Social justice for sale

Emerging from the specially built El Maresme/Fòrum metro station in Barcelona, the signs for the ‘Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004’ point towards a mass of unfinished high-rise buildings. In the midst of this tangle of would-be hotels and office blocks nestles the Forum site – right beside the sea and slap bang on top of a sewage treatment plant and waste incinerator. It’s hardly an ideal location for a UNESCO-backed event that trumpets ‘sustainable development’ as one of its core themes. Greenpeace has condemned the Forum infrastructure as ‘an attack’ on the fragile Mediterranean coast. Two-thirds of the $2.5 billion investment in this urban redevelopment project comes from the private sector. The rest is public money. Opposition groups have criticized the Forum as ‘the big ad, the glossy decoy designed to lure profiteers into the largest property speculation operation in the history of Barcelona’. They argue that local residents are losing out as their neighbourhoods are ‘devastated’.

These forum sponsors have been given exclusive deals to supply the event.

Unsustainable site for sustainability talks.

Once inside the site (the entry for which is a hefty $26 per day) it doesn’t get much better. The two other major themes of the five-month extravaganza of conferences, exhibitions and concerts are ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘peace’. In marquees daubed with these buzzwords there are installations examining human rights, fair trade, the impact of war and the arms trade. But the school kids – who are the Forum’s biggest customers so far – seem more interested in splashing around in the water park and watching the attractions, which include a giant animated sea monster.

Hungry and thirsty? How about one of the ‘multi-cultural’ dishes served up by catering giant Sodexho? Or maybe a Coke or a bottle of Nestlé water? In exchange for sponsorship to the tune of $86 million, multinational companies have been given exclusive deals to sell their products on site. Their names feature heavily on Forum publicity. ‘For us it’s a great match,’ says Juan José Litram, Corporate Affairs Director in Spain.

Not surprisingly, economic and social justice campaigners see it differently. To Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action, an organization that has long criticized Nestlé’s baby-food sales strategies in developing countries, ‘it is typical of Nestlé’s desperation to improve its image and link with youth initiatives that it is sponsoring this event.’

These contradictions have caused some big names – including French farmer-activist José Bové – to turn down invitations to speak at the Forum debates. The ‘dialogues’, as they are called, may tackle worthwhile themes such as ‘globalization and development’, ‘freedom, security and peace’ and ‘some unheard voices’. Yet in one session, six children who had travelled thousands of miles to recount their tough and inspiring experiences of working for peace and a better life spoke to a half-empty auditorium.

To fill seats, organizers are now offering university students cut-price entry fees to the debates. They still hope that the Forum will attract five million visitors and become a regular event to be held in a different city around the world every few years. But like the micro-waved pizza on sale at the site, it seems to offer little more than a mass-market, watered-down version of diversity and development that leaves a nasty after-taste in your mouth.

Megan Rowling

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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