of Principles with Revised Charter of Principles issued in June 2001, as found on the WSF website in October 2003. December 19 2003, 7 pp. Available at (external link)

[3] See, for instance : Boaventura de Sousa Santos, 2004b – ‘The World Social Forum and the Future : The Future of the World Social Forum’, in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman, eds, 2004 – World Social Forum : Challenging Empires (New Delhi : Viveka). Available at; (external link) and : Teivo Teivainen, forthcoming 2006 - ‘Whose Civil Society ? The Charter of Principles and Boundaries of an Open Space’, Chapter 5 in his Democracy in Movement : The World Social Forum as a Process of Political Learning. Unfinished draft, 18 March 2006, for book to be published in late 2006 by Routledge, London.

[4] Walden Bello, May 2007 – ‘World Social Forum at the Crossroads’, Foreign Policy in Focus, May 4 2007. Source : Transnational Institute @ (external link)

[5] The entire debate was at one point available on the WSF / FSM Library of Alternatives. At the time of finalisation of this Note, however (14.01.2009), the site is unfortunately not working, so we cannot give the link here

[6] Jai Sen and Madhuresh Kumar, compilers, with Patrick Bond and Peter Waterman, January 2007 – A Political Programme for the World Social Forum ? Democracy, Substance, and Debate in the Bamako Appeal and the Global Justice Movements - A Reader. Published by CACIM (Critical Action : Centre in Movement), New Delhi, India, and University of KwaZulu-Natal? Centre for Civil Society (CCS), Durban, South Africa. Soft copy available @ (external link) and; (external link) and : ATTAC Germany, nd, c.2008 – ‘The debate on the future of the World Social Forum - from Bamako to Bélem’. Reader for the European Attac Summer University (2008) Workshop with Francine Mestrum (Member of the WSF’s IC) and with Peter Strotmann and Marie-D. Vernhes (Sand im Getriebe). Compilers : Peter Strotmann and Marie-Dominique? Vernhes, ATTAC Germany, editors of Sand im Getriebe.

[7]For one discussion, see : Jai Sen, 2004 – ‘A Tale of Two Charters’, in Jai Sen, Anita Anand, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Waterman, eds, 2004 – World Social Forum : Challenging Empires, New Delhi : Viveka, pp 72-75. Available at (external link) and at (external link)

[8]For a discussion of how ‘the Forum’ has been drawing lessons from its experience and repeatedly reinventing itself, see : Jai Sen, January 2007 (February 2006) - ‘The World Social Forum as an emergent learning process’, in Futures vol 39 (2007), pp 505-522. Available through subscription @ (external link) Unedited original available @ (external link)

[9]One of the first documents in this area was : Vinod Raina, October 2007 – ‘Guiding Principles for Holding WSF Events’, draft 1, 26.10.2007; @ (external link) As is our practice, we at CACIM attempted to critically engage with the proposals contained in this first document : Jai Sen, November 2007a – ‘Some Hard Questions, 2 : A Source Of Considerable Worry; Some Suggestions For The Forum’. As posted on WSFDiscuss on November 1 2007 10:44:45 PM GMT+05:30. Available @ (external link)

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