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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

World Social Forum

Every now and then I bemoan the lack of journals giving an adequate coverage of European life and policies. Any amount of stuff on Europe as a concept or European Union policies – but virtually nothing which gives us a comparative sense of national policies (in those fields still within the control of member states). Today I came across a French website - Books and Ideas - which does at least seem to offer, in the English language, some non-Anglo-Saxon perspectives.
And one of its contributions offered an answer to something which had been puzzling me since last summer when I wrote an article for a special issue of a Romanian journal which was devoted to the world a decade after 09/11. My piece was entitled "The Dog that didn’t Bark” and focussed on the general failure of radicals to capitalise on the global crisis – and, more specifically, the apparent failure of the World Social Forum which had been so active until 2005. The Forum is apparently right now holding another of its huge meetings - in Brazil (significant that I get the detail only from a German media source) - and Geoffrey Pleyers suggests two things in his article in BooksandIdeas - first that the Forum has been a victim of its own success (with many politicians now using their rhetoric); and, second, that the movement has now fragmented around three distinct trends -
1. A Focus on the Local Level
Rather then getting involved in a global movement and international forums, a wide “cultural trend” of the alter-globalization movement considers that social change may only occur by implementing participatory, convivial and sustainable values in daily practices, personal life and local spaces. In many Italian social centres, critical consumption and local movements have often taken the space previously occupied by the alter-globalization movement. Local “collective purchase groups” have grown and multiplied in Western Europe and North America. Most of them gather a dozen activists who organize collective purchases from local and often organic food producers. Their goal is to make quality food affordable, to bring an alternative to the “anonymous supermarket” and to promote local social relations. The movement for a “convivial degrowth” belongs to a similar tendency and aims to implement a lifestyle that is less of a strain on natural resources and reduces waste.


2. Citizens’ and Experts’ Advocacy Networks
Rather than massive assemblies and demonstrations, another component of the movement believes that concrete outcomes may be achieve through efficient single-issue networks able to develop coherent arguments and efficient advocacy. Issues like food sovereignty, Third World debt and financial transactions are considered both as specific targets and as an introduction to broader questions. Through the protection of water, activists raise for instance the issue of global public goods, oppose global corporations and promote the idea of “the long-term efficiency of the public sector” (“Water network assembly”, European Social Forum 2008). After several years of intense exchanges among citizens and experts focusing on the same issue, the quality of the arguments has considerably increased. In recent years, they have become the core of social forums’ dynamic. Although they get little media attention, these networks have proved efficient in many cases. During the fall of 2008, the European Water Network contributed to the decision by the City of Paris to re-municipalize its water distribution, which had been managed previously by private corporations. Debt cancellation arguments have been adopted by Ecuadorian political commissions, and some alter-globalization experts have joined national delegations in major international meetings, including the 2008 WTO negotiations in Geneva.

3. Supporting Progressive Regimes
A third component of the movement believes that a broad social change will occur through progressive public policies implemented by state leaders and institutions. Alter-globalization activists have struggled to strengthen state agency in social, environmental and economic matters. Now that state intervention has regained legitimacy, this more “political” component of the movement believes that time has come to join progressive political leaders’ efforts. It has notably been the case around President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as well as President Evo Morales in Bolivia. New regional projects and institutions have been launched on this basis, like the “Bank of the South” that has adopted the main tasks of the IMF in the region. For historical reasons and their political cultures, Latin American and Indian activists are used to proximity with political parties and leaders.
And a German journal gives a frightening insight into the Greek situation -
The Greek economy is not productive enough to generate growth. Aside from olive oil, textiles and a few chemicals, there are hardly any Greek products suitable for export. On the contrary, Greece is dependent on food imports to feed its population.
"Greece has been living beyond its means for years," an unpublished study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) concludes. "The consumption of goods has exceeded economic output by far."
Especially devastating is the assessment that the DIW experts make about the condition of an industry that is generally seen as a potential engine for growth: tourism. According to the DIW study, the Greek tourism industry concentrates on the summer months, with almost nothing happening throughout the rest of the year. There is almost no tourism in the cities, which translates into low overall capacity utilization and high costs for hotel operators. By contrast, capacity utilization in the hotel sector is much more uniform in other Mediterranean countries.
According to the study, a key cause of the problem is the relatively poor price/performance ratio. In Mediterranean tourism, Greece has to compete with non-euro countries like Croatia, Tunisia, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey, which can offer their services at significantly lower prices. The per-hour wage in the hospitality industry was recently measured at €11.39 in Greece, as compared with only €8.49 in Portugal, €4 in Turkey and as little as €1.55 in Bulgaria. The study arrives at grim conclusions, noting that the drastic austerity programs will not only remain ineffective, but will also stigmatize the country as "Europe's problem child" for a long time to come.
The painting is a....Turner, of course!

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