21st century democracy

Campaign group Avaaz is helping raise the voice of millions of people through its online activism

Within just five years a new breed of campaigning organisation has mobilised the support of more than 13 million members. Now operating in 14 languages, in countries throughout the globe, Avaaz is one of the world’s largest online activism groups, making use of the internet to campaign around key concerns for social and environmental justice at pivotal moments of political decision making.

Avaaz means ‘voice’ in several languages, and Brant Olsen, a project manager for the organisation points out that by giving voice to 13 million people, they are representing a demographic larger than the population of most cities in the world.

“To have a community of that many people, and the ability for them to work together for its common goals is really staggering in its potential for creating change,” he says.

Avaaz‘s main method of advocacy is creating petitions, which are signed by its members and shared further through social networking websites, before being delivered to those with decision-making power at the crucial time. People are also encouraged to individually contact and lobby politicians and business leaders.

Avaaz also instigates and funds direct action at local and national levels, to help particular issues gain recognition on a global scale. Since forming in 2007 it has had many remarkable successes.

As the Occupy protests arose at Wall Street and many other districts in major cities around the world in 2011, Avaaz donated computers to protesters to help them connect with other Occupy camps and also linked the protesters to their membership via a large video screen showing the names that had signed a petition in support of the protests.

Citing its work campaigning against the proposed News Corporation takeover of broadcaster BSkyB, Brant states that one of the priorities of Avaaz is to challenge the corporate capture of governments.

“It became very clear that the Murdoch empire was wielding a tremendous amount of influence over elections and over decisions being made at the highest levels of government. While we stand equally for freedom of speech, we also feel that we have to ensure that one voice isn’t gaining too much dominance over others.”

Beyond generating thousands of signed petitions that were delivered to the regulatory body Ofcom, Avaaz also encouraged protests in London against the takeover and used funding to commission expert legal opinions on the issue of media consolidation, mergers and acquisitions.

Brant reveals Avaaz’s impact: “Ofcom’s decision was taken in part because of concerns raised by members of the public, referring explicitly to people in the UK that signed our petition or contacted the minister through our website.”

Avaaz has tackled numerous and diverse issues, including: internet censorship, the Iraq war, the occupation of Palestine, resource rights in the Amazon, the situation in Tibet, the Burmese regime, threatened species and climate change.

In February, Avaaz manage to get $1.8m worth of medical supplies into Syria when, it claims, no one else could. It also raised $1.5m more in donations and networked with citizen journalists to provide media coverage of the situation.

“The most important thing about Avaaz,” says Brant, “is that it has really harnessed the ability of technology to connect people and has helped direct the energy of 13 million people around the globe towards some of the world’s most pressing problems. And we get results.”

Avaaz prioritises campaigns according to the popularity of issues tested in random member polls, only taking initiatives to scale that find a strong response. “We’re here in the service of our members,” says Brant.

By denying itself charity status and the benefits of tax exemption, Avaaz has allowed itself to remain politicised. Since 2007 it has been entirely funded by member donations, to avoid any corporate influence.

It could be alleged that what some term ‘clicktavism’ or ‘armchair activism’ allows people to protest lazily without sacrifice or commitment. However, where economical, social and geographical limitations mean that not everyone can take more radical direct action, Avaaz provides an opportunity for people to make a stand. Police behaviour towards protestors can also hold people back; by comparison the nature of Avaaz is non-confrontational.

Brant argues that Avaaz is not just a petition site. “We’re much more than that. People might come into the organisation through signing a petition, but I think once they get to know it, they see its potential to help them realise their own political goals with others who share their agendas; that’s the real value of the group.”

As a web-based organisation with minimal core staff and low admin costs, Avaaz has been able to direct funding to under-supported efforts, as Brant explains: “The resources that we’re able to muster are substantial. Whether it’s commissioning expert legal opinions, or buying video kits for Syrian activists so that they can get their voice heard on the international stage. These are tangible, effective strategies.”

As technologies continue to develop, Avaaz intends to evolve alongside them, focusing on the “interconnectedness of the membership,” providing people with the tools to organise themselves effectively in their campaigning efforts.

“We’re learning as we grow here,” concludes Brant, “but there’s lots more potential behind Avaaz – I think we’re just getting started…”