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Meet the voice of global change

Last updated on: December 19, 2013 14:50 IST

Meet the voice of global change

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P Rajendran

'It is astonishing how many Indian politicians have been convicted of sexual assault and of various types of crimes against women.'

Ricken Patel, founder of the world's largest online activist site Avaaz, on his work in India and how technology is revolutionising the fight for a more just world.

Rediff.com's P Rajendran reports from New York.

Good people around the world agree on issues far more than is generally accepted, Ricken Patel, the founder of Avaaz, the world's largest online activist site, said at a recent event in New York, organised by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Patel, 36, was answering questions from the moderator, Foreign Policy journalist James Traub, and others at the event, one of the institution's popular interview series, titled 'Ethics Matter.'

Traub described Patel's academic credentials -- 'number one in his class at Oxford, at the Harvard Kennedy School' -- and pointed out that Patel had travelled to some of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and lived there with poor people, and returned to work with activist organisations, ultimately setting up Avaaz.

Avaaz boasts 30 million members and enlists people in campaigns including against political corruption in Brazil, sexual abuse in India, to protect elephants and lions in Africa, and to save the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Traub pointed out that Patel was named on Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. "He is a social entrepreneur," Traub said, "and, I would say, beyond that, he is a moral entrepreneur."

Patel said his mother -- who was impressed by whatever minor thing he did -- made him believe he could bring about change. He also credited his brother, 10 years older to him, who told him about the Cold War, the structure of the human cell and more, before Patel was 4.

Patel, son of a Kenyan-born Indian father and an English mother, said going to a Cree Indian school in Canada changed his life.

"I... went to one of the only schools in Canada run by a First Nations tribe," he said. "Despite a tremendous number of resources given to this tribe as a result of the treaty signed by the government, people lived in shacks, with doors that had huge cracks. They lived in tents inside homes. The amount of alcohol abuse and drug abuse -- just horrific social conditions -- that, for me, were an education in a number of things."

"I was the only kid at the school that wasn't either white or First Nations, so I got a lot of racism and bullying early on."

In college, Patel said, while he had not decided what to specialise in, he decided there were things he could not ignore. Such as mass civilian deaths in war. Having read Human Rights Watch reports about events in Sierra Leone at the time, he decided to go there.

"Then I had some sexy jobs where I was a speechwriter for Kofi Annan (then the United Nations secretary general)... I saw that path going into the United Nations and the world you are in (indicating Traub). In a way, that New York high-achieving world. I felt it wasn't going to be good for my soul... I thought I was going to choose a life, and not a career."

He decided to work with an activist in Sierra Leone.

"I had read about this young woman who had defended the voting booths when the military were coming to attack people. She said, 'We are your mothers, your sisters, and your daughters. If you are going to kill us, do it now. But, remember, the world is watching.' She had a CNN camera on behind her.

He went on to help the woman, Sainab Bangura, in a failed bid for the presidency, an exercise that made him feel like a physician-in-training for politics.

Traub said Patel must be an optimist, since he had not taken the war-torn places he visited as examples of the self-destructiveness of human nature.

"I feel like I call things like I see them," Patel said. "I feel that a lot of our press and political class is incompetently cynical... Our media and our politics are incentivised to focus, exaggerate, and exacerbate the conflicts that exist between us."

Patel said he had thought of setting up a global movement of citizens when he was just 17.

"But we didn't have the Internet back then, so it seemed like it was going to be bloody hard work to build that," he said. "But then, when I saw MoveOn.org (a progressive non-profit) from the United States pioneering this new model of Internet organising, for me it put it together. I said, okay, this global movement can be built using these tools. And I haven't looked back."

As examples of Avaaz campaigns, Patel described how at the outbreak of hostilities in Syria, the group had concluded that the government would try to black out the media and decided to fight that by giving satellite equipment and phones to non-violent sections of the Opposition.

It raised $2 million to $3 million to fund that effort. It also trained activists on how to verify the content to ensure the media gave reliable information.

Traub asked him how decisions are taken at Avaaz, given that it claimed to reflect a community's views.

"It really draws on the wisdom of crowds," Patel said. "Everything we do is polled and tested with a randomised sample of our community. It doesn't matter what I think is the right thing to do."

Patel agreed with Traub that the campaigns Avaaz took up resonated a lot with his own views.

"Part of the reason for that is," he said, "honestly, that there has been a growth trajectory for me. For example, I came out of a human rights conflict kind of background. Those are the things I most cared about."

"When we started running Avaaz campaigns, a lot of people cared about saving whales and protecting oceans and lions and elephants and things like that. At first, I was like, 'Really? Genocide in Sri Lanka versus bans on whale hunting?'"

"It was over time that I consistently learned to say, when the community disagrees with me, I need to first look at myself and see what I have to learn... This is where I feel I have learned a deep respect for the wisdom of the crowd."

Traub pointed out that Avaaz's sit-ins or public events were hardly gentle.

"Absolutely," Patel replied. "Sometimes we will be very sharp. For example, when Hilton Hotels was considering signing up to a code of conduct on sex trafficking where they would train their 80,000 workers worldwide to become eyes and ears for an anti-trafficking movement... they were dragging their feet a lot..."

"We had hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition and donate to promise to put ads in the hometown (McLean, Virginia) of the CEO (Christopher Nassetta), where his four daughters lived, targeting him and saying, 'Why wouldn't you do this? Why wouldn't you save these other young girls that are in this crisis?' He responded instantly to that."

Hilton, Patel said, signed up in three days.

That amounted to blackmail, Traub said. Patel defended Avaaz, saying that it was the truth. "That is what I said," Traub responded.

Patel said that because Avaaz is not a charity, with donations to it not being tax-deductible, it could afford to be political, and went on to speak about the group's efforts in India.

"It is astonishing how many Indian politicians have been convicted of sexual assault and of various types of crimes against women," he said. "What we promised to do was inform women voters in their districts about their records. So (we are) not quite partisan."

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Image: Ricken Patel, founder, Avaaz, the world's largest online activist site.
Photographs: Courtesy: Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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Riken Patel cited the example of Germany, a powerhouse driving the Europeans -- the global leaders in climate change awareness.

Avaaz lobbied against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's previous coalition partner, the right-wing Free Democratic Party, which backed industrialists and was against measures to stop climate change.

Merkel was forced to partner with the Greens (Die Gruenen) and the Left Party, the outcome Avaaz wanted.

Traub pointed out that Avaaz's 30 million members made up a self-selecting community, and pointed out the group's strong support of Palestinian Statehood as an example.

Avaaz, Patel said, had run opinion polls in the US of both Americans and of American Jews and found that the overwhelming majority thought the Palestinian people had a right to exist in a State.

"I think our perceptions, for example, of the Jewish community in the United States, are that it sits in a certain place," Patel said. "But my feeling about that is that you have a very powerful lobby group in Washington, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), that takes a particular position on things which is driven by a few of their very large donors, and that they are actually out of step with Jewish Americans."

Patel said that future plans included a focus on women's rights.

"What we are trying to do is move from individual campaigns around the woman in Iran that was going to be stoned, Sakineh (Mohammadi Ashtiani), and the 15-year-old rape victim who was going to be flogged in the Maldives -- we have run individual campaigns on those, and we are connecting them to broader social-change initiatives," he said.

"In India, we are advocating for the government to institute a $1 billion public education campaign focused on male shame."

From the audience, David Musher asked if online activism could be hijacked.

Patel admitted there were cases of a masquerade of activism. He spoke of commercial sites using the people trying to bring about change.

"So you start a petition for a cause you care about, get all your friends to sign it, and the site isn't investing in your campaign. It's just harvesting the e-mail addresses," he said. "There is that kind of movement in the sector that we need to be wary of -- the privatisation and manipulation sector. Because this is big money."

"If Avaaz was a private organisation, we would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars."

But he said he doubted if it could be hijacked.

"It is a fiercely meritocratic sector," he said. "If Avaaz stopped doing the things that people wanted it to do tomorrow, I think you would see another Avaaz very quickly rise up. There are low barriers to entry here."

Susan Gitelson asked about the ill-treatment of women, even in the American armed forces.

"I feel," Patel said, "that the feminist movement has been strangled by internecine conflicts and petty, damaging processes and fighting, making the perfect the enemy of the good..."

"I see a new feminist movement rising that is women and men, that is low-drama, that is effective, that's results-oriented."

He said legislation was not usually the problem.

"We have the laws to protect women. It is right down the line -- from the politicians to the police officers... They are not enforcing them. They are not taking it seriously. So there is a deep culture change that needs to happen... I hope that mass public education programmes can influence that," he said.

Hila Kats asked about the process involved in getting an Avaaz campaign going.

Patel said it began with ensuring the campaign was legitimate.

"I think part of it is hiring really good people," he said. "I think part of the magic of the organisation is that it has deep grassroots, but our team has some of the most outstanding social-change professionals in the world."

"President Obama's deputy (associate) counsel (Ian Bassin) has become our general counsel, senior advisers to presidents (Luis Inacio) Lula (da Silva) and Dilma (Vana Rouseff) in Brazil..."

"We are training them in how to serve a community. But they are very effective social-change leaders, and they do a great job. We have a very high ethic of professionalism. We pay good salaries. It is a professionalisation of the sector."

"This is not kind of volunteer it's-okay-to-not-do-a-good-job-because-we're-doing-nonprofit-stuff,'" Patel said. "We aim to set the highest standard of any organisation anywhere. We take our job very seriously."


Image: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning, during a meeting with her son Sajjad Ghaderzadeh in Tabriz, 633 km northwest of Tehran, January 1, 2011. She had been accused of adultery and of being complicit in her husband's murder, but her sentence to be stoned to death was suspended after an international outcry.
Photographs: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters

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