Chico Whitaker Ferreira

(2006, Brazil)
Honorary Award

...for a lifetime's dedicated work for social justice that has strengthened democracy in Brazil and helped give birth to the World Social Forum, showing that 'another world is possible'.


Francisco ('Chico') Whitaker Ferreira is a Roman Catholic activist, who has worked for democracy and against corruption throughout his life, both at home and in exile. He is one of the key people behind the burgeoning World Social Forum. 

Contact Details

Chico Whitaker
Rua Simão Alvares, 250
Apt. 51
São Paulo 05417-020



Early career and exile

Chico Whitaker was born in 1931 and received his diploma in architecture and urban planning in 1957. He left architecture school to participate in research on the standard of living of the inhabitants of São Paulo at the Research Institute SAGMACS. Whitaker joined the Planning Office of the State Government of São Paulo and became, in 1963, the director of planning for the Federal Government's Land Reform Superintendence, SUPRA. He left this function with the military coup in 1964, joining the opposition to the regime. During 1965-66 he could still work in Brazil, as a planning advisor of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). But at the end of 1966, the military forced him into exile with his wife Stella and their four children. 

During 15 years abroad, Whitaker initially lived in France, where he worked as a teacher in the training of Third World public servants, as researcher and as UNESCO consultant. He also worked in Chile for the UN Economic Commission for Latin America for four years, and lived there during the overthrow of Allende. When returning to France after his stay in Chile, he coordinated during six years the "International Study Days for a Society overcoming Domination" in Paris, launched by the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, with the support of four other Bishops' Conferences and the International Commission of Jurists. This project facilitated the exchange of experiences among people fighting in 100 countries against all types of oppression. 

Work for democracy and against corruption in Brazil

Back in Brazil from 1982, Whitaker first worked as political and social affairs advisor to Cardinal Evaristo Arns in São Paulo. He was one of the founders of the São Paulo Association for Solidarity in Unemployment and, always with his wife, was one of the main activists in organising the popular participation process during the drafting of the Brazilian constitution: The "Plenaries for popular participation", created all over the country for this purpose, presented 122 amendments to the Constitution project, with 12 million citizen's signatures. 

From 1989 to 1996, Whitaker was elected twice as local councillor in São Paulo for the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT). In 1996 he left this function to return to work with civil society. He remained a member of the PT until early 2006, resigning when he considered the party was no more faithful to the principles of its foundation. 

As Executive Secretary to the CNBB's Commission of Justice and Peace (CBJP) Whitaker both conceived the idea, and was instrumental in the implementation, of a Bill of Popular Initiative: One million signatures were collected against electoral corruption, and particularly the purchase of votes. The Bill was approved by Congress in 1999. Whitaker sits as the CBJP's representative on the National Committee of the Movement Against Electoral Corruption, created after the approval of the Bill, which involves more than twenty of the major national civil society organisations in Brazil. The Bill has already had great impact: Since the first election respecting it in 2000, more than 650 mayors, councillors, deputies, senators and state governors, who were found to have been involved in electoral corruption, have lost their mandates.

Since 2008, Whitaker has participated in the Movement against Electoral Corruption's collection of signatures for a new bill of popular initiative aiming to impede the candidacy of people convicted by the justice system.  

The World Social Forum

In 2000 Whitaker was one of those who conceived the idea of the World Social Forum (WSF) and played a key role in bringing it to realisation. The idea was to hold a large conference event, a parallel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to share the various insights of those from around the world who were working for alternatives to "world domination by capital, within the parameters of neoliberalism." The slogan was "Another World is Possible". The idea was taken forward by eight leading Brazilian organisations, operating by consensus. Today, Whitaker is a member of the WSF International Council, representing it in the Brazilian Commission on Justice and Peace.

The first World Social Forum was held in 2001 in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, attracting 4,000 delegates and 16,000 individual participants from many countries - far more than the organizers had anticipated. People came from Porto Alegre and other places in Brazil and neighbouring countries, as well as from Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. It was such a success that a second event was held in 2002, attended by 15,000 delegates representing 4,909 organisations and movements in 131 countries, with another 35,000 'non-delegate' participants. During 2002, several regional or national forums were organised in all continents, and a World Social Forum took place again in Porto Alegre in 2003, with 100,000 participants. That year also saw the first Asian Social Forum being organised in Hyderabad. Between 2004 and 2009, the WSF took place in various parts of the world, like Mumbai, Nairobi, Caracas, Karachi and Porto Alegre, with up to 150,000 attendants. In 2008, the WSF held a global day of action, with self organised activities all over the world.

From the beginning, the Forums have been much more than just meeting places. They have become platforms for civil society organisations from all around the world to exchange views, form coalitions, work on concrete strategies and coordinate campaigns.

Whitaker explained the success through the principles adopted to organise the Forums: horizontality, non-directivity, respect of diversity, no spokespersons, no final document or orientations, self-organisation of the participants' activities in the Forums. The principles were defined in 2001, after the success of the first Forum, in a Charter of Principles, which is now the sole criterion for participating in the Forum events. It allows anyone to take part, except government representatives, military organisations and political parties. 

Whitaker wrote for a French publication for the 2003 World Social Forum: "Porto Alegre is not a 'summit of grassroots organizations' nor is it a world congress of a new international movement, but rather a free-form context designed for encounters to enable mutual recognition and learning, which respects all individualities. The Forum brings together delegates from social organisations that are striving the world over to build a world centred on people instead of on accumulating wealth. Today the Forum's organisers are certain they are on the right track to helping citizens rid themselves of their feeling of powerlessness".

Liberation Theology, the inspiration underlying Whitaker's life's work, is the radical Catholic theology, which - as he puts it - says that "true religion, especially Christianity, basically means working for the upliftment of the poor, fighting for their rights and against the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves."

Honors and Publications

In 2003, Whitaker received the "Medaille Vermeil" of the Paris Municipality. In 2007 he became a councillor of the World Future Council, and was nominated Commandeur in the Rio Branco Order of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil in 2008. He also was a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
Among Whitaker's publications are Planning Yes and No (1976), and O desafio do Forum Social Mundial (2005).


Acceptance Speech by Chico Whitaker Ferreira

December 8th, 2006

Madam Speaker,
Honourable guests,
My dear friends,

"There are far more people in the world than we could ever imagine who want to change things. What we need is to multiply the ways and opportunities to get together."

I made this statement for the first time in 1992, during an election campaign, but these convictions were built up over a long period of time. The first one - that there are far more people than we think who want to change the world - was always an encouragement to me. The second - getting together - was a permanent challenge, full of both happiness and sorrow.

The award that I have the honour to receive today has a lot to do with my continuing belief in our abilities to overcome this challenge. The whole of my life?s journey was considered in my nomination, but surely the last seven years have weighed heavily in the balance. During these years I participated intensively in the process of the World Social Forum. This Forum is marked precisely by this search of the unity that we need. It is not by mere chance that I was nominated for this award by people from India who are participating in this process.

I woke up to social issues during the 1950s. A theologist opened the eyes of my generation of young catholic students to what would be one of the most severe offences against God, understood as love: actively ignoring misery and oppression. Living in an extremely unequal country - as Brazil still is today - we could not do other than try to respond, in some way, to this provocation.  

The task was, however, enormous - and still is. In the Third World there are so many who are living under subhuman conditions! Everywhere inequalities are growing. New forms of hate are appearing as well as new wars, always cruel - are waged. Great wealth is accumulating in few countries and in fewer hands. The continued life on earth is seriously threatened. And all this is happening at the same time as our knowledge and tools for solving these problems is increasing exponentially. 

This contradiction became obvious to me while working on a project to intercommunicate experiences from struggles against oppression all over the world, after having experienced at first hand the violence of the military coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. I realised that the power that we all have at our disposal - great or small, in different types and forms - could be exercised to dominate as well as to serve. To dominate we maintain the dependence of those who need the resources that we control. At the same time we increase these resources and our control over them. In order to serve we act in exactly the opposite way: we liberate those who need these resources from their dependence upon them, ensuring that they can access them with more and more autonomy. The power used for domination always increases, but isolates those who have it. The power used for serving results in the construction of another type of power: a common power; shared in solidarity among all, greater than the isolated power of each and every one of us.

Without a doubt, 'domination-power' is still part of barbarism, since it doesn't hesitate in using violence to impose itself; while 'common-power', born of 'service- power', situates itself in the civilizing process that, after all, humanity is living. But unfortunately what still prevails in the relations between human beings is the exercise of 'domination-power', even among those who are struggling for justice: in their relations one does not always find reciprocity that characterises 'service power', but struggle for hegemony, which characterises 'domination-power'.  

It then became clear to me how money dominates us, and manages to enslave us. We all know how humanity created money, over many centuries, to facilitate our exchanges, in the inevitably interdependency that we live in. Money ended up, however, liberating itself from its creators. But it couldn't build any common-power, because it was just an impersonal and cold instrument. On the contrary, once it got a life of its own, money increased its autonomy, and reduced ours, making itself indispensable to answer to our necessities and even to face our fears and anguish. Money became central in human activity by obliging us to serve it, so as to be accumulated more and more. Everything, even life, got a value only if it could be measured and exchanged for money. Its power, itself more and more concentrated, was becoming increasingly more absolute, even cruel, leading us towards greed and corruption.  

We all know that the motor for the accumulation of money is the logics of competition - competition without any let up, which ends only with the submission or even elimination of the other competitor, as in a war. Well, the domination that money exercised over us lead to the invasion of our behaviour by its logics. We are always confronting, each other, in the struggle to obtain what we need or want. What is worse: this logics have slyly penetrated politics that, in principle, exists to find the common good, even if, nevertheless, it has always been marked out by the struggle for power. Once it was in place, this logic created a permanent competition with a conqueror-defeater relationship, that characterizes the 'domination-power', instead of the co-responsibility, that characterizes 'service-power'.

When I began to participate in the World Social Forum-process, I realised its potential to confront this unhealthy logics.  It was created as an open space for the search for alternatives to overcome authoritarian capitalism - today called neoliberalism - which structures money's domination and exploitation of human beings. But the experience of humanity during the last decades had from the beginning of the process brought about other demands: it was necessary to overcome authoritarian capitalism, without falling into totalitarianism or new types of authoritarianism. The political frustrations at the end of the century demanded new pathways. More than a simple representative democracy, it was necessary to amplify it, moving towards a society of active citizens, deciding in solidarity about our own personal and collective destinies. The aim of the forum was then to create the conditions to support this search for alternatives, replacing the logics of competition with the logics of cooperation - as a basic value of  "another possible world" - and adopting, in the organization activities to be realised during the events, the horizontality that characterises the networks instead of the organizational pyramid that re-establish competition. 

With this perspective in mind, a Charter of Principles was formulated, after the first Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001, to orientate the following Forums. We were then invited to multiply the self-organisation of spaces in which social movements, NGOs and unions could be mutually recognised, overcoming barriers and preconceptions and constructing a civil society that could take on the role of a new political actor, independent of governments and parties. We were hoping that such spaces would facilitate mutual learning in non-direct relations, becoming schools for new political practices, in which dispute, which is typical in political activity, would be substituted by an attitude of listening, respectful of diversity - a value equally fundamental in a new society. It would become important to find truth in the the positions of others - making possible that our disagreements no longer divide us but become a fertile base for constructing consensus, identifying convergences and building linkages - for greater efficiency in our actions, with the joy of creating something new. All this would require, of course, profound changes inside of each and every one of us, in a long and permanent process of re-education on solidarity and resistance to domination, which would make all of us happier.  

With the appearance, all over the world, of forums aiming to realise these objectives, within what was possible, I became absolutely convinced that we can build, however much work it requires, the unity that we need to effectively change the world. 

I must thank everyone, family, friends, colleagues, who helped me to come to these convictions and to find myself, today, among those who founded and ensure the continued work of the Foundation for a Right Livelihood  - not enslaved by money - and among the other award winners recognised for their "courage and hope in a hopeless world". I believe I can also express thanks on behalf of all those who feel they were acknowledged and stimulated by the giving of this award - among all those in the world who "want to change things".

What I hope now is to put the visibility given to me by this award in the service of more knowledge and comprehension of the great human adventure of the World Social Forum for "another possible world" that is becoming more and more necessary and urgent. I ask God to get the energy to continue participating in this civilizing effort, which still has a long and difficult way ahead.

Thank you.


Interview with Chico Whitaker

(September 22, 2006

Q: You have worked your entire life for the democratisation of Brazil. Are you hopeful about the situation today?

A: We have lived, in last century in Brazil, two long periods of dictatorship: from 1930 to 1945 and from 1964 to 1980. Each time, when we have again a period of democracy, we must re-learn how it functions. Many distortions remain, and people take a good bit of time to believe in the possibility of solving our problems through the democratic institutions. And we have a lot of problems to solve. Our country is champion in social inequality. And democratisation is not only guaranteeing political rights, elections, etc, but especially the right for all to live with dignity. Nearly half of the Brazilians are still half-citizens: the Constitution guarantees to them all these rights but they don't even know they have these rights...

Democratisation is really a long process. In between new problems appear, like now, for example, with a big corrosion in the credibility of the parliament because of corruption scandals. I am nevertheless hopeful because we are progressing. Slowly, but progressing. If political parties are in crisis, civil society begins to emerge as a political actor with more autonomy. We have very much to do, but there are much more people than we can imagine wanting to change things. If we arrive to define strategic objectives of change, we will go more quickly.

Q: You quit the workers? party (PT) earlier this year. Why?

A: This is also a long history. When I returned from exile in 1981 the PT was starting to get organised. With people having many dreams. It was really a new type of party, in its way of functioning and in its composition. It attracted effectively the poor of the country, giving them the opportunity to play a political role in the fight for equality and justice. The respect of ethical principles was also essential in its practice, in a country where corruption is nearly endemic and enters everywhere. But as the party entered in the electoral process and began to conquer positions in the administration, pragmatism - all means are good - to conquer the power became dominant inside the party. I saw this tendency arriving already ten or fifteen years ago, when I was elected councillor in São Paulo. As the party won the Presidency of the Republic, these distortions exploded, changing it entirely. It became only one more party among the others. Many of us - nearly half of its members - decided to work in the re-foundation of the party. Myself, as I had always worked with popular participation and civil society organising, I thought I could be more useful in this type of work, outside any party.

Q: You were in Paris with Oded Grajew when he conceived the idea of the World Social Forum in January 2000. What did it take to make this idea come real?

A: Returning to Brazil, we presented the idea to others, coming from various types of work in society. A group of us - from eight different organisations - decided to face the challenge. We deepened the idea of Oded, that we considered brilliant, and from then on we had no more time to stop or to think about what to do. The first Forum was a big surprise also for us. We were expecting 2,500 participants and they were 20,000. We then wrote our Charter of Principles, based on the reasons we identified for this success. From then on, there were still less possibilities to stop. The WSF was a real political invention. And it is now a global process that brings hope to more and more people.

Q: The slogan of the World Social Forum is "Another world is possible" - how does this world look like?

A: Very frequently people ask us this question. I always say to those who ask the question: you know it. The "other" world we would work to build is the utopia of all human beings: peace, justice, dignity of life for all, cooperation and not competition as rule of life, solidarity as main value, no kind of oppression, respect of diversity, no more wars and violence between human beings, respect of the nature to protect our planet and thinking of future generations, etc, etc.

Q: What about the impact of the World Social Forum? Isn't it just a big fair with little concrete outcomes?

A: The first big impact is the perspective of hope the Forum opened, encouraging people to rise up to work for a new world. A second impact is in the action of those who come to Social Forums. All those who come - at the world level as well as at the regional, national and local levels - are already working for this or are being invited to do it. When they return home after having experienced the openness and horizontality of the event - when it functions according to our Charter of Principles - they continue their work enriched with the experiences of others they have got to know during the Forum, the exchanges they have experienced, the convergences they have discovered with the struggles of others, the articulations they were able to build to initiate new actions to change the world.

All this makes people feel happy - like in the joyful fairs . also because they discover that it is possible to do politics without having to fight for power, and build a type of unity based on friendship, solidarity and cooperation. As in good networks, not depending on orders coming from above, as in the traditional pyramidal and disciplined political organisations. In this sense many new initiatives in the struggle against neo-liberalism and the domination of money were born in the Forums, and they already have concrete results. But the deepest impact of the Forum will appear in many more years, as its process expands all over the world, rooting itself in all countries and continents, through the regional, national and local forums that are already multiplying everywhere.

Q: What is your aspiration for the future of the World Social Forum?

A: My aspiration is this multiplication of Forums all over the world, creating the conditions to overcome the frustrations we had in the attempts to change the logics of economic, social and political life in the XX century. My aspiration it that the Forum becomes really a door opened to hope in a new century free of all types of domination and oppression, for the happiness of mankind.


Planning Yes and No. Paz et Terra Editions 1976.

O desafio do Forum Social Mundial. Loyola and Perseu Abramo Editions 2005. (Published also in Spanish, Italian, French, German and English).

Towards a new politics: What Future for the World Social Forum? Zed Books, 2006.

Changer le monde. Les Editons de l'Atelier/Editions Ouvrieres, Paris 2006.


Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55