World Forums Are Poles Apart but Headed in the Same Direction

Times Staff Writers

They’re thought of as polar opposites, a clubby meeting of the rich and powerful up in the Swiss Alps versus a messy rally of leftists down in southern Brazil. The World Economic Forum in Davos preaches globalization; the World Social Forum here wants to stop it.

But this year, a funny thing happened on the way to the forums: The captains of capitalism and the marchers for Marx experienced a bit of harmonic convergence.

How else to explain the burgeoning interest in Davos in tackling global poverty and disease, causes associated more with the World Social Forum? Or criticism that the annual mass event here in Porto Alegre now favors the elite, an accusation normally directed at the glitzy gathering across the Atlantic?

How else to account for Lionel Richie and Gilberto Gil?


Richie, the hit singer of “Endless Love,” was among the celebrities who spiced up the usual lineup of chief executives and politicians. Not to be outdone, the conference here played host to Gil, Brazil’s culture minister and musical icon, who was recently featured in a photo spread in Vanity Fair.

Both men were on hand to lend celebrity wattage to calls for wealthy countries to combat misery and devastation in the developing world.

Surprisingly, Davos fired the first salvo, on its opening day Wednesday, when French President Jacques Chirac suggested international taxes to fund efforts to combat poverty and British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued dire warnings about climate change.

Suddenly, social responsibility and the moral obligation toward poor countries and the environment were Topic A at a convocation viewed more often by critics as the global equivalent of the scene from the film “Godfather II” in which ambitious American gangsters cut up and eat a cake in the shape of Cuba.


“Godfather II” morphed into “Pay It Forward” when actress Sharon Stone rose during a seminar with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and led an impromptu round of donation pledges that raised $1 million to fight malaria in Africa.

“They are progressive Atlanticists,” said Kenneth Roth, director of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch and a prominent speaker in Davos, which wrapped up Sunday. “It’s a self-selected group. They are businesspeople interested in an intellectual exchange.... They are powerful individuals who are in large part sympathetic.”

All this sounded like an eleventh-hour, and highly dubious, conversion here in Porto Alegre, where tens of thousands of grass-roots activists, who are closing out their conference today, have met in recent years to talk about these very issues -- but without the clout of Davos.

Sincere or not, the Davos approach to social issues, firmly rooted in global capitalism, remains the antithesis of what delegates here want: drastic measures such as abolishing the International Monetary Fund, scrapping free-trade deals and ridding the world of Big Macs.


Yet some of the criticism this year at the World Social Forum has been self-directed, sounding remarkably similar to what activists would more naturally say about the gathering in the Alps: that it is a group of haves talking about how to help the have-nots.

“Here the elites speak for the poor and sometimes misrepresent them,” complained Jack Jones Zulu, a delegate from Zambia. “We are speaking on behalf of the poor, or on behalf of the peasant farmer, when the peasant farmer should be here. [But] the cost is prohibitive.”

His organization, Jubilee-Zambia, which campaigns for debt forgiveness, sent him to Brazil. How else could he have afforded the $2,200 airfare, which is nearly 10 times Zambia’s annual per-capita income, as well as food and lodging, to attend a conference that focuses on the woes of poor nations like his?

“Absolutely, it creates the tendency to elitism, and we want to fight that,” acknowledged Antonio Martins, one of the forum’s Brazilian directors.


Organizers decided that next year’s event instead would be a collection of mini-conferences in different cities, partly to boost participation by those who live the realities that well-meaning, well-heeled leftists discuss in earnest tones.

The Davos retreat too tried to soften its image as a gathering of the upper crust. Neckties were discouraged, though their surgical removal seemed the only solution for many of the carefully groomed movers and shakers in attendance.

It is hard to be anything but relaxed in sunny Porto Alegre, where shorts and sandals are de rigueur, and a shirt could be evidence of bourgeois vanity. Scruffiness rules. The forum’s vast campground for youth is a sea of long hair, outdoor showers, multiple piercings, young men with guitars and the permanent smell of burning cannabis.

The atmosphere is part Woodstock, part summer camp, part grad school. The social forum, once dedicated purely to fighting globalization, is now an equal-opportunity purveyor of progressive causes. The issues are debated in hundreds of workshops on occasionally esoteric themes, from utopian politics to the “Struggle for Housing for Lesbians From the Slums.”


In Davos, one workshop asked, “Does Business Have a Noble Purpose?” while another wondered, “Is Responsible Investment About to Pay Off?”

Chu reported from Porto Alegre and Rotella from Davos.