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The 2012 Social Forum: People in the centre of the development debate

arton4136On 1-3 October, the annual Social Forum of the UN Human Rights Council gathered a broad range of civil society actors, scholars and UN and government representatives to discuss the overall theme of “People-centered development and globalization.” This theme builds on the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986, which states that “the human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.”

In her opening remarks, Chairperson-Rapporteur Alya Al-Thani (Qatar) focused on the opportunities and challenges globalization poses on development and how development can and should be shaped by people for people. She underlined that people-centred development is founded in the principles of international solidarity, equality, social justice, democracy, and human rights. She emphasized that globalization holds the promise that people thousands of miles apart may learn from, help and empathize with each other, and that, in doing so, they may come together collectively to exercise their basic human rights, to promote the rights of one and all, to tackle global problems, and to share and replicate local successes internationally.

Ms Al-Thani also urged the participants to consider how to strengthen and improve the Social Forum in order to realize its potential as a space for constructive dialogue between civil society, international organizations, States and other stakeholders.

The Social Forum

…has met regularly since 2002 and is a subsidiary body of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

…supports an interactive dialogue between the representatives of Member States, civil society, including grass-roots organizations, and intergovernmental organizations on issues linked with the national and international environment needed for the promotion of the enjoyment of all human rights by all.

Through eight different panels, each followed by interactive discussions, the Forum took a comprehensive and holistic approach to development and human rights. Not only did it criticize the leading development paradigm and pointed out environmental, social and financial problems, but it also offered creative alternatives, best practices, and constructive examples.

The various panels covered topics ranging from democratic governance and participation, to women’s rights, social movements, and financial transaction taxes, which they supported with stories and examples from across the globe.

The indigenous concept of Buen Vivir, for example, was emphasized by Angelica Navarro, Permanent Representative of Bolivia to the UN in Geneva. Ms. Navarro stressed that this approach does not take per capita income as its main criteria, but has a more holistic perception of the individual, society and ecology. She also pointed out that this approach had led to improvements in conventional measures of development, for example lower unemployment rates and increased gross domestic product (GDP) in her country.

Myrna Cunningham, Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, also welcomed the Buen Vivirconcept and the increased recognition of having harmony between all elements in nature. She underscored that the economic subject is not only the individual, but also the collective. Buen Vivir is about “values that stand for culture for life, for living together, and for complementarily not just among people but also harmony between us and nature, for the protection of the commonwealth and of life in benefit of communities and nations as a whole,” she explained.

However, she cautioned that indigenous peoples still face considerable challenges and cannot live according to the lines of the Buen Vivir concept as long as their territories continue to be threatened and appropriated to national and international companies; education continues to have a western focus; and indigenous languages are on the road to becoming extinct.

Johan Galtung, Rector at Transcend University focused on the need for a more egalitarian society and that development should include and be sensitive to identity and culture. He stressed that development is not a zero-sum game and that today’s elites have no realistic fear of being challenged by development. “We need to lift the bottom up,” he said.

Martin Khor, Executive Director of the South Centre, an intergovernmental policy think tank of developing countries, argued that globalization drives the development agenda, whereas it should have been the other way around: The development agenda should drive globalization. He also stressed that the economic pillar of the UN needs to be strengthened. Finance needs to be regulated and taxed, and the potential revenues diverted to where it is needed. He called for follow-up on the UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Development, held in 2009.

Pascale DeLille, researcher at Université Blaise Pascal in France, introduced the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) as a way of re-organizing development matters around people. SSE is a concept that is centred on the values of cooperation, complementarity, mutual support, human rights and democratic principles. It involves, among others, cooperatives, mutual associations, charities, social enterprises, and community organizations. These actors have in common that they favour human dignity and social and collective motives over maximizing profits. Fair trade, solidarity finance (complementary local currencies), community banks and micro-credit are other examples of SSE practices.

For more information on SSE and its potential and challenges, see: Social and Solidarity Economy – opportunities and challenges

The crises in the world are connected, as pointed out by Stephan Hale from Oxfam and illustrated by the doughnut diagramme connecting an environmental ceiling with a social foundation within which sustainable, safe and just space for humanity is created.

Manal Alsharif, women’s rights activist and blogger, exemplified how technology and social media have promoted women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She mentioned that the introduction of television in the countryside had led to an immediate decrease of domestic violence, as television transmissions had allowed people to become aware of other practices and societies. Consequently, it had strengthened the empowerment of women in the country.

The general consensus of the Forum was that creative solutions are needed that place human dignity and human aspects of development in the centre in order to address the multiple crises that humanity is facing today.

Statements and presentations can be found here.

Abstract of presentations are here.

For more information on the Social Forum in general, click here.

See also “The Social Forum of the Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide for Civil Society


This article is also available in French.


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