The third annual World Social Forum was held in Mumbai, India January 16-21, 2004. Previous Forums were held in Porto Alegre, Brasil. The move to Mumbai acknowledges the significant percentage of the world’s population that lives in Asia, seeking to increase their access to the event. As a gathering to strategize effective means toward transforming global society with an emphasis on human rights, the Forum drew an estimated 75,000 world citizens. A series of over 1,200 workshops explored the numerous perspectives through which to view globalization: war, imperialism, water, labor, discrimination, and many, many more. The larger panels and events with 4,000 people and more were organized by Forum coordinators while the remaining workshops were self-directed and given space by Forum coordinators. English and Hindi were the main languages spoken, while translation was available in French and Spanish. A tremendous energy was palpable from the smallest to the largest Forum event. Beyond the workshops, cultural performances, street theater, and political protests merged into a loud and colorful sea of humanity.
Nuclear Weapons-Related Workshops
The disarmament community was well-represented at the Forum. Our input was crucial given the recent developments in nuclear proliferation issues and increased visibility among the general public. Many experts view Asia as a “hot spot” with regard to nuclear weapons, given the number of nuclear powers within close proximity and their historical rivalries. Consequently, India proved an ideal location to strategize steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
There were a series of workshops that explicitly addressed nuclear weapons as well as many others in which speakers linked the abolition of nuclear weapons with other social justice issues. Workshop themes included, but were not limited to, civilian weapons inspections, global hibakusha, uranium mining, US militarism, and campus organizing. For my part, I spoke on two panels, one in the International Youth Camp (IYC), titled “Youth Organizing in the Second Nuclear Age,” and another in the main venue, titled “The Threat of Nuclear Weapons: The Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.” The IYC session was by far my favorite. Approximately, 35-40 young people, mostly from India and the US, joined in the dialogue. Two of my closest colleagues joined me on the facilitation team: Tara Dorabji, Outreach Coordinator with Tri-Valley CARES in Livermore, California, and Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, an independent education consultant specializing in disarmament issues. We divided the 3-hour session into an introduction to nuclear weapons issues, US nuclear weapons policy, small group discussions, and closing thoughts. The exchange was critical of both US foreign policy and the Indian nuclear establishment. Conversational topics ranged from nuclear weapons to racism to poverty. In closing, one participant shared that Kathleen’s encouragement was more of a factor in his participation than the workshop title. He went on to say that he had not thought much about nuclear weapons issues, but now was interested in learning more.
The structure of the second workshop differed greatly. “The Threat of Nuclear Weapons: The Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons” featured 13 speakers from 7 countries: Belgium, Greece, India, Japan, New Zealand, USA, and Vietnam. The panel, convened by Abolition 2000 and the World Peace Council, drew an even more diverse audience of approximately 200 people. In greeting participants as they arrived, I soon realized that the audience held as much expertise and experience as the panel. Allotted ten minutes each, speakers concentrated on three topics: assessing the nuclear threat, the global campaign, and the local campaign. Time passed quickly as each presenter delivered a passionate and informative talk. As my time approached and being the last speaker, I grew disappointed in realizing that there would be little time for discussion. This sense of disappointment lasted only briefly though, for the World Social Forum is less of a finish line and more of a starting point. The conversations that I had with workshop participants immediately following the workshop confirmed this understanding as will our collaborative efforts in the months to come.
The Forum was a tremendous networking opportunity, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. It was comforting to stay in the same hotel as the Abolition 2000 group (an international network of anti-nuclear organizations), most of whom spent part of the journey to Mumbai aboard the Peace Boat. It was my pleasure to help United for Peace and Justice (a coalition of over 650 US peace groups that oppose the Iraqi war and empire-building) promote March 20th as a day of action by passing out promotional pins, stickers, and t-shirts. As an alum of the New Voices Fellowship Program, I was proud to know that the current fellows participated in the Forum with many leading workshops. As a representative of a new member organization in the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, I encouraged the many youth group representatives and educators that I met to organize an activity on March 4th as a day of action opposing the militarization of schools. Similarly, I experienced two chance encounters with magazine publishers who are clear allies in the struggle to counter corporate media by providing accurate information to the masses: ColorLines & YES!. Lastly, philanthropists were in attendance at the Forum, particularly the Global Fund for Women and the New World Foundation. Their presence reminded me that successful social justice movements require various stakeholders, who must all challenge ourselves through relentless self-critique and education.
*This is just a small sampling of the dynamic people and organizations that I came in contact with in Mumbai.
Formerly known as Bombay, the bustling Mumbai (population, 13 million) seemed unfazed by the tens of thousands of guests. The contradictions in wealth and poverty were extreme. The buildings expressed India’s rich past. The sights were many, unique, and often shocking. In being somewhat overwhelmed and after having missed many opportune picture-taking moments, I resorted to writing down the most memorable sights in my journal. Here’s a sampling: a cow walking in the middle of the highway, an elephant walking along the side of the road, a truck full of live chickens, the Arabian Sea, a man pulling a cart with a washer and dryer on it up a hill, every third car being a black and gold taxi, an ox drawn cart, the diversity of Indian people, a snake charmer with two cobras, organized groups of children begging, Nike Town, a cricket game, and the many billboards promoting movies (Mumbai has earned the nickname “Bollywood,” being the capital of India’s entertainment industry).
Brazil vs. India
As a participant in the 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, I began comparing the two events almost upon arrival in Mumbai. The difference in global context was significant. Various phases of the US-led aggression against Iraq dominated the news headlines leading into both Forums. In January of 2003, claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction were used as grounds for the attack. By January of 2004, Hussein had been captured and these claims had been replaced by claims of bringing “freedom” to the Iraqi people and thoroughly refuted by high-level experts in the Bush administration. A harsh critique of US foreign policy and a strong anti-imperialist sentiment characterized both Forums.
The evolution from participant to workshop facilitator was a major factor influencing my experience. Whereas in Brazil, I could pick and choose my daily schedule. In Mumbai, my schedule was set in large part given my responsibilities to prepare for and promote my workshops. Similarly, my network had expanded in the year since Brasil and it was important for me to support my friends’ workshops. In all, my time in India was more focused and productive in terms of representing the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
Oppressed and marginalized peoples found a voice through both Forums. In Brazil, members of the landless people’s movement had a strong showing, speaking to the need for land reform and identifying allies through workshops, street theatre, and social receptions. In India, the Dalits (more commonly known as “untouchables”) used similar tactics to draw attention to their plight. It is interesting to note that even though the Forum is viewed as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, which is largely a meeting of economic powers and corporate leaders, a group of Indian and Filipino activists organized an alternative to the Forum. These activists claimed that Forum organizers accepted funding from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and in so doing became puppets of imperial powers. Even though I later learned that Forum organizers did not receive such funding, this alternative to the alternative raised interesting questions regarding philanthropy, grassroots organizing, and social change.
There were numerous tactics that groups used to maximize their Forum experience and promote their cause. I will list a few here in the hope that the disarmament community builds on the success of the 2004 Forum by having an even stronger presence in 2005.
- Unified promotion – Given that groups plan ahead and secure their workshop times and places, it would be an excellent showing of solidarity to have an email, flyer, poster, brochure, and/or booklet that lists all of the workshops with a disarmament theme. If a Forum participant is interested in a big picture “War, Militarism, and Peace” workshop, he or she may also be interested in a local action “How to Conduct a Civilian Weapons Inspection” workshop.
- Interactive workshops – Disarmament issues are new to many even at a massive gathering of activists such as the World Social Forum. It would be ideal to strike a balance between relaying a lot of information and catering to individuals’ questions and concerns. Developing engaging, dynamic, and colorful presentations and workshops are key to expanding the global movement to abolish nuclear weapons.
- Shared booth/tabling – The 2004 Forum featured large exhibition halls where organizations could distribute materials, sell goods, and maintain a consistent, accessible presence. The care and attention that went into the planning of these displays varied greatly. The best of these displays had friendly, knowledgeable people fluent in multiple languages; colorful posters and/or projected images; and free informational materials.
- Coordinated media – Issuing press releases before, during, and after the Forum may peak interest among journalists (local, national, and international) and raise the visibility of disarmament issues as a whole.
- Host a reception – Social events are great opportunities for Forum participants to engage in conversations initiated in workshops, to network, and to unwind. There is far less competition among social receptions than there is for workshops and, at times, a much better turnout.
This is a brief summary of my trip to the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India. I sincerely thank those who made the trip possible and you for your interest in reading my thoughts! I welcome comments, questions, and all feedback with the hope of relaying the spirit of Mumbai through my work with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and beyond.
Michael Coffey is the Youth Outreach Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Contact him at email@example.com or (805) 965-3443.