What the Global Forum could achieve

If we want to help make another world possible, there are at least seven things we must do at the Civil Society Global Forum during the WSSD, argues Victor Munnik

1. Develop a true vision for 21st century

First, the Global Forum is a fantastic chance for up to 40 000 civil society activists to discuss a true vision for the 21st century. This is the agenda that originally drove the people working in Rio, 10 years ago, and gave birth to Agenda 21. It made official a new way of thinking about managing the planet as a single home for all people, and it opened the doors wide for participation of groups outside government in the form of major groups.

But because Agenda 21 was the official agreement reached by heads of state, it is managerial, full of ifs and buts, with important parts left out. These are, for example, the question of the behaviour of multinational corporations, the question of peace (or the real life results of war and the massive military industry), and of the ecological and other debts of colonialism which shaped our world over the past 500 years.

By its very nature, A21 puts its trust in the actions of governments and institutions like the United Nations. These are not enough, and in the view of some, not good enough.

But these are not its main failings. Its basic problem is that it does not express a vision of a planet which provides space, and a life of dignity and happiness for all its inhabitants. It is this type of vision – a vision for humanity in the 21st century – that should be discussed, expressed, and formulated as a document or charter as a legacy from the Forum. The timing for that is excellent, as the work of the World Social Forum over the past two years has shown us.

2. Explore strategies and tactics

It is important to not only have a dream of how our world should be, but to immediately take the first steps to get there. Two great streams of thought and action define, in my opinion, the debate about the strategy and tactics of civil society. The one, flowing from the Battle of Seattle and other expressions, fundamentally question the right and fitness of governments and international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, but also of the United Nations (and especially its so called Security Council) to make decisions for us and takes us into a new world.

The other stream argues what may seem to be the opposite, namely that transformation will come through the actions of governments and enterprises – and that therefore civil society need to engage with these sectors as part of changing the world. They argue that civil society activists will (and should!) never become politicians, or business people.

What exactly happens when civil society enters into partnerships with government and business? When are we influencing them and when are they co-opting us? How do we tell the difference?

Are these two strategies fundamentally opposed or can they be used at the same time?

The World Social Forum has been discussing tactics and strategies for some time, but the discussion is again at an important point. How do we weld the diverse forces into one coherent approach, or do we need to? Is the main need not to find a way of living with and gaining strength from diversity? What are the implications of that for both practice and theory?

And indeed, for the WSSD itself, there need to be decisions about the range of actions undertaken at the summit itself – from lobbying and partnership forming to direct action ("pie him!") to nonviolence and citizen disobedience. South Africa is, after all, the place where two great traditions of people’s action were born: the struggle against apartheid in its various forms as well as Gandhi’s satyagraha.

3. Strengthen ourselves through sharing experiences

A different world already exists in some places. These should be brought to the Global Forum to illustrate what can be achieved, and to explain how it is achieved. But a movement for humanity also draws its strength from the celebration of our humanity. This can be through music, poetry, theatre and other performances, open discussion and the construction of creative and visionary spaces.

In that sense, our exhibitions will showcase "best practices", but will also show where the future is and how to get there.

4. Engage with the governments’ summit

Of course the Global Forum should link with and influence the government summit. Some frequent flyers pronounce that the Global Forum will have no influence on the summit whatsoever, since the negotiating text has already been set.

But the Global Forum starts before the official negotiations and then runs alongside it. It may well play a role in some decisions about what goes into and out of brackets. How?

The Global Forum should be a strong influence on the summit. It should pre-empt the government summit with a declaration of what "we the people, expect our governments to do", should comment daily on progress, and should pronounce at the end of the summit whether the governments met our expectations.

At the Global Forum, we should have groups dealing with all the important issues, and tracking – with the help of the lobbyists in Zone 1 – what the progress is. These specialists should then communicate to the rest of civil society at Nasrec and in the world what is happening.

5. Advance Civil Society Agendas

I am convinced that we can fast track agendas like eco-debt, corporate accountability, convention against the use of child soldiers… By discussing these at the Global Forum, more social force and support for these agendas can be built, and their attainment can be fast forwarded by months or even years!

6. Use the media

By all accounts the Summit will be a massive media event. Civil society activists now have a sophisticated understanding of the media. While ownership may be concentrated in the hands of people one would not share a packet of old chips and flat coke with, activists understand that these channels are still sensitive to the needs of pockets of sometimes very sophisticated readers. The information arena is crucial not only for Agenda 21, but in the transition to a more transparent and just world.

This is the chance to influence both voters and consumers, and through them have some influence over the decision makers.

This is also our chance to discuss, in the public media, what the issues in Agenda 21 and sustainable development are.

Interestingly, independent media groups driven by values like justice and contribution to the struggle have already emerged and are quoted in more mainstream outlets too. The Internet is available to share large amounts of detailed information and network people very specifically.

The Global Forum must have an independent, well functioning media centre which also accommodates ideas like feeding from grassroots areas (e.g. interviews with people dealing with pollution, lack of food security, filmed in their own space, but "present" on big screens at the Global Forum).

7. Green Johannesburg

We should practise what we preach. Some comrades are working hard to "green" the Summit, and at the same time "green" Johannesburg. Our city may well be one of the least sustainable cities on earth, built as it was on a watershed by gold diggers, sustained by cheap black labour and cheap electricity from dirty coal. But there are zero waste campaigns for the summit, and a greener transport system on the cards.

And finally, as participation is a main article of faith for all involved, let’s make that so, lets make it a people’s summit for all!