Forum Challenges Globalization

By Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire | National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Forum Challenges Globalization


Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, National Catholic Reporter


In mid-January, the walkways of the NESCO compound in Mumbai turned into a traffic jam of social and political causes. On one particular afternoon, magnificently attired Indian tribesmen, drumming for land rights, stalled behind a contingent of energetic South Korean students denouncing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. They in turn waited while a procession of anti-Coca Cola activists diverted their march to accommodate the congestion. Above all of this fluttered posters and banners that seemed to proliferate by the hour: "US Out of Iraq" ... "IMF Out of the South". .. "Our World is Not for Sale."

What appeared at first glance to be a mega-fest of the masses was, in fact, the highly organized, well-attended World Social Forum, an annual gathering of peace and anti-globalization activists. Nearly 100,000 people attended this year's forum, held Jan. 16-21 on the open grounds of the NESCO compound here. Among them were Catholic nuns in saris, sandaled Jesuits, and members of Catholic nongovernmental organizations, youth groups and peace and justice commissions. They came, they said, to learn, to network, and to show solidarity with people of goodwill working for alternatives to war and to an economic ordering of the world that valued profit over human beings.

Although the Indian bishops have identified globalization as their No. 1 pastoral concern, the Catholic hierarchy in India, as in Brazil, where the fast forum was held three years ago, kept a safe distance from the left-leaning forum whose participants included socialists and communists. According to the Catholics attending the Mumbai gathering, this caution seemed unfortunate and unnecessary. The World Social Forum, they said, was too useful and too relevant to pass up.

"This is where the church belongs," said Duncan MacLaren, secretary general to Caritas International, a confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service agencies operating worldwide. "The church is always present where human beings are. The church has always been with the poor."

The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 and was timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Organizers for Porto Alegre billed their event as the people's alternative to the Davos gathering, which they viewed as exclusive and pro-corporate.

In an effort to Include greater participation from Asia and Africa, the World Social Forum relocated, this year to Mumbai, a Financial hub and a city of extremes. The majority of the world's poor reside in Asia. Here in Mumbai, population 13 million, the gulf between haves and have-nots is Instantly and starkly apparent. Just blocks from the NESCO grounds, glossy billboards advertising mobile phones and vitamins for "the healthy life" border a row of shacks made of burlap bags and inhabited by families who bathe, defecate and cook along the roadside because privacy is an unaffordable luxury.

Ancient and irrepressible, India is perhaps also the best place for challenging the imposition of globalization. This is the world's biggest democracy, rich in people's movements. Many were present at the NESCO compound, sharing the organizing space with notables like Iranian human rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, former senior vice president of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, and Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy.

To many, Davos and Mumbai represent opposite perspectives on what the world needs economically. But economic policy adviser Christine Loh said both forums have valid views and provide "a part of the truth." According to Loh, "Davos says, 'Let's promote environmental protection and improve social programs.' Mumbai says, 'The basis of economics and investments needs to change.'"

A former businesswoman and Hong Kong legislator of international acclaim, Loh now serves as CEO of Civic Exchange, a Hong-Kong based public policy think tank that works on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. …

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