North-South Contradictions and Bridges at the World Social Forum*

Bamako Social Forum 2006

Chris Chase-Dunn, Ellen Reese, Mark Herkenrath, Rebecca Giem,

Erika Gutierrez, Linda Kim and Christine Petit


Forthcoming in Rafael Reuveny and William R. Thompson (eds.) NORTH AND SOUTH IN THE WORLD POLITICAL ECONOMY. Blackwell.

v. 12-11-06 8452 words.   


*Thanks to Richard Niemeyer for producing the GIS map of WSF05 participant home places in Figure 1 and to Toi Carter and Matt Kaneshiro for providing population data broken down by age and gender.

This is IROWS Working Paper # 31 available at

University of California-Riverside



This chapter uses the results of a survey of participants at the World Social Forum that was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005 to examine North-South differences within the progressive sector of global civil society. We find significant differences in both the characteristics and preferred strategies for social change among WSF participants that reside in the core, semi-periphery, and periphery. Understanding and overcoming such contradictions would help to promote more effective cooperation among transnational social activists in global social justice projects.


Keywords: North-South relations, global inequality, transnational social movements, World Social Forum, semiperipheral development, global social change


            The World Social Forum (WSF) is both an open meeting space and a movement of movements that are explicitly acting to oppose neoliberal global capitalism and to address issues of global social justice and environmental sustainability. It is also an organization governed by a charter of principles and two leadership bodies: an International Council and a local Organizing Committee. Because it is widely recognized that countries in the global South are especially at risk of exploitation and domination, the world-level meetings of the World Social Forum have all been held in the global South (Porto Alegre, Brazil; Mumbai, India; and Nairobi, Kenya).[1] Overcoming global inequalities and injustices is a major goal of those who are participating in the Social Forum process. This paper focuses on North-South differences and complementarities among the people and the movements that are participating in the World Social Forum using the results from our survey of participants at the meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January of 2005 (WSF05). 

            Civil society is a residual category of social organizations that are not encompassed by either the state or the market (for a history of the concept, see Calhoun 2001; Islamoglu 2001). It includes the family, informal networks, social clubs and voluntary associations, non-state religious organizations, and social movement organizations. We use the term transnational civil society to mean those in civil society who are consciously communicating, cooperating, and organizing across national boundaries (Amoore and Langley 2004). In this chapter we are studying a particular portion of transnational civil society – that segment that actively participates in, or is allied to, the global justice movement and other progressive social movements.

            The terminology of “North-South relations” has come to refer to the relations  between wealthy powerful countries with poor and less developed ones (Reuveny and Thompson 2007 [forthcoming]). It is fair to say that most social science approaches to global social change are core-centric, focusing mainly or only on the “great powers” or the “advanced countries.” Our theoretical approach is the comparative world-systems perspective that analyzes global inequalities as a world-historically constructed hierarchy – an intersocietal stratification system (Chase-Dunn 1998).  This global intersocietal hierarchy evolved out of the rise of European societies to power over the rest of the world and it continues to exist despite the decolonization of the Americas, Asia and Africa.[2] This hierarchy is socially constituted and institutionally reproduced but it is also repeatedly challenged by the organized and unorganized resistance of the dominated and exploited peoples. The structure of global governance has evolved in response to these challenges.

            The terms we prefer are core, periphery and semiperiphery defined as structural positions in a global hierarchy that is economic, political-military and cultural. The core-periphery hierarchy at the global level is organized spatially, but it is not a simple matter of latitude as implied by the North-South terminology. It is a complex and multidimensional hierarchy of different kinds of interrelated power and dependence relations. The world-systems perspective also asserts that capitalism as a system is dependent on successful exploitation and domination of the periphery and the semiperiphery by competing core states and firms (Bornschier and Chase-Dunn 1985; Chase-Dunn 1998).[3]

            The world-systems perspective holds that this global hierarchy is a centrally important structure for understanding and explaining world history and the trajectories of individual countries and regions. The global hierarchy is reproduced over time in the sense that it is hard to move up or down, although there is some vertical mobility. The semiperiphery, composed of large states and national societies with intermediate levels of development, is an important zone because innovations that transform technologies and forms of organization tend to get implemented (and sometimes invented) in the semiperiphery. It is a fertile location that produces structural and evolutionary change. This is the hypothesis of “semiperipheral development” (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 5). Both the hypothesis of semiperipheral development and the notion of the “necessity of imperialism” are the main justifications for the assertion that core-periphery relations are a key factor in the explanation of world historical social change.

            The struggle of the elites to move up the hierarchy and to stay on top requires hegemonic strategies that incorporate some of the non-elites into developmental projects, but the resistance of those below to domination and exploitation challenges hegemonic projects with new counter-hegemonic strategies of protection and democratization. This systemic core-periphery struggle is a major engine of world historical social change.

            Efforts by local and national groups to come together in transnational and international coalitions and organizations are not new. There has been a series of world revolutions in which transnational and international political alliances and organizations have played important roles for centuries (Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989; Boswell and Chase-Dunn 1998). The contemporary efforts by activists to overcome North-South cultural differences and to deal with potential and actual contradictory interests between workers, women, environmentalists, consumers, indigenous peoples etc. of the North and the South need to be informed by both the failures and the successes of these earlier struggles.

            In the analyses that follow we use both the North-South distinction and the core-semiperiphery-periphery distinction in order to compare the two. The North-South breakdown we use is based on the World Bank’s classification of countries into high income, upper middle income, lower middle income and low income countries, with the group of high income countries designated as the global North. For the core-semiperiphery-periphery breakdown we use Jeffrey Kentor’s (2000, 2005) measure, which includes indicators of military power and international economic dependency along with indicators of national income (see Appendix A). The “North” category is quite similar to the “core” as we have trichotomized Kentor’s measure, except for eight countries that the World Bank includes in its “high income” group (Greece, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel). We designate these as semiperipheral.

            We find that participants from countries in the periphery are under-represented at WSF05, which is not surprising given the poverty within that region and the location of the host country. Moreover, our results show that a greater share of respondents from the periphery are affiliated with externally sponsored non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which tend to have greater financial resources to cover their members’ travel than self-funded social movement organizations (SMOs) and unions. We also find that, despite significant differences in the characteristics of participants from the periphery, semi-periphery, and core, there are not significant differences in terms of their opinions on a number of political issues. However, we did find that, controlling for the effects of other factors, participants from the semiperiphery (mostly Brazilians) are significantly less likely, compared to other participants, to favor strategies that involve the creation of democratic global governance institutions, but are more likely to favor the transformation of the WSF into a global political actor.


How Inclusive is the World Social Forum?

The World Social Forum, despite official statements that decry the effort to represent humanity as a whole[4], tries to be broadly inclusive. Here and in other papers[5] we present results that shed light on the extent to which this endeavor has been successful.

Our survey is not a based on a random sample of the participants, though we tried to make it as representative as possible given the limitations of collecting responses during the meetings. Toward that aim, we conducted our survey in three languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) and surveyed participants at multiple types of events and venues at the WSF meeting. To our knowledge, there have only been a few surveys of WSF participants besides our own: Fundacao Perseu Abramo’s (FPA) survey of participants at the 2001 meeting (Schönleitner 2003) and IBASE’s (Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses) survey of participants at the 2003, 2004, and 2005 meetings. In another paper (Reese et al. 2006), we compare some of our findings described below to FPA’s findings about 2001 WSF participants and IBASE’s findings about 2005 WSF participants, in order to get a better sense of how representative our sample was to the total WSF participant population.[6] In a nutshell, our findings about the demographic and social characteristics of WSF participants are similar to those reported by FPA and IBASE, even though our sample was more international compared to IBASE’s sample. About 54% of our sample were Brazilian, compared to 80% of IBASE’s sample. We also found a higher share (43%) of our respondents attended the Forum on behalf of a NGO (FPA: 25%; IBASE: 34%) and that more of our respondents (49%) were attending on behalf of a SMO (FPA: 13%; IBASE: 29%).

            From whence did the participants in the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre come? Based on the 520 survey responses for which we were able to ascertain the respondent’s home city, Figure 1 shows a global map of where they came from. There were 163 cities plotted on this GIS map.


Figure 1: Residences of participants in the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre

            Obviously the “tyranny of distance,” despite the long-term declining costs of long-distance transportation, continues to be a major factor in shaping the geographical nature of participation in the WSF. This can even be seen within South America. Fifty-six percent of the participants came from Brazil.[7] None of our respondents were from the Peoples Republic of China, except for the five from Hong Kong, and none were from Russia.[8] Table 1 shows the home region of the respondents of our survey.












Number of  WSF participants


Percentage of WSF participants

Percentage of  world population in 2004

South America




Western Europe




North America (w/out Mexico)












Central American and Caribbean




Oceania (Australia & NZL)








Table 1: Region of residence of WSF05 respondents

            Asia and Africa are the most seriously under-represented world regions. Of course it is not just the tyranny of distance that skews the participation in an event such as the World Social Forum. People from different regions also have very different financial and organizational resources and different degrees of connectivity to transnational civil society. Table 2 shows the number and percentages of WSF2005 respondents from the core, periphery and semiperiphery and compares these with percentages of the world’s population in the countries in these categories.[9]








Number of WSF participants

Percentage of WSF participants

Percentage of world population in 2005

















Table 2: Residence of respondents by world-system zone


            The core is slightly over-represented; the periphery, which contains 32 percent of the world’s population, is seriously under-represented. That is one reason why the 2007 World Social Forum will be held in Nairobi, Kenya.


North-South Differences in Demographic and Social Characteristics

            In the analysis of demographic, social, and political differences that follows we present the results broken down both by world-system zone categories and by the North-South categorization shown in Appendix A. As mentioned above, fifty-six (55.5%) of our respondents were from Brazil. In this paper, we are particularly interested in comparing the views of politically active participants of the WSF05, those who consciously participating in transnational civil society.  We worried that some of the respondents were “drop-ins” who were attracted to the atmosphere of the Forum but are not active within social movements, and that this might be distorting our efforts to examine North-South differences within the progressive sector of global civil society. We addressed this concern by constructing a measure that we call “activists.”  These are people who participated in at least one political protest in the last year, or who report that they are actively involved in a least one of the social movements listed in our survey, or who have attended the WSF05 meeting on behalf of a social movement organization. Only 31 of our 639 respondents (4.9%) did not do at least one of these things. Although some of these respondents may be emergent activists, many are likely to be “drop-ins” who attended the WSF05 for non-political reasons, and so we excluded them from our analyses of North-South differences among WSF participants. The tables below include only those who qualify as social activists.

            First, we will present and discuss the results of cross-tabulations of North-South differences among attendees and then we will further test the findings with multivariate logistic regressions. Table 3 shows the gender breakdown by North-South and core, semiperiphery and periphery categories.


                         Total WSF               WSF North               WSF South     World Population

Male                  52% (309)                  55% (74)                 51% (235)                          49%

Female              48% (282)                  45% (60)                 49% (222)                          51%


                                                                    Core           Semiperiphery                  Periphery

Male                                                     56% (65)                 50% (215)                  66% (29)

Female                                                 44% (52)                 50% (215)                  34% (15)

            (Numbers of respondents are in parentheses) Chi-Square= 4.675, sig. =.10

Table 3: Gender distribution among Social Forum Respondents in Porto Alegre, 2005[10]


            Based on our sample of participants it is likely that slightly more men (52%) than women (48%) attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005.  When the gender numbers are broken down by North-South and core-semiperiphery-periphery categories the story is similar, except for the periphery, where there is a greater preponderance of men in attendance. [11]  The differences were not large for any of the categories except that of the periphery, where 66% of those attending were men and only 34% were women. Recall that only 49 of our 625 respondents came from countries that are categorized as being in the periphery.  Nevertheless, this is nearly a statistically significant difference between the gender breakdown among those from the periphery and that of the whole group of attendees that answered our survey (sig.=10%). 

            There are a number of plausible explanations for the rather larger gender difference found for the attendees from countries of the periphery. It could be that men are more likely to travel long distances than are women, especially from countries in the periphery, or it could be due to differences in income or education. Women from countries of the periphery still typically do not have as many years of schooling as do men, and this affects income, literacy, involvement in politics, etc. They also have higher fertility rates and less access to child care services compared to women in the core, making it more difficult for them to travel long distances.


                         Total WSF                         WSF                          WSF       In Population of

                               Sample                        North                        South         Countries from

                                                                                                                   Which Attendees


Under 26 years            42%            22% (30.5%)               47% (52%)           0-24=  46.6%

26-35 years                 29%               38% (14%)               26% (16%)          25-34= 15.4%

Over 35 years             29%            40% (55.5%)               26% (32%)               35+= 38%

                            (Country age percentages in parentheses)

                             Core                                    Semiperiphery        Periphery      

Under 26 years    23% (30.5%)                      49% (50%)              24%(58%)

26-35 years         36%(14%)                          26% (16%)               37% (15%)

Over 35 years      42%(55.5%)                      25%(34%)                39% (27%)

(Country age percentages in parentheses) Chi-Square= 32.782 sig. = .000

Table 4: Age breakdown of WSF05 Respondents and global population


            Table 4 shows the age composition of WSF05 attendees and compares this across respondents’ world system position. In the last column, we report the average population share in each age group for all of the countries from which respondents came. Forty-two percent of the whole group of attendees were under the age of 26, and 49% of those from the semiperiphery were under 26. Brazil is in the semiperiphery and so a large number of the young people in attendance were locals. But those who are included in this table have passed the “activists” test mentioned above. The WSF attracts young activists and this is also indicated by the fact that 23% of those who came from the core and 24% of those who came from countries of the periphery were under 26 years of age. But we should also recall that 47% of the population in countries from which all attendees came are less than 25 years of age. The largest age differences among attendees shown in Table 4 have to do with the larger numbers of young people who come from the semiperiphery and older people who come from both the core and the periphery. This is related to the different age structures within the world-system zones.  Peripheral countries have only 27% of their populations that are over 35, while in core countries it is 55.5%, so older people from the periphery are over-represented while those from the core are under-represented. The percentage of young attendees from the semiperiphery (49%) was almost equal to the percentage of that age group in the general population of the semiperipheral countries from which our respondents came (50%).

            It may be that some of the same factors that explain why significantly more of the attendees who come from countries of the periphery are men also explain why attendees from the periphery tend to be older -- e.g. income.


            Table 5 shows the core-semiperiphery-periphery breakdown by racial identification. These racial classifications were based on an open-ended question in which respondents were asked to identify their race or ethnicity; respondents’ answers were later recoded in terms of being “white” or “non-white.”






70% (49)

30% (21)



51% (158)

49% (153)



15% (5)

85% (29)






(Numbers of attendees in parenthesis) ChiSquare = 28.040 sig. = .000

Table 5: World-system position breakdown by racial identification

            The racial self-identification question was not popular, particularly among people from Brazil, where silences about race and racism have a long history, and in Western Europe, where discussions about “race” are often considered to be “racist” (Telles 2004; Darder, Torres, and Miles 2004). Only 438 of our 639 respondents answered the question in a way that could be easily classified. The remaining 201 gave no answer or answered by naming their religion or nationality. Those who responded in terms of their nationality or failed to answer the question mainly came from Western Europe and South America, namely Brazil; surveyors noted that these types of responses seemed to be more common among lighter-skinned people whose lack of “race consciousness” may reflect their position of racial privilege (Reese et al. 2007).[12] Global racial stratification is reflected in the attendees at the World Social Forum. Seventy percent of those from the core (of those who chose to answer the question) were self-identified as white, while only 51% of those from the semiperiphery and 15% of those from the periphery were self-identified as white. The differences shown in Table 5 are statistically significant. Race and racism are North-South issues that must be addressed by all the counter-hegemonic movements (Starr 2004; Reese et al. 2007 (forthcoming)).

            Our results also show significant differences in terms of respondents’ educational background. We found that 60% of the “activist” attendees from the semiperiphery were currently students, while only 29% of those from the core and 24% of those from the periphery were students (Chi-Square = 47.286 sig. = .000). We also found that a significantly higher percentage of attendees from the semiperiphery had less than sixteen years of education (54%), while only 36% of those from the core and 43% of those from the periphery had less than sixteen years. And an amazing 69% of the attendees from the periphery had a degree in social sciences, while for those from the core it was 56% and from the semiperiphery it was 48%. These differences are statistically significant (Chi-Square = 6.289, sig. = .043). Social scientists are far more frequently found among the progressive sector of global civil society than their proportion in the larger world.[13]         

            Thirty-two percent of the surveyed attendees speak three or more languages, and among those from the core it is an astounding 50%. Thirty-three percent of the attendees from the periphery speak three or more languages, while of those from the semiperiphery only 27% speak three or more. These differences are statistically significant. These results show the cosmopolitan nature of the attendees, and also that there are significant differences in language ability among those from the different zones. The lower percentage of respondents from the semiperiphery that speak three or more languages is probably due to the large number of politically active locals from Brazil who attended, who tend to be younger and have lower levels of formal education than other WSF participants.

In sum, our analysis of respondents’ socio-demographic characteristics suggests that WSF participants tend to be relatively young, highly educated, and mainly Caucasian. Moreover, most respondents are from Brazil and other (Latin American) countries at the world-system’s semiperiphery. In fact, people from the semiperiphery turn out to be overrepresented at the WSF when compared to its share in world population, while there seems to be a strong presence of participants from North America and Europe and a clear under-representation of people from the global periphery. These findings corroborate the results found in the surveys of FPA and IBASE (see Reese et al. 2006).


Political and Organizational Involvements

            The degree of political involvement also seems to differ by world-system zone. We removed the non-political attendees from the analysis, but the remaining activists differ amongst themselves in their level of political activity. Twenty-nine percent of those from the semiperiphery indicate that they participated in five or more political protests in the previous year, while from the core it is 39% and from the periphery it is 38%. This difference is statistically significant, and may reflect the large number of Brazilian attendees and the fact that non-local participation in the Social Forum requires a greater investment of time and resources than local participation. Such costs tend to weed out those with lower levels of political commitment. There may be other causes of the higher involvement of those from the core. Political activity is correlated with income and education, and these are relatively higher in the core.

            A similar pattern is found in the responses to the question about whether or not the person is attending on behalf of a social movement organization. Twenty-six percent of those from the core said yes, as did 28% of those from the periphery, while only 20% of those from the semiperiphery said yes.[14] These differences do not achieve statistical significance, and a somewhat different pattern was revealed by the question about attending on behalf of an NGO. Twenty-one percent of those from the core and 15% of those from the semiperiphery said yes, while 40% of those from the periphery answered this question in the affirmative (Chi-Square = 18.202 sig. = .000).[15] The relatively higher proportion of those from the periphery who are attending on behalf of an NGO may reflect NGOs’ greater access to organizational funds compared to other kinds of political organizations as well as the efforts of NGOs who support the WSF to help overcome the global inequalities that make it difficult for people from the periphery to attend international meetings. These differences are statistically significant.

            Interestingly, affiliation with a union is highest among core attendees (29%) and lowest among those from the periphery (23%), while 25% of those from the semiperiphery are affiliated with unions. These differences are not statistically significant. A different question about reporting to a union finds the same pattern (15% in core, 11% in the semiperiphery and 5% in the periphery), but these differences are also not statistically significant.  The low level of union involvement among attendees from the periphery is probably not related to the higher level of NGO involvement because respondents were allowed to “check all that apply.”  One could easily be affiliated with both a union and an NGO. It is likely that union members in the periphery have lower incomes and that their unions, which in some cases operate under conditions of severe state repression, have fewer financial resources to use for world travel than those in other world system zones. However, it may also be that union members from the periphery are less sanguine about the benefits of participation in transnational social movements than those in the core and the semiperiphery.


Similarities and Differences in Political Views

Is there a growing convergence of political views among social activists from the North and South? Valentine Moghadam (2005) has studied the global feminist movement especially over the past three decades with an eye to understanding how feminists have made progress in overcoming North-South differences. During the 1960s and 1970s, transnational feminist organizing was largely dominated by feminists from the global North, but there has been growing participation by feminists from the global South. In these early years, there were significant divisions between feminists from the global North and South in terms of their priorities. Northern feminists focused more on gaining legal equality and on expanding women’s reproductive rights, whereas Southern feminists focused on issues associated with underdevelopment and colonialism. Such North-South divisions were evident in the first and second United Nations conference on women in Mexico City and Coppenhagen (Moghadam 2005: 5-6; Stienstra 2000). At the third UN conference in 1985 in Nairobi, feminists focused on building bridges among women and establishing a consensus.

              Three historical shifts facilitated a growing convergence among Northern and Southern feminists in terms of their goals and priorities. First, global restructuring and the rise of neoliberalism contributed to the decline of Keynesian welfare state, creating new concerns among Northern feminists about economic rights. Second, the new international division of labor relying heavily on cheap female labor contributed to the international growth of unionization among women; it also raised Northern feminists’ concerns about women’s labor rights. Finally, the rise of fundamentalist movements in the global South increased Southern feminists’ concerns about reproductive rights and legal equality. The international diffusion of feminist ideas also contributed to the growing convergence of views among Northern and Southern feminists (Moghadam 2005: 5-6). These developments led to a convergence between Northern and Southern feminists that allowed them to better cooperate on common projects. Tensions between Northern and Southern feminists remain however, over issues of leadership and participation that are related to Northern feminists’ greater access to resources (Stienstra 2000).

            Research on other social movements indicates that although transnational social movement cooperation tends to be concentrated within regions, there is growing cooperation across the North-South divide among organizations involved in various social movements; this may help to reduce North-South differences in social activists’ political views over time (Smith 2004a, 2005; Smith and Wiest 2004; see also, Aguirre and Reese 2004; Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Glasius and Timms 2006; Herkenrath 2006; Smith 2004b; Smith and Johnston 2002; Starr 2000; Tarrow 2005). To what extent do North-South differences still exist for social activists in our sample, who are active in a number of different social movements? If there has been a growing convergence among activists in movements besides the feminist movement, we would expect to find few differences in their political views. We find significant differences in participants’ views across world system position with regard to global governance issues, but do find similarities in their views on other issues.

            Attendees were asked whether they thought that capitalism should be reformed or if it should be abolished and replaced. While 42% of the activist attendees indicated that they were in favor of reforms, 58% indicated that they were in favor of abolition and replacement. Those from both the core and the semiperiphery were very close to this average percentage (with 58.4% and 58.3%, respectively, favoring abolition), but only 56% of those from the periphery chose abolition and replacement. This might indicate that attendees from the periphery are slightly less radical, but the difference is very small and not statistically significant. It is interesting to note, however, that when we exclude Brazilian respondents from the analysis, participants from the rest of the semi-periphery turn out to be significantly more radical than all others, with a vast majority of 72% favoring abolition.

Another interesting finding is that over half (58%) of our respondents agreed with the proposition that the world needs less economic growth. Understandably a smaller percentage of the attendees from the periphery agree with this, but it is still widely held. Sixty-two percent of the respondents from core countries agree that the world needs less economic growth, whereas 59% from the semiperiphery and 49% from the periphery hold this view.  These differences do not attain statistical significance however, perhaps because of the small number of respondents from the periphery.

            Attendees were also given three options for international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. The three options were: reform; abolish; abolish and replace. As shown in table 6, 62% of all activist attendees favored abolition and replacement, while 25% were in favor of abolition alone, and only 13% were in favor of reform. This result indicates that the activist attendees are radical and that a very large number (87%) see a need to get rid of existing global financial institutions. But these numbers differ significantly across world-system zones. Participants from the periphery appear to be less radical than those from the core. Eighteen percent of those from the periphery favor reform, while for the core it is 11% and for the semi-periphery it is 13%. Although our sample of participants from the periphery is small and might not be truly representative of all participants from this zone, their greater propensity towards reform seems to be related to their strong connection to NGOs; six out of the eight reformists from the periphery in our sample are affiliated with NGOs. Seventy-four percent of respondents from the core favor abolition and replacement, while for the semiperiphery it is 58% and for the periphery it is 59%. This indicates that support for new kinds of global financial institutions is much stronger among attendees from the core, although it is also supported by a majority of those from the non-core. The pure abolitionists (without replacement) are more frequently found in the semiperiphery (28%) than in the core (15%) or in the periphery (25%). These differences are significant at the .038 level.


                                             Reform                              Abolish           Abolish and replace

Core                                   11% (12)                            15% (17)                            74% (82)

Semiperiphery                    13% (54)                          28% (113)                          59% (235)

Periphery                             18% (7)                            25% (10)                            58% (23)

All respondents                 13% (73)                          25% (140)                          62% (340)

(Numbers of attendees in parenthesis) ChiSquare = 10.156 sig. = .038

Table 6: Attitudes toward international financial institutions by world-system position


            Attendees were also given three options regarding a future democratic world government: good idea and plausible; good idea but not plausible; bad idea. Thirty-two percent of the activist attendees think that democratic world government is a bad idea, while 39% think it is a good idea but not plausible, and 29% think it is a good idea and is plausible (see table 7). Among those from the core only 16% say that democratic world government is a bad idea, while in the periphery it is 23% and in the semiperiphery it is 37%. At first, we suspected that this higher skepticism about democratic world government in the semiperiphery was due to the large presence of locally oriented activists from Brazil. However, when we exclude Brazilian attendees from the analyses, the percentage of semiperipheral respondents opposing the idea of a world government rises to 39% (results not shown in table 7). Thirty-nine percent of those from the core think democratic world government is a good idea and it is plausible, while 45% say that it is a good idea but not plausible. The more sanguine core attitude toward global institutions found here and in the question about international financial institutions may be related to the fact that existing global institutions have been core controlled and that democracy has been mainly institutionalized based on the cultural assumptions that emerged from the European Enlightenment. These facts of world history are likely to make non-core peoples skeptical about the possibility and desirability of so-called democratic global governance. But even in the core there is considerable skepticism about the real possibility of a democratic world government. The interstate system is still strongly institutionalized despite the rise of discourses about globalization.


                                        Good idea                          Good idea                             Bad idea

                                    and plausible                but not plausible

Core                                   39% (40)                            45% (47)                            16% (17)

Semiperiphery                  26% (106)                          37% (148)                          37% (148)

Periphery                           30% (12)                            48% (19)                              23% (9)

All respondents               29% (158)                          39% (214)                          32% (174)

(Numbers of attendees in parenthesis) ChiSquare = 18.484 sig. = .001

Table 7: Attitudes toward the idea of a global democratic goverment by world-system position


            About half of the respondents agree that “The World Social Forum should remain an open space for debate and should not itself take public positions on political issues.”  But there is a notable difference among the respondents from the semiperiphery; only 46% of the attendees from the semiperiphery agree with this statement while 54% of attendees from the core and 57% of attendees from the periphery do so. Since such a large share of respondents from the semiperiphery reside in the host country of most of the WSF meetings, it is not surprising that they feel more comfortable, compared to those traveling longer distances to attend, with treating these meetings as representative bodies. Non-local participants are more likely to have greater concerns that statements made by WSF participants exclude the many voices of those unable to attend for financial or other reasons.

Consistent with this interpretation, when Brazilian participants are excluded from the analyses, the share of respondents from the semiperiphery holding that the WSF must not take political decisions rises to 52%. The debate between those who favor that the “movement of movements” represented at the WSF become more of a global political actor, and those who favor keeping the WSF an open space for public debate continues.


Multivariate Results

            Tables 8-11 show the results we obtained from multivariate binomial logistic regression analyses; we performed these analyses to see whether the effects of world system zone on social activists’ political opinions persist when the effects of other explanatory variables are taken into account. To use binomial logistic regression, we transformed the political attitude questions discussed above into dichotomous dependent variables. In the models below, we control for participants’ gender, generation, union affiliation, NGO affiliation, affiliation with a social movement organization (SMO), affiliation with at least one political organization, and Brazilian residence. As above, all of the tables below report results only for respondents who are social activists; we excluded the 31 “non-activists” in our original sample from our logistic regression analyses. Because we did not have full information for every variable for each respondent, we report the number of cases included for each of our models below.

            Multivariate logistic regressions revealed that there are no statistically significant North-South (or world system position) differences regarding attitudes toward economic growth or whether or not the WSF should refrain from issuing collective political statements.

Table 8 indicates that, controlling for other factors, respondents from the semi-periphery were significantly more likely than respondents from the core to favor the abolition and replacement of capitalism. Respondents from the periphery were also more likely than respondents from the core to favor the abolition of capitalism, although this relationship was not statistically significant. This lack of statistical significance might be an artifact of the small number of respondents form the periphery, but it could also be a result of these respondents’ privileged status within their societies or close affiliation with NGOs, which tend to be more reformist than other kinds of political organizations. Nevertheless, the direction of this relationship is consistent with the idea that the problems of global capitalism are more keenly felt by people in the global South than the global North. Respondents from Brazil were significantly less likely than participants from the core to express anti-capitalist sentiments however. This latter finding may be related to the fact that Brazilians reported lower levels of protest activity; the site of the WSF in Porto Alegre made it more accessible to Brazilian activists, allowing a wider range of activists in terms of their levels of political experience, commitment, and radicalism. In contrast, the greater cost of traveling to Porto Alegre for non-local activists may have deterred many local activists who were less radical and less involved in social movements. Table 8 also shows that, controlling for other factors, respondents that came of age during the 1960s, when there was a wave of international protest among youth, were significantly more likely than other respondents to express anti-capitalist views, as were respondents affiliated with unions and social movement organizations.  The relationship between union membership and anti-capitalist views is only statistically significant at the 0.10 level however.


Table 8: Logit Coefficients, Standard Errors, and Odds for Favoring the Abolition and Replacement of Capitalism







Semi-periphery (reference category=core)




Periphery (reference category=core)









1960s generation




Union affiliated




NGO affiliated




SMO affiliated




Affiliated with at least one political organization












Cases included in the analysis


*statistically significant at the 0.10 level; ** statistically significant at the 0.05 level; ***statistically significant at the .01 level


Table 9 shows the multivariate results when the responses to the question about what should be done with the IMF and WTO are divided between those who favor their replacement or reform versus those who favor their abolition. A negative logit regression coefficient in this table indicates a greater likelihood to oppose reform or replacement and to favor abolition. The table shows that those respondents from the semiperiphery are more likely than those from the core to favor abolition when the effects of the other variables are controlled, and this relationship is statistically significant at the 0.01 level. Respondents from the periphery are also more likely than respondents from the core to favor abolition, but that coefficient is not statistically significant. The only other coefficients that demonstrates statistical significance in this table shows that those respondents who are affiliated with NGOs and who are Brazilian are more likely than respondents without those characteristics to oppose abolition and be in favor of either reform or replacement.


Table 9: Logit Coefficients, Standard Errors, and Odds for Favoring the Replacement of, or Reform of, the IMF and WTO (Rather than Abolishing Them)







Semi-periphery (reference category=core)




Periphery (reference category=core)









1960s generation




Union affiliated




NGO affiliated




SMO affiliated




Affiliated with at least one political organization












Cases included in the analysis



*statistically significant at the 0.10 level; ** statistically significant at the 0.05 level; ***statistically significant at the .01 level


            Also recall from our discussion of the bivariate table above that 62% of the respondents chose to abolish and replace the international financial institutions while only 25% chose to abolish them and not replace them. There are more pure abolitionists from the semiperiphery, but even there it is only 29% of the respondents.


            Table 10 shows the multivariate results for those who hold that global problems need to be addressed not by means of local or “national” responses, but by global ones. The question was “Which of the following approaches would best solve the problems created by global capitalism?” and the possible answers were: strengthen local communities, strengthen nation states, or create democratic global institutions. Fourteen per cent of the respondents chose more than one of these options. To use binary logistic regression, we put those favoring local or national responses to global social problems into a single “non-global” category so that we could compare the characteristics of respondents favoring “global” and “non-global” strategies for social change.


Table 10: Logit Coefficients, Standard Errors, and Odds for the Regression of Favoring Global Democratic Institutions to Solve Global Social Problems







Semi-periphery (reference category=core)




Periphery (reference category=core)









1960s generation




Union affiliated




NGO affiliated




SMO affiliated




Affiliated with at least one political organization












Cases included in the analysis



*statistically significant at the 0.10 level; ** statistically significant at the 0.05 level; ***statistically significant at the .01 level


Table 10 shows that respondents from the semiperiphery are significantly more likely than respondents from the core to favor non-global responses to social problems; those from the periphery are also more likely than respondents from the core to favor non-global responses, although this relationship is only statistically significant at the 0.10 level. By contrast, Brazilian respondents appear to be more favorable than respondents from the core toward the creation of global democratic institutions to resolve social problems. None of the other variables show a significant effect on responses to this question. This table supports the notion mentioned above that non-local WSF activists from the semiperiphery are less likely than those from the core to support global strategies for social change.

            Table 11 shows the multivariate results for the question “Do you think it is a good or a bad idea to have a democratic world government. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents chose “good idea, but not plausible.” Thirty-two percent chose “bad idea.” And twenty-nine percent chose “good idea and it’s plausible.”


Table 11: Logit Coefficients, Standard Errors, and Odds for the Regression of Support for a Democratic World Government






Model 2




Semi-periphery (reference category=core)




Periphery (reference category=core)









1960s generation




Union affiliated




NGO affiliated




SMO affiliated




Affiliated with at least one political organization












Cases included in analysis



*statistically significant at the 0.10 level; ** statistically significant at the 0.05 level; ***statistically significant at the .01 level


            Table 11 shows that those from the semiperiphery are more likely than respondents from the core to oppose the idea of a democratic world government and this result is statistically significant. Peripheral attendees are also more likely to be against this than those from the core, but that difference is not statistically significant.  But it should be recalled that 31% of those from the periphery and 26% of those from the semiperiphery endorsed the response that a democratic world government is a good idea and is plausible.  Nevertheless the overall finding of greater non-core skepticism toward global institutions is upheld by the results in Table 11.



            The results so far show that there are some North-South demographic differences among World Social Forum attendees. Those from the periphery are few, older, and more likely to be men. In addition, participants from the periphery are more likely to be associated with externally sponsored NGOs, rather than with self-funded SMOs and unions, as NGOs have greater access to travel funds. In summary, our survey finds participation at the World Social Forum to be reflective of the global inequalities that WSF participants are opposed to. Since most intercontinental passenger flights departing from the global periphery cost more than the annual per capita income in this zone (cf. Herkenrath 2006), the notable underrepresentation of WSF attendees from Subsaharan African and other peripheral countries is hardly surprising. International and intercontinental traveling is affordable only to activists with a very privileged social background and activists affiliated with well-funded organizations.

Having said this, political differences between WSF participants from the global South and those from the global North seem to be fairly modest. While a clear majority of all respondents from the global South hold that capitalism needs to be abolished, the same is true for respondents from the global North. Only when the effects of local residence are controlled, do we find that semiperipheral attendees are significantly more likely to take radical anti-capitalist stances than attendees from the core. In a similar vein, Southern activists are not significantly more inclined than their Northern counterparts to object to further global economic growth or to favor the WSF remaining an “open space” for political debate. Although opinions on these latter two questions divide the sample into two parts of almost equal size, the dividing line is not between the global North and the South.  

On the other hand, Southern respondents, especially non-local participants from the semi-periphery, are significantly more likely to be skeptical toward creating or reforming global-level political institutions. Those who favor reforming or abolishing and replacing global institutions in order to resolve social problems need to squarely face these facts. This skepticism probably stems from the historical experience of peoples from the non-core with global-level institutions that claim to be operating on universal principles of fairness but whose actions have either not solved problems or have made them worse. The new abolitionists are posing a strong challenge to both existing global institutions and to those who want to abolish and replace these institutions. These realities must be addressed, not ignored.


Appendix A: Classifications of countries from which WSF05 respondents came

World Bank classification[16]      World-system position[17]       

Global “North:

High income

Australia                                               Core

Austria                                                  Core

Belgium                                                 Core

Canada                                                  Core

Denmark                                               Core

Finland                                                  Core

France                                                   Core

Germany                                               Core

Greece                                                  Semiperiphery

Hong Kong (China)                              Semiperiphery

Ireland                                                   Core

Israel                                                     Semiperiphery

Italy                                                       Core

Japan                                                     Core

Korea (Rep.)                                         Semiperiphery

Netherlands                                          Core

Norway                                                 Core

New Zealand                                        Semiperiphery

Portugal                                                Semiperiphery

Spain                                                     Core

Sweden                                                 Core

Switzerland                                           Core

Taiwan (excluded from all sources)      Semiperiphery

United Kingdom                                   Core

United States                                        Core

Global “South”:

Upper-middle income

Argentina                                              Semiperiphery                   

Chile                                                     Semiperiphery                   

Costa Rica                                             Semiperiphery                   

Lebanon                                                Periphery                           

Mexico                                                  Semiperiphery                   

Malaysia                                                Semiperiphery                   

Panama                                                 Semiperiphery                   

South Africa                                          Semiperiphery                   

Uruguay                                                Semiperiphery                   

Venezuela                                             Semiperiphery                   

Lower-middle income

Armenia                                                Periphery                           

Bolivia                                                  Periphery                           

Brazil                                                    Semiperiphery                   

Colombia                                              Semiperiphery                   

Dominican Republic                             Periphery                           

Ecuador                                                Periphery                           

El Salvador                                           Periphery                           

Iraq                                                       Periphery                           

Paraguay                                               Periphery                           

Peru                                                      Periphery                           

Philippines                                            Periphery                           


Low income

Bangladesh                                            Periphery                           

India                                                      Semiperiphery                   

Kenya                                                   Periphery                           

Nepal                                                    Periphery                           

Pakistan                                                Periphery                           

Sudan                                                    Periphery                           

Senegal                                                  Periphery                           

Vietnam                                                Periphery




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World Social Forum Charter


[1] In 2006 the three “polycentric” meetings were in Pakistan, Mali and Venezuela.

[2] While this chapter is mainly an empirical examination of North-South differences at the World Social Forum, our theoretical perspective suggests possible explanations for some of our results and provides a framework for interpreting the world historical significance of the WSF process that we are studying.

[3] The “necessity of imperialism” idea is similar to David Harvey’s (2003) notion that primitive (or primary) accumulation is a necessary and reproduced dimension of the process of capitalist development (see Chase-Dunn 1998: 221-225).

[4] See the WSF Charter at

[5]See Giem and Gutierrez (2006) and Reese et al (2006)

[6] IBASE’s 2005 survey used a stratified sample based on information from the WSF’s registration database. It collected a total of 2,540 surveys in four languages (Portuguese, French, English, and Spanish).

[7] The apparent lack of attendance from Canada in Figure 1 is due to those attending coming from cities that border the U.S. Eighteen of our respondents were from Canada, representing 2.8% of the total number of respondents mapped.

[8] Chase-Dunn and Boswell (1999) have argued that citizens from former state communist regimes such as Russia and China will be unlikely to provide much support for the next round of counter-hegemonic struggles.

[9] Data on the size and characteristics of the world population reported for Tables 1-4 are from the United States Census Bureau, International Data Base (2006).

[10] The full crosstabulation and Chi-Square tables are available at We report statistical significance levels that are based on the assumption of random sampling even though our sample is not perfectly random. These are to be used for comparisons within the tables and within our non-random sample. 

[11] These North-South differences do not produce a significant chi-squared.

[12] Of the 80 attendees who responded in terms of their nationality, 45% were Brazilian, 8% came from another South American country, and 33% were Western European. Of the 83 who did not answer the question (or said they belonged to “no race,” or the “human race”) 48% came from Brazil, 24% came from another South American country, and 17% came from Western Europe.

[13] This finding has stimulated interest in the perennial issues about the roles of intellectuals in social movements, and several events that are planned for the WSF07 in Nairobi have invited activists and academics to investigate, analyze and confront these issues.


[14] A very similar pattern is found in the responses to a question about whether or not the attendee is affiliated with a social movement organization, except that to percentages were a lot higher. And this pattern is also found for a question about reporting to a social movement organization.

[15] A similar low semiperiphery-high periphery pattern is found for the question about affiliation with NGOS; this also holds for a question about reporting to an NGO.

[16] Based on the Gross National Income per Capita in 2004 (World Bank 2006; see also:

[17] Based on Kentor’s measure of the overall position in the world economy in 2000 (Kentor 2005: Table 4). The cutoff point between core and semiperipheral countries has been set at 2.00, the cutoff point between semiperipheral and peripheral countries at –0.89.