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A Better World Is Possible

Thousands of anti-globalization activists from all over the world are gathering this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the World Social Forum's third meeting. The Forum, which runs through January 28 and is held simultaneously as the World Economic Forum of economic and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, is expected to draw over 100,000 people from 157 countries. This year’s Forum seeks to explore alternative ways for globalization and to put them into practice.

To coincide with the event, James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, wrote the following op-ed that appeared in several newspapers this week.

January 24, 2003—These past two years have not been easy ones for the world. Too soon after we toasted a new millennium full of hope, we have seen terrorism, economic recession, and disrespect for human rights put fear and uncertainty in the hearts of people in rich and poor countries alike. Continuing conflicts, droughts and floods, collapsing markets, and deepening poverty have taken a heavy human toll, particularly in Africa and Latin America.

How to make a better world possible for all is what civil society representatives from around the globe will be debating this week at the third World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And these are the same challenges that we are grappling with—and yes, debating—at the World Bank.

Whether in Porto Alegre, Bamako, or Washington, DC, such debates are important. Certainly no one in civil society nor in the World Bank can claim to have all the answers to these enormous challenges. Yet what I believe is promising is the evidence of a growing consensus among those of us working in international agencies, and leaders in government, business, and civil society, that we can begin to solve these problems only if we forge a new development path linking economic growth to social and environmental responsibility. Without social equity, economic growth cannot be sustainable. Without enlarging the real opportunities available to all citizens, the markets will work only for the elites. This means providing everyone with access to education, health care, decent work, and—as the new Brazilian president Lula has pointed out—with at least 3 meals a day.

The events of September 11, 2001, helped drive home the message to people everywhere that there are not two worlds - rich and poor. There is only one. We are linked by finance, trade, migration, communications, environment, communicable diseases, crime, drugs, and certainly by terror.

Today, more and more people agree that poverty anywhere is poverty everywhere. Our collective demand is for a global system based on equity, human rights, and social justice. Our collective quest for a more equal world is also the quest for long-term peace and security.

This growing consensus is playing out in the emergence of a global partnership for poverty reduction. At the recent United Nations conferences in Monterrey and Johannesburg, and at the launch of the Doha round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations, developed countries pledged to help developing countries by strengthening capacity, increasing overseas development assistance, opening markets to trade, and reducing agricultural subsidies. In turn, developing countries pledged to institute sound economic management policies and promote good governance. Rich and poor countries alike have reaffirmed their commitments to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. At the World Bank, we have now reoriented our strategy to help developing countries meet the Goals—including halving poverty, ensuring basic education and health for all, promoting gender equality, and protecting the environment—and pressing the richest countries to meet their obligations under the Goals to help the poor.

Over the next 50 years, we will likely see world population grow from 6 billion to 9 billion, with almost 95 percent of that increase going to the developing world. Food needs will double, annual output of carbon dioxide will triple, and for the first time more people will live in cities than in rural areas, placing an enormous strain on the social fabric, on infrastructure, and on the environment. If we are to meet our common goal of reducing poverty, we estimate that we will need an average annual growth rate of the world economy around 3.5 percent—giving us, perhaps, a USD 140 trillion world economy by 2050. But it must be responsible growth—growth that takes full account of social and environmental concerns.

Responsible growth means greater transparency so that publics can track government policy. People rightly demand to know what their governments are doing, to be consulted and to have a say in their own destinies. This is where civil society, at the local, regional, and global levels, can play a critical role. Civil society groups are helping give voice to the voiceless, delivering essential services, and building local capacity, especially in regions where government presence may be weak or because they come from poor communities themselves. For too many years the Bank, like many others, ignored civil society. Over the last decade we have been actively engaging civil society organizations throughout the world in policy dialogue and in the projects we finance. There is no doubt in my mind that we have civil society advocacy to thank for progress on debt relief and on the environment, and for the better implementation of Bank projects. And the role of civil society groups at the local level and on the world stage will continue to grow.

My colleagues and I have followed the debates which have occurred during the WSF during the past two years, and we will discuss with interest ideas and proposals which emerge this year. But while debate remains needed, it is not enough. We must also act. We must harness all available resources—from the public and private sectors, international agencies and local communities—in implementing innovative solutions that will reduce poverty.

The future is in our hands, we are not hapless bystanders. We can influence whether we have a planet of peace, social justice, equity, and growth or a planet of unbridgeable differences between peoples, a planet of wasted physical resources, of corruption, and terror. We can create a renaissance of values and social justice, freedom from want and fear. We will not agree on every issue, but we can agree that a better, and more humane, world is possible—and we can work much more closely together to make it a reality.

Useful links: For further information on the Third World Social Forum currently taking place in Porto Alegre, please visit: