Every February, roughly 3,000 of the world's economic and political elite gather together for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the snowy ski town of Davos amidst the beautiful backdrop of the Swiss Alps. This event is well known largely because the global media ritually shed a great deal of ink in its honor. There seems to be widespread belief that the purpose of the WEF is for global elites to find 'collective solutions to the world's biggest problems'.
Those who understand how power actually works - how it concentrates, congeals, barricades, and self-preserves - recognize this is a lie. The plutocrats who crashed the global economy now claim they are the ones to rescue us. The WEF is a convening of 'shared interests' with only one shared interest - the accumulation of more power.
You are rarely told about it by the media, but there is another forum of more importance and relevance. A different type of gathering all together. Last week, almost 50,000 people, from every continent in the world, attended the World Social Forum (WSF). They came from every walk of life - farmer and peasant movements, indigenous peoples, progressive not-for-profit organizations, and ordinary citizens who want to stop the rape of the global economy and build a genuinely democratic world.
It was a colorful mosaic of hopeful, committed and open people shuttling from one discussion to another. There were no closed-door meetings. Indeed, quite the opposite. Impromptu debates sprung about on almost every open patch of grass with topics ranging from solving the global food crisis to ensuring governments are accountable to their citizens. The forum was held in Tunisia this year, with the backdrop of the revolution as a source of inspiration and shared lessons for attendees.
The WSF began in 2002 in Porto Allegro, Brazil as a space to challenge the existing neoliberal paradigm that serves the rich with its agenda of privatization of the commons, corporate globalization and 'free market' economic policies. Some consider the WSF a movement unto itself, and in many ways, it is one of the predecessor movements to Occupy, the Arab Spring and other revolutionary processes. The event's mantra, 'Another World is Possible,' has become the rallying cry for the world's majority.
Despite the significance and influence of the WSF, the mainstream media has written very little about the event over the past 10 years. The coverage this year, too, has been sparse, at times inaccurate, and rarely captures the spirit of change and possibility that WSF embodies.
This not to say that the gathering doesn't have its faults. There are internal cleavages and contradictions that have drawn the ire of both the radicals and the reformists.
Some claim that there has increasingly been a 'corporatization' and 'NGO-ization' of the forum. They believe that big, well-funded interests are hijacking the process and removing the organic, democratic nature of the WSF. On the other hand, some dismiss the event as a chaotic gathering of anarchists and revolutionaries. They see the world's progressive movements as bickering amongst each other - a tug-of-war between intellectual purists who support a strategy of 'letting a thousand flowers bloom' rather than creating a viable alternative to the current economic and political paradigm.
As always, critiques from the margins trade the nuance and ambiguity for polemical punch-lines. The World Social Forum is a frustrating process. As the scholar and activist Nicolas Haeringer states, "The WSF is a conflictual space, whose main feature is to put into tension organizational and political elements, which might first appear as being incompatible."
Unlike the hidden, opaque agendas of Davos, or the performative commitments and self-congratulation of events like the Clinton Global Initiative, the WSF is a democratic process reflecting the will of ordinary citizens from around the world. With that comes the complexities and contradictions of differing viewpoints from people of varied backgrounds and political contexts. What they share though is the starting point that the rules that structure the global economy are fundamentally unfair. The rules privilege the few at the expense of the majority.
Spending three days amongst intellectual battles, factional tensions, and the shared solutions and ideals of activists and citizens alike, one begins to find clarity amid the apparent confusion. Critiques get sharper; programs for change grow more robust; alliances form. As with all realities worth living, we oscillate between fear and hope, doubt and dedication, frustration and inspiration.
Given our common fate - a fast warming planet, quickly depleting resources, reduced wages, rising inequality - embracing this complexity has never been more important. The processes through which real change will come will look more like the messy, human chaos of the WSF rather than the exclusionary, secretive collusion of the WEF. The media's willingness to romanticize 'answers from the top' is more a reflection of where they come from rather than where we are going. The simple, controlled narratives that have helped plutocrats 'manage risk' will give way to the sheer weight of the problems their economic order has created.
As the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold once wrote, we are "wandering between two worlds, one dead and the other powerless to be born." The establishment might reinforce that fatalism, but from the vantage point of the World Social Forum, the horizon hails a new world ready to be born.
Alnoor Ladha is an activist and social entrepreneur. He is the co-founder of /The Rules, a global citizens movement to address the root causes of inequality. He is also a board member for Greenpeace USA, and a partner at Purpose, an incubator for new types of social movements.