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Shifting Debate at Social Forum After 9/11 - 2002-02-03

The World Social Forum, now underway in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, has brought together thousands of social activists, intellectuals, politicians and others to discuss alternatives to the current world order. This is the second year the Social Forum is being held, but much has changed in the world since the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

They came from everywhere. Italian University students, some of them veterans of last year's anti-globalization protests in Genoa, are camped at a park in Porto Alegre along with hundreds of others from Brazil, Canada, the United States, and other nations.

There, among the tents pitched in the grass, they discuss how to change the world by strengthening the leftist movement opposed to the global reach of the free market economic model, often called "globalization."

French Canadian activist Catherine Vaillancourt Laflamme, came to Porto Alegre after hearing about last year's Social Forum. "Immediately after the end of the first World Social Forum, I knew I would come to the second one," she said. "So we've been following the process all the way along, and also organizing the people's summit in Quebec City, which I was part of, was like the continuation of what happened here in Porto Alegre and also when we go back we will try to make other events like that, so it doesn't stop here; it's just a milestone... so I think we have a movement here and the point is to continue."

The World Social Forum, organized for the first time last year by a group of Brazilian social activists, is again providing a venue to exchange ideas, present proposals and design new strategies. It is the civil society alternative to the World Economic Forum, which for years has been bringing together business and political leaders to discuss promoting free trade and free markets.

In Porto Alegre, the main theme of the scores of seminars and workshops taking place each day is to develop an alternative to a system blamed for widening the gap between rich and poor around the world. A workshop on "Democratizing information through community radios" is held on the same day as one on Water Management and Sustainable Development. Larger, thematic conferences on issues such as debt and multinational conferences also are held and attract hundreds of people to hear the views of prominent activists and thinkers.

At Friday's conference on Third World debt, Belgian Eric Toussaint who has written a number of books about the issue, called for implementing measures to raise money from rich nations to help eradicate poverty in poor countries. He said, such measures should include the Tobin Tax which would impose a kind of sales tax on international currency transactions. Another revenue-raising measure, he said, would be for rich nations to comply with targets set by the United Nations to set aside seven-tenths of a percent of their GDP for aid programs. For Mr. Toussaint, these measures would raise billions of dollars every year that could be used to finance health and education programs around the world.

But more often the forum rings with radical rhetoric denouncing the free market system and the United States. The September 11 terrorist attacks, while deplored, have not stopped the criticism.

In the view of American linguist and leftist intellectual, Noam Chomsky, the events of post September 11 have provided a new opportunity for exploitation. "The message is that we, the powerful, will pursue our own agendas even more relentlessly than before, while you the people of the world are supposed to be quiet, and submissive and obedient and not to raise your voices, and we see that happening all over the world," he said. "But there's no need to be intimidated by this crude and vulgar tactic of class warfare."

But such views, even though they resonate among many at the forum, are not universally shared and are even rejected by some. Instead, there is a growing view that the attacks have changed the nature of the debate and even the future of the anti-globalization movement.

Former European parliamentarian Tom Spencer says September 11 should serve as a warning to both sides in the globalization debate. Mr. Spencer, who belongs to a new commission seeking to find workable alternatives, called the Commission on Globalization, says a new realization has sunk in post-September 11.

"The horrors of September 11 made both sides in the debate more careful," said Mr. Spencer. "It constrained them, it requires them not to be as cavalier in their condemnation of each other in their approach in the way global institutions operate. So, you can't any longer from the Porto Alegre crowd just go around saying we're against globalization and want it replaced with something nicer. You've now got to say what kind of institutions do we want. If you can conceive of another world, what are the institutions of that other world. And, similarly for the World Economic Forum you can no longer say 'we'll just rely on the markets you don't need governments', because paradoxically September 11 reinforced the public recognition that you do need governments. September 11 reinforced the public recognition that you do need governments, and that the belief that governments would vanish altogether and the secret hand of the market would produce the best of all possible worlds, literally went up in smoke."

The World Social Forum is still underway, and this issue among others is under debate. But while consensus may be difficult to reach among such a diverse group of people, there is the realization among many in Porto Alegre that after September 11 the usual rhetoric is no longer enough and that realistic solutions can only come from engagement with the other side.