A conversation with Chico Whitaker, founder of the World Social Forum and latest winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize
Tension hung in the air. The third World Social Forum (WSF) was to be held the next day and Porto Alegre’s university was preparing for an onslaught of 100,000 politically-charged visitors, all convinced we could create another world. It was February 2003; America was threatening to invade Iraq at any moment and the global gathering of alternative thinkers and activists was receiving more media attention than ever. The entire Ode editorial staff was there to launch the new international edition of the magazine.
Behind a closed door an intense meeting was underway, with debate over urgent last-minute matters concerning the impending conference. (The World Social Forum is dedicated to showing a different vision of globalization than the World Economic Forum attended by elite corporate leaders and politicians each year in Davos, Switzerland.) The meeting had been going on for hours. Organizations involved with the WSF must reach a consensus on all decisions. Hence the marathon meeting. Occasionally the door opened without a sound. You could see the fatigue on the faces of those coming out of the room; it was clear they were aching to stretch their legs and finally be relieved of all the details surrounding the opening of this ambitious event. You could see them thinking: I want to get out of here.
Then the door opened again. A grey-haired man stepped outside and blew out a deep breath. His face cleared immediately. Then, his eyes danced when he recognized a group of people. Of all those who had walked out of the room, he was the only one who displayed any exuberance and sense of humour – I remember thinking right then: If I make it past the age of 70, I’d love to have his joie de vivre.
All his life, Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of the WSF, has been fighting for democracy, peace and solidarity. In December at the Swedish parliament, he was presented with the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. Among other things, the jury praised his work in setting up the WSF, which for years has been demonstrating that “another world is possible,” as the event’s slogan states. Moreover, the idea has spread, and local and national “social forums” are being organized around the world. The World Social Forum 2007 will be held January 20 through 25 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ode spoke with Whitaker, sending congratulations by telephone.
What does the prize mean to you?
Chico Whitaker: “The prize means that I will be able to explain the importance of the WSF to larger groups of people.”
How important is the WSF? Its impact doesn’t seem to be particularly great.
“The WSF is misunderstood. People expect that we have a leader, a spokesperson, a series of coherent viewpoints – but that is not our aim. The WSF is an open platform where people and organizations can come together to learn from each other, develop fresh initiatives and examine how they can become stronger to make another world possible. The goal is for their influence to increase, not the influence of the WSF.”
What are the biggest problems in the world?
“War, inequality and damage to the environment. These issues really need to be addressed at an international level, but the United Nations is too weak to handle it. The major international organizations that have more influence and budget, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, only think about the money so they won’t solve these problems.”
So we’re lost?
“No, I think that citizens have to gear up and put pressure on politicians to set new priorities. They’ll have to get organized locally, nationally and internationally for solidarity.”
You believe in flat structures: no hierarchy, but self-organization. Does that work when it comes to the approach to these global problems?
“No, but it does work to organize people to strive towards an important goal: exerting pressure. We need governments and international organizations to make decisions. But they do have to listen to us.”
A prize for Chico Whitaker
Brazilian social-justice advocate Francisco “Chico” Whitaker Ferreira worked on urban planning and land reform projects for the Brazilian government before he joined the opposition movement against the country’s military regime in 1964. Two years later, he was exiled along with his wife and four children. Until his return in 1982, he lived and worked in France and Chile as a researcher and advisor for UNESCO, among other organizations. Now 75, Whitaker is a Catholic activist, inspired by liberation theology and closely allied with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. In 2006, Whitaker received the Right Livelihood Award, an annual prize given since 1980 to support people who not only dedicate themselves to social justice and the environment, but who live according to those principles. The prize, some 220,000 euros [$285,000 U.S.], was awarded in December by the Swedish parliament.