The First U.N. Social Forum: History and Analysis

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As he has had with a number of other United Nations and international conferences, the author had the opportunity to attend the proceedings of the inaugural U.N. Social Forum as an observer and non-governmental delegate. The following article thus represents the author's impressions of events as he observed them.

In the last few years a number of events have developed aiming at giving NGOs, the poor and civil society in general a voice in globalization and poverty reduction issues. The Davos World Economic Forum has opened its doors to at least a selective representation of certain Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); the "World Social Forum" counter-event to the World Economic Forum has now met thrice in Porto Alegre, Brazil; and there was even a small "World Civil Society" meeting which met in Geneva just before the U.N. Social Forum. With all these and other proliferating events, it might be properly asked whether another 'social forum' is needed, and if so, why.

The U.N. Social Forum was conceived over several years as a platform within the U.N. system for the exchange of ideas and perhaps actions aimed at effectively incorporating human rights, especially economic, social, and cultural rights into policymaking, for the benefit of those members of the poor and vulnerable segments of society whose voices are not usually heard within that system. In a Working Paper submitted to the 2002 meeting of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the Sub-Commission member from Chile and the leading advocate for the Social Forum Mr. Jose Bengoa describes the years of discussion aimed at creating a "new forum for debate within the United Nations for analysis of the relationship between globalization and human rights, in particular economic, social, and cultural rights, in a globalized world." (1) The Social Forum complements the U.N.'s overall priorities of promoting and protecting peace, stability, human rights, sustainable development, and poverty eradication, including the specific anti-poverty priority that emerged from the Millennium Summit.

In her five year service as High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Mary Robinson came to understand that poverty eradication is the most pressing human rights issue facing the world. Poverty both affects, and is affected by, other human rights violations. Ms. Robinson noted in her address to the Sub-Commission in 2001 that part of the motivation for the Social Forum was to contribute to ensuring that globalization will be positive for the world's poor as well as the world's rich. This basic objective has also been key to the thinking of Mr. Bengoa. He also continually has stressed the importance of inclusiveness, not only from the perspective of including (usually excluded) representatives of the poor in the discussion, but also in terms of engaging non-state actors such as private enterprise and international financial institutions (IFIs) in the dialogue. Bengoa is thus sympathetic to ideas for global policy networks for policy change.


Whether by globalization we mean increasing global economic exchange, or increased global exchanges of all sorts, globalization has proceeded for millennia, and has accelerated during the past 500 years. After World War II, however, with the institution of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, economic growth exploded. This growth, however, disproportionately benefited developed industrial countries, as opposed to developing nations emerging from colonialism. By the late 1990's, discontent with persistent poverty and perceived growing inequality reached a fever pitch with demonstrations at Seattle, then Prague, Genoa, and other cities against a global economic order that simply wasn't working for many of the least well off in the world.

Consciousness of the new questions surrounding globalization resulted in a 1995 proposal by Norwegian Sub-Commission member Asbjorn Eide to study income distribution nationally and internationally. …