Thousands participate in a festive march through downtown Montreal for the opening of the World Social Forum on Aug. 9. The 12th edition of the anti-globalization conference is being held for the first time in a G7 nation to try to bridge a North-South divide. (Clement Sabourin/AFP/Getty Images)

From Brexit to Bernie Sanders, people and politicians have been wrestling with the idea that the economic and political systems in the West only work for a few. That’s the idea that, 15 years ago, brought together 150,000 global activists in Brazil in a meeting conceived as an antidote to the economic elites’ meetings at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. This World Social Forum (WSF), the “anti-Davos,” has since met in places like Mumbai, Dakar and Tunis. The many participants are committed to the idea that “another world is possible,” although during the lifetime of the WSF that prospect has sometimes looked rather dim.

This year we were there at the forum meeting in Montreal, the first time the WSF has met in the global North. We surveyed more than 100 participants, joined thousands of people in the opening march, sat in on workshops, and interviewed attendees. 

For people who have never heard of the World Social Forum, the first question is usually whether this expansive event is a useful way to achieve social change. The short if unsatisfying answer is that it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

1. The WSF brings together activists across issues and borders

Black Lives Matter activists were chanting “Climate Justice Now” in the opening march. Members of teachers’ unions from Germany, the United States and Canada met in a workshop to share tactics and information. When in another session a researcher from Focus on the Global South described the damages created by mining in the Philippines, audience members then drew parallels to Canada and compared legal and political remedies.

For veteran U.S. activist Medea Benjamin, the forum “serves a networking purpose that leads to greater coordination” after it’s over. She reported that her anti-war organization CodePink connected with Canadian activists to expand the circle of those seeking safe havens for Syrian refugees, among other goals for international peace.

Helena Wong of Grassroots Global Justice noted that the forum has helped connect hundreds of U.S. grass-roots organizers and groups with their counterparts in the global South as part of their campaigns to challenge U.S. foreign policy initiatives. The group recently organized a caravan of activists from the Republican to the Democratic National conventions to call attention to domestic policy issues.

2. The global North was out of reach for many likely WSF attendees

On the other hand, there was a major obstacle to cross-pollination this year: Not everyone was able to come. The Montreal collective that had pushed for the WSF’s move to Canada argued that neoliberal globalization must be fought from inside the global North. But Canada was out of reach for many. Of the 2,000 international activists who tried to come, 70 percent were denied visas. The government argued that forms were not properly completed or that applicants lacked a “clear purpose” for their visit.

Other Southern NGOs never applied for visas because they couldn’t find sponsors to pay for the expensive trip. A few speakers delivered talks remotely via video from Nepal, Peru and Turkey, but missed out on the conversations, encounters and networking that so many find valuable.

According to our survey of more than 100 participants, 70 percent of participants were from Quebec, and only one out of six were from outside North America.

3. The WSF itself does not take political stances, although its members do

From its inception, the WSF’s charter has rejected taking explicit political stances or issuing proclamations, arguing that the participants, not the forum itself, should engage in politics. Chico Whitaker, a founder of the forum, was in Montreal to defend his longstanding support of this neutrality. According to our research, the participants themselves prioritize networking over action.

Not everyone agrees with this, however. At one assembly on the forum’s future, Boaventura de Sousa Santos argued that the event was impotent without political action. The Montreal conveners anticipated this argument, and had replaced the forum’s customary gatherings with “action assemblies,” explicit times and places to make plans for future collaborations.

4. It’s not clear whether Montreal’s WSF was effective in incubating future action

We did find evidence that action may emerge. Participants were trained to campaign against fossil fuel companies, and learned about policy proposals on supporting basic income and ending tax havens. Though many conversations focused on expanding knowledge rather than developing specific responses, many people we interviewed suggested these meetings would help their causes when they return to their respective homes.

However, we also witnessed unionists from different countries arguing over international trade rules, and U.S. activists debating the viability of a third-party voting strategy.

Even when people agree on what action should be taken, executing a plan in this setting is a challenge. The final day of the forum was dedicated to unveiling action plans, but drew only a few hundred people out of the tens of thousands of attendees.

The challenges facing the forum should feel familiar to any U.S. activist on the left. For the World Social Forum as for other social movements, more people at the table — inclusiveness — makes it more difficult to decide how to act. However, having an arena in which to meet and share experiences may be necessary for any kind of future planning and coordination. In that sense, the forum may be useful to the global left even as a networking event only. The forum may help strengthen social movements, but it can’t — at this point, at least — provide more than the sum of its parts.

As Filomena Siqueira, a participant from the forum’s founding country of Brazil, said, “If the people are weak, the forum is weak. If the people are strong, the forum is strong.”

Sarah S. Stroup  is associate professor of political science at Middlebury College and author of “Borders Among Activists: International NGOs in the United States, Britain and France.” Find her on Twitter @SarahSStroup. 

Jamie K. McCallum is assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College and the author of “Global Unions, Local Power: The New Spirit of Transnational Labor Organizing.” Find him on Twitter @jamiekmccallum.

This research was supported by the Undergraduate Collaborative Research Fund at Middlebury College and conducted with the help of Dan Adamek, Eleanor Eagan, Kate McCreary and Nina Sweeney.