It's a hot summer day in Porto Alegre, Brazil. A small group of children splash and play in the polluted river beneath a towering smokestack. Meanwhile, hundreds of people work feverishly, putting the final touches on scores of temporary structures that will house the fifth World Social Forum (WSF). The buildings range from tiny refreshment stands to giant tents housing elaborate art built out of recycled materials.
Outside, young activists dressed in shorts and tank-tops are beginning to gather at Largo Glenio Peres for a meeting of activist and NGO workers that is expected to attract over 100,000 people. At the opening ceremony, which lasted all night, the international group was entertained by fire dancers, giant Australian-made puppets, an illuminated zeppelin that hovered overhead bearing a slogan calling for an end to poverty. There was also music of the Gilberto Gil, otherwise known as the Brazilian Minister of Culture.
The event's official description is as inclusive as the crowds of people it attracts. It is "an open meeting place where groups and movements of civil society opposed to ... any form of imperialism, but engaged in building a planetary society centered on the human person, come together to debate ideas democratically ... and network for effective action."
Over 2,000 meetings will take place over the course of the next four days in formal and informal settings in and around Harmony Park, the venue of the event, on subjects ranging from Foreign Direct Investment to the war in Iraq, from climate change to HIV/AIDs in Africa. The final event will celebrate Africa, the venue of the next WSF, scheduled for 2007.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, high up in the tiny, exclusive Alpine ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, a light snow is falling. Temperatures are expected to stay well below zero degrees Celsius all week.
Uniformed police fill the town and Austrian warplanes wait just a few kilometers away, ready to take to the skies at a moment's notice to protect Davos' most renowned annual visitors. Gathered here for their yearly networking session are the world's most influential leaders of business and government -- some 2,000 VIPs, including co-chairs Bill Gates of Microsoft and Narayana Murthy of Infosys, as well as dozens of heads of state and the leaders of many of the top Fortune 500 companies.
Welcome to the World Economic Forum (WEF), where many of the very same topics on the agenda in Porto Alegre will be debated by the men and women (although there are very few of them) who actually create national and international policies on these social and environmental matters.
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The fact that these two events occur at the same time every year is no coincidence. The WEF was started in the early 1970s by Klaus Schwab, a professor of business policy at the University of Geneva. It has attracted small groups of protestors for the past decade, which gradually built to provide in size and scope. These gatherings provided the inspiration for what became the much larger WSF in Porto Alegre in 1999. And while the participants and locations couldn't be more different, this year the messages at these events appear have more similarities on the surface than one might expect.
Take, for example, the opening-day speeches at the WEF. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for consensus on a number of global issues, but focused heavily on climate change. Similarly, French President Jacques Chirac (who was forced to cancel his helicopter ride from Zurich because of harsh weather and resort to a video address) used his speech to call for an international tax to fund the fight agaist AIDS.
At the WEF, press releases were made available for the thousands of journalists in attendance, with a messages that, at first read, might have sounded very critical of the participants. "World's leaders are breaking their solemn promises to tackle global problems from poverty to peace to environmental protection" read one release. "Widespread corporate indifference to the impact of AIDS" read another.
Surprisingly, these messages were not issued by any of the activist groups. No, the first message was issued by public relations officers with the Ketchum group, an international media relations company hired by the WEF to promote their new Global Governance initiative. The initiative forms part of the 2005 theme "Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices." (The Ketchum group was recently in the spotlight when it was discovered to have been contracted by the White House to pay television host Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind on his nationally syndicated television show.)
"The analysis of 2004 shows that few in either the public or the private sector are doing anywhere near what is necessary to get the world on track," reads the new WEF report, which continues "In a series of scores using a zero-to-ten scale, the world has earned failing grades. In all issue areas, from education to hunger to peace to human rights, humanity is doing less than half of what is needed to build a more stable, prosperous world."
A special chapter in the Global Governance Initiative suggests that business can change the world in four ways: developing new products and finding profitable ways to deliver affordable goods and services to the poor; hybrid business/philanthropic activities such as public-private water partnerships; corporate philanthropy; as well as public policy dialogue, rule-making and institution-building.
Activists in Brazil and Switzerland agree with the failing grade awarded to business but that's where the real similarities end. The problem, as Karen Nansen of Uruguay's Red de Ecolog
Ãa Social sees it, is the transnational corporations, themselves. They "simply cannot be held accountable," she told CorpWatch, while in Brazil this week. "We need to dismantle them and return control over resources to the communities who are affected."
While some activist groups might be willing to try public-private partnerships and voluntary regulation, most reject these solutions out of hand. Sonja Ribi of Pro Natura, the Swiss branch of Friends of the Earth believes that the WEF solutions fall far short. "We need an effective legally binding international framework for corporate accountability," she says.
In Brazil, activists are working to develop just such a framework. There will be two days of strategy meetings for those concerned about corporate misconduct hosted by Friends of the Earth International and the Manila-based Focus on the Global South (Focus). The two groups hope to develop a strategy to create such binding rules as well as to protest corporations that pollute the environment and violate human rights.
WEF participants aren't the only ones talking about global issues in Switzerland this week. There is also a small group of activists, who chose not to go to Brazil for the WSF but have stayed to protest the business and government leaders.
A coalition of environmental and human rights groups including Greenpeace and Amnesty International is planning a series of surprises for the executives of companies ranging from pharmaceutical behemoth, Dow Chemical, to pesticide giant Monsanto.
The first of such events was Public Eye on Davos, an awards ceremony for the worst multinationals in the world which was commenced by former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, at the Davos Evangelisches Kirchgemeindehaus (Church Community Center).
"Public Eye Awards are meant as a reminder to members of the WEF and other large corporate groups that the public expects from them responsible environmental behavior and respect for human rights, labor rights, and fiscal duties," says Matthias Herfeldt of the Berne Declaration, one of the organizers.
Meanwhile, back in Brazil, the next two days will see groups ranging from the Tax Justice Network -- who want to strengthen the hand of national governments to tax the wealthy beneficiaries of globalization -- to the UK-based Corporate Responsibility Coalition (CORE) who will present case studies at the two corporate strategy meetings. Their intent is to prove that corporate-led globalization does not work and that the WEF members themselves are the cause of the problem.
"The debate over the effects of globalization has long been won by its critics, with the overwhelming weight of the evidence correlating free market policies with increasing inequality both within and among countries" says Walden Bello, the executive director of Focus. Bello holds up the growing number of people affected by poverty and the current trend towards weak, unsustainable growth as examples of this debate. But, like many activists, he knows that debate is not always enough. "Like the proverbial dead hand of the engineer on the throttle of a speeding train," he continues, "neo-liberal policies continue to reign in most developing countries."
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