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Social Forum Commission Seeks to Build a Bridge - 2002-02-10

While world business and political leaders met for the annual World Economic Forum in New York, thousands of activists from more than 100 countries met in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the World Social Forum. They spent six days discussing alternatives to the prevailing free market economic model. Amid the search for solutions, one group is seeking to build an intellectual bridge between the ideas emanating from Porto Alegre and those from the pro-free market World Economic Forum.

The views of most of those attending the two Forums are diametrically opposed.

The World Economic Forum, also known as the Davos Forum for the town in Switzerland where it usually meets, has for years brought together leading political and business leaders to discuss promoting free enterprise. The Porto Alegre meeting, first held last year, is an attempt by the anti-globalization movement to provide an intellectual framework for offering alternatives to the free market-free trade model. It hosts leftist activists, intellectuals and others, many of them veterans of the protests against international trade talks in Seattle, Genoa, and other locales, who oppose economic globalization in its current form. They say it has exacerbated the gap between rich and poor around the world.

Yet, there is the growing sense among some observers that the rhetoric from both sides of the debate has exhausted itself, and will not yield solutions to the world's social, economic and environmental problems.

Former European Parliamentarian Tom Spencer, who was in Porto Alegre, is among those who believes a change is afoot in both camps. "Davos itself helped promote the original idea of the pure form of globalization, which was that it was historically unstoppable, it was good for everybody, there were no losers and it raised all the boats. And then you get a response to that from the anti-globalizers: 'No, the reverse of all that: It is stoppable, it's no good, it's actually horrible in all forms, and we must subvert it, crush it, reverse it.' I don't think you'd find anybody nowadays who believes either of the pure forms of those arguments. Not even the most regular participant at Davos thinks anymore this is a non-controversial piece of historical inevitability. And I suspect most of the anti-globalizers are no longer anti-globalizers," he says. "What they accept is that there's going to be some levels of global organization. They just want globalization with a more human face and a better regulated form of globalization. So, we've moved on."

Mr. Spencer, who belongs to Britain's Conservative party, is a member of the recently formed Commission on Globalization. Formally launched in London in December, the non-governmental network includes such notables as financier George Soros, Queen Noor of Jordan, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But much of the commission's work is being carried out by more than 150 commissioners, including Mr. Spencer. They are gathering and debating proposals for tackling issues related to economic globalization.

Mark Ritchie, an American activist who heads the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says the climate is now right for melding some of the ideas from Porto Alegre and the Davos Economic Forum, and turning them into action. "One of the requirements for anyone who wanted to offer one of the major sessions at Porto Alegre was that it had to result in concrete plans and steps for action," he says. "It's not allowed to have just a workshop, on a problem, on an idea, on an ideology. There has to be concrete working plans coming out. So, once this dynamic is underway that people are looking for solutions, the idea, and I think the belief, that the commission can be a bridge, both to ways of thinking, but also to political power bases that can help move thinking into action is fundamental to the work."

Mr. Ritchie, who was a delegate at Porto Alegre both this year and last, says the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States urgently underscored the need to move forward in reforming, or setting up new global institutions. "For me, September 11 was a signal, like the Second World War and the crisis of that period, that our relations among people and nations were not working, and that we needed some new global institutions to address underlying economic, political, social injustice that was leading us to war," he says. "September 11 was a signal that our global institutions aren't working to the extent that they need to. So, the commission is there and ready and operating on the matters that, I think, are most critical: Finding the global institutional mechanisms to seek economic, political, and social justice - and that being the underlying basis upon which peace can be constructed."

The Commission on Globalization is tackling issues such as intellectual property rights, genetic engineering, global security and poverty alleviation. The commission's recommendations will be presented to member states of the United Nations.

The Porto Alegre Forum, which will convene again next year, closed February 5 with participants saying they had succeeded in shifting the focus from simply criticizing globalization to offering concrete proposals. They also said the Social Forum has succeeded in forcing those attending the World Economic Forum to pay more attention to social issues.