The numbers are phenomenal – 6.6 million members in a total of 193 countries, nearly 30 million online actions taken and over 10,000 events held in just the last four years. Avaaz is an incredible success story – an online community which, according to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, ‘is more democratic, and could be more effective, than the United Nations’.
In 1997 Avaaz was founded by Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and moveon.org, an online community that had pioneered internet advocacy in the US. The aim was simple – to empower people across the world to take action on global, national and regional issues of concern to them. According to its executive director, Ricken Patel, ‘Avaaz’s online community can act like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden emergency; and a stem cell that grows whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need.’
The idea of armchair activism is often met with cynicism. How can someone be effective, sitting in their own home? Don’t we need to get out on the streets to make our governments listen to us? Avaaz has shown that ‘virtual’ people power is possible – and it works. Last November, following news reports of sexual exploitation in Hilton hotel rooms, 300,000 Avaaz members signed a petition urging the global hotel chain to sign the ECPAT code to stop child sexual exploitation – and Hilton listened. Just a month before, Avaaz worked with Greenpeace to collect a million signatures from Europeans demanding a freeze on genetically modified crops – a petition presented as a ‘citizens’ initiative’ to the European Commission, which, following the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, is bound to hear requests made by a million people or more. Pressure from Avaaz members in the last few years has also helped to protect elephants and whales, create the largest marine reserve in history and pass historic anti-corruption measures in Brazil.
Funded entirely by its supporters, Avaaz uses annual member polls to decide its campaigning priorities. Many of the most successful campaigns are suggested by members themselves. ‘People who join the community through a campaign on one issue, go on to take action on another issue, and then another,’ explains the Avaaz website. And the future? ‘What happens next depends on all of us,’ says Patel. ‘Avaaz’s 6.6 million members around the globe will continue to work together to bridge the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.’