Harnessing People Power

An interview with Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel about democracy, the internet and creating change.
By: /
November 3, 2014
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“A lot of the world’s biggest problems are suffering from [a] deficit of political will,” says Canadian activist Ricken Patel. He explains that these problems involve collective action challenges: there are groups of people that could make progress if they worked together, but they don’t.

As the founding president and executive director of Avaaz – an organization that boasts the world’s largest online portal for collective action, hosting petitions on everything from saving honey bees to human rights in Burma – Patel has set out to change that. The problem, he argues, is that there’s a lack of mechanisms to bring people together around common values and interests. That’s where Avaaz comes in. OpenCanada contributor Alia Dharssi spoke to Patel about how Avaaz, since its launch in 2007, has been bringing people together and works to become a political heavyweight.

You said in your 2013 Commonwealth Lecture that “there is a march of democracy sweeping across our world today.” Where does Avaaz fit into that?

Well, the most important part of the move towards more democracy is each of us as individuals realizing deep within ourselves our capacities to shape the world that we live in. That belief is revolutionary. But for the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of us have not had that belief. Avaaz gives people a way to connect. Campaign by campaign, collective action helps people see that we have the power to shape the world we live in. That’s our core contribution.

For example, over 675,000 people were out on the streets for the People’s Climate March in September, which our community catalyzed. It was the largest mobilization for climate change in history. A 19-year-old from Helsinki – just out of high school – volunteered to organize our march there even if he’d never done anything like this before. It ended up being one of our largest marches. He’s just one of hundreds. Our story is a fabric of individual stories like that – of people discovering their own power.

There’s also a number of other ways in which we contribute. Our globalism is very helpful. There’s wide swathes of people in democracies who believe that they can affect things at the national level, but there’s much less consciousness of that at the global level. We do not have to be at the mercy of global crises, such as Ebola and climate change and the financial crisis. We can solve all of these problems together.

But your main tool – the internet – doesn’t reach everyone, especially in poorer countries. Do you worry that you’re missing out on some important voices in your campaigning efforts?

The internet is on the march. It’s astonishing how fast it’s growing. The only real connectivity black hole in the world today is sub-Saharan Africa. That’s the constituency that I’m concerned about, but I haven’t yet seen a divergence of interests between our community, both in Africa and generally, and those that are not able to join. I understand the concern and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on, but, in practice, I’ve seen our members fighting for things that are aligned with those who are marginalized and disenfranchised by current politics. They are fighting to stop climate change, to reduce extreme poverty, to reduce corruption. I think the core thing is to fight for those people. Let’s fight for their education, for development, for democratic empowerment to make sure they can acquire the tools that are necessary to fully participate in public life.

What I hope is that we are an avenue of public participation for citizens. You know, political parties are at an all-time low in terms of trust and public engagement. They’re atrophying. They’re losing members at a very fast rate and their trust ratings are comparable to corporate CEOs. Yet, politics is where we win or lose many of the fights to save the world. There’s a lot of special interests driving democratic systems and dividing citizens in the world today. I believe in a conception of democracy where we all consider what’s best for everybody and have deliberative conversation where we’re genuinely open to other points of view. That’s the kind of movement that Avaaz is and that the people who participate in Avaaz want it to be.

Avaaz advertises itself as an organization that focuses itself on tipping points of change, of crisis and opportunity. Could you tell me more about that?

There are different roles in social change. Some organizations drag issues out of the wilderness and work for decades to build public awareness and generate constituencies so that they can have moments of opportunity to change things. But we operate as a kind of fire brigade. We’re a mobile, fungible resource that can be deployed at moments of opportunity after other parts of civil society or government have worked for a long time. There’s a tipping point when the public is engaged and interested. That’s where we add value.

Climate change is an example of this. We’ve known about climate change for 60 or 70 years now. For about 30 years, we’ve had a very dedicated movement raising its profile to the point where we now have Ministers of Climate Change. But it’s now a knock-down, drag-out fight with the fossil fuel industry. The only way we can beat climate change is by ending that industry and other business interests that are tied into our current energy status quo. I find it astonishing how slowly governments move unless they’re pushed by people. This year and the coming years are a crucial tipping point in the climate battle. We have no chance of getting to a clean energy world unless people get involved in a very powerful way to press our politicians to do that.

Avaaz has also been involved in conflict zones, such as Syria. Do you work around tipping points in those places as well?

Absolutely. The same analysis applies in relation to the lack of international engagement in conflict zones. Most conflicts are like onions. You have a conflict on the ground between two fighting parties, but then you have regional powers that sponsor those two parties and global powers that stand behind the regional powers. Syria’s a great example of that. It’s a great game between Sunni and Shia, between Russia and the United States, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Recognizing how we’re implicated in these conflicts and pressing our governments to do the right things is part of what our model entails. Our added value is that we come in and we see ways to change the situation that people working on an issue for years don’t. We’re a bit like a strategic consultancy.

Could you give me an example of that?

Well, when the Arab Spring broke out, I think we were one of the first groups to say this isn’t going to be confined to Tunisia. We recognized that there is a dictator’s playbook for these kinds of springs. It is black out and crack down: get all the journalists out and create a black hole to use unmitigated brutality to crush the uprising. Our analysis was that if we can stop the blackout, we can stop the crack down. We pioneered the model in Burma after the crack down there. Then we tried similar tactics in Tibet and Zimbabwe. And, in the early days of the Arab Spring, we deployed communications equipment and built relationships and networks all across the Arab world. We were active in Libya, in Yemen, in Egypt and in Syria.

With our “break the blackout” campaign in Syria, we noticed very early on that it wasn’t about equipment. They had phones and the ability to upload to YouTube. The key thing was verification. Someone sitting at the Reuters news desk had no idea whether a movie was coming from Homs yesterday or Cairo a week ago. So we specialized in verification. We acted as a middle man between citizen journalists and the world’s media. And it worked in the first eight months of the Syrian uprising, before it turned violent. Editors at leading news organization, like CNN, BBC, Reuters, told us we were making a substantial contribution to their coverage of Syria.

When you refer to creating change and doing the right thing, what do you mean? How do you decide on the values that drive Avaaz?

Our mission is to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want. That’s deliberately not an ideological mission. It allows the people in the world, at any given time, to express the values that are most important to them and that they want to see reflected in decision-making and policy-making. That being said, there are some values, such as sustainability, human rights and democracy, and some deeper principles – things like every human life is of equal precious worth – that people tend to rally around. It’s not just a thin common interest that brings us together. It’s actually a deep and beautiful value system that most human beings share.

Avaaz is very data-driven. We look at all the statistics of everything we do. People are constantly speaking to us ­about each and every campaign. The message I hear loud and clear is that we are not as different from each other as we think we are. We’re actually shockingly similar, across all these boundaries, all these divisions. Psychologists teach us that too, that the contents of our minds – what we fear and what we love – is astonishingly similar across all types of human being. We really are one people. That’s why Avaaz works.