Ricken Patel wants your signature

Vidya Ram | Updated on October 04, 2012's 2010 campaign for the FichaLimpa clean record law in Brazil.

Ricky Patel, founder of Avaaz

Raising a virtually powerful voice, the way.

Shankar Mariappan, a driver from Tamil Nadu, scored an unlikely victory earlier this summer — his campaign succeeded in persuading Bahraini firm Nass Corporation to allow over 100 Indian migrant labourers, trapped in the island kingdom because of a visa ban, to return home. Shankar, who began campaigning following the suicide of his stranded brother, found his early efforts fruitless. But then he was contacted by An online petition launched on the campaign group’s Web site quickly garnered some 20,000 signatories. And Avaaz’s own campaigners began lobbying Braemar Golf, the Scottish business partner of Nass Corp — a turn of events that Avaaz’s founder, 35-year-old Ricken Patel, believes played a major role in the final outcome. “This is a real example of the legitimacy of how people power matched with a sophisticated advocacy strategy can really generate impact,” he says.

With its headquarters in New York, has taken off rapidly since it was founded in 2007, and now has around 16 million members globally. Targets of its campaigns have ranged from Rupert Murdoch (through petitions targeted at advertisers) to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, over the now infamous blasphemy case.

Avaaz is particularly popular in France, where it has around 1.3 million active members. Just behind is Brazil, where — thanks largely to the organisation’s campaigning on the FichaLimpa clean record law, which was passed earlier this year and bars anyone with a criminal record from taking public office — Avaaz has 1.2 million members.

In India it has 770,000 members. “We are just getting started in India,” says Patel, who is half-Gujarati. “There is no shortage of things to work on. You have a thriving democracy on the edge of tremendous hope and optimism about the future, and a set of very vigorous and vibrant civil society institutions that suggest that change is waiting to happen.” The group’s campaigns in India have ranged from national (the Lok Pal, the Novartis Supreme Court case) to local issues. Current campaigns include one against a mine in the buffer zone of the Tadoba-Andheri Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, and another to persuade the Punjab government to improve awareness on free neonatal care after a newborn died because its parents could not pay a medical fee of Rs 200.

The proliferation of online campaigning has also prompted criticism of what has been dubbed “clicktivism”. How much does such mass petitioning achieve?

“You can do online organising poorly without achieving any impact,” concedes Patel. “Many people do that. But when it’s done well it has tremendous potential to amplify advocacy — it gives you the legitimacy of numbers.” He rattles off a list of the “musts” for a decent campaign: “How good is your strategy? Have you chosen the right moment? Have you chosen the right target? Have you chosen the right ask? Have you got a smart media strategy? Have you got high-level engagement? Do you sustain the campaign over time? Do you not just use a petition but also other strategies such as phone calls, rallies, in person visits, advertisements?”

Patel’s experienced team tries to inject all of these into its campaigns. His foot soldiers include such big-hitters as Ian Bassin, a former deputy associate counsel to US President Barack Obama, and Pedro Abramovay, the former national secretary of the Brazilian Ministry of Justice. The organisation remains slim with around 120 full-time staff, largely at executive level.

During the FichaLimpa campaign in Brazil, for example, any attempts to stall the legislation were responded to quickly by rallying activists online, and legislators were bombarded with protest messages. In India, the campaign on neo-natal healthcare has involved steady pressure on Punjab’s principal secretary for health and family welfare, Vini Mahajan.

“The ability to powerfully express the views of citizens in a democracy affects politicians and their actions. From what I’ve seen time and time again democracy can work,” says Patel.

The group is also methodical about the issues it takes up: ideas are thrashed out during weekly meetings and “tested” on a sample number of members. The target response rate is around 80 per cent of the entire membership. Ideas often fall by the wayside — something, Patel says, is essential if the group is to grow and continue to gain legitimacy. “If we serve people well they will not just participate in one campaign but do future campaigns, and they’ll donate and tell friends and keep investing at a deeper level.”

Avaaz is also unusual for the way it raises funds: it steers clear of corporations, foundations, and governments, and caps donation at €5,000. It has raised $30 million over the past four years, with the average donation at $35. While some campaigns cost next to nothing, others involve major expenditures such as full-page newspaper advertisements. The group’s biggest spend has been $3 million on satellite phones sent to Syrian rebels.

Patel, who began planning Avaaz as early as 2003, says the idea of “a global movement dedicated to what we most care about” first came to him in his pre-Internet teenage days. Raised in Edmonton, Canada, by a British mother and an Indian father, he began thinking about larger social issues from an early age, prompted by a politically conscious brother and his own observation of poverty on a nearby native reserve. Although he did not visit India until he was 19, he says he grew up feeling “very Indian… I have 50 cousins that I am very close to!”

After studying at Oxford University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Patel worked — at times a campaigner, at times for organisations such as the International Crisis Group — in strife-torn countries, including Sierra Leone (where he launched the country’s first public opinion polling), Liberia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. In the process he gained experience that would prove invaluable in the preparation of Avaaz.

“For me it was an intense exploration of what underpins the health of political communities… seeing communities that had suffered from every form of acute failure, learning the history of those places and how it happened.”

Returning to the US, he joined the campaigning group, whose successful online campaigning gave him the missing piece of the jigsaw. “When I wrote the first draft of a business plan for Avaaz, marketing experts told me you couldn’t market globally, you have to have nation-specific teams to localise it, but we decided to do a practical test and try global organising,” he says. “We never looked back.”

He believes that Avaaz is in step with larger developments, that contrary to cynical putdowns its finger has located a global pulse. “We are in a time where the moral distance between people around the world is closing; people who believe human life is precious regardless of what passport you carry.

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Published on October 04, 2012
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