It’s helped the protest moment with logistics and supply. But is Avaaz really equipped to be operating in such a brutal war zone?
Amid the mass of reporting and commentary around the bloody events in Syria this week, one aspect has largely gone unnoticed: the extraordinary role played by an online campaigning group that despite its infancy has managed to place itself at the centre of the unfolding crisis.
Avaaz is only five years old, but has exploded to become the globe’s largest and most powerful online activist network. In Syria, it has become an important player in the crisis, acting as a co-ordinating hub and logistical supply route for the protest movement.
It was also centrally involved in the planning and co-ordination of this week’s operation to evacuate four western journalists in which 13 Syrian activists died under government shelling.
The tragic loss of life, combined with Avaaz’s increasingly pivotal role in the unfolding of the Syrian uprising, has raised inevitable questions about such a young organisation. In particular, questions have been asked about whether an internet campaign with such a limited track record is equipped to be operating in such a brutal war zone.
The accusation of inexperience clearly irritates Ricken Patel, Avaaz’s Canadian-British co-founder and director. He stresses the personal experience embodied in Avaaz’s senior team – the 20-odd war zones that Avaaz’s campaigns manager previously worked in; the time served by its campaign director at the US state department and Amnesty; and his own four years in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Afghanistan.
“I spent four years right up close to this stuff, this isn’t new for me,” he says as we speak in Avaaz’s New York headquarters.
He believes that doubts about Avaaz’s competence in war zones are the product of the traditional media’s misunderstanding of what it does. “Someone who doesn’t know much about Avaaz may think ‘Who the heck are these guys? What do online campaigners know about this stuff?’ But that’s a function of misunderstanding.
“The problem is the media just doesn’t get online organising. They look at it and think: ‘Oh, clicktivism!’ They just don’t understand it, and frankly it’s a bit tiring. We are washing our hands of it a little bit and getting on with the business of making a difference in the world.”
Patel, empassioned now, says that it will take time but eventually people will get it. “This stuff really does make a difference. You can raise more money online faster than any other model. You can mobilise people offline in the streets and protests faster.”
Speed is certainly a quality that Avaaz has displayed in abundance – a product, Patel says, of its results-orientated culture. In 2007 it began as just a handful of online organisers armed with nothing but a few computers, a global ambition, and a clever campaign slogan “to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want”. Since then its internet membership has exploded, doubling every year to 13.5 million. Its fundraising ability has followed suit: it has raised $3m through small donations to fund activities across the Arab spring. Its political reach too has grown exponentially, with the world’s top diplomats from Hillary Clinton down making a bee-line to Avaaz’s door.
Initially, it was better known for its online petitions against such targets as Rupert Murdoch and climate change polluters. As time has passed it has taken more and more risks, expanding both the scale and scope of what it does – from “break the blackout” campaigns in Myanmar and Tibet, to engagement with the Arab spring uprisings in Tunisia and Libya.
At each stage, it has sought the approval of its own membership through online polling and fundraising campaigns. Patel says that gives Avaaz the strength to take the next big step, because as an institution it is beholden to no-one but its own members and will follow their guidance wherever that leads: “I really believe in the wisdom of the largest crowd of humanity, in going to the community and asking their guidance. It can take us to some very risky places.”
Syria has certainly been risky. The group was quicker on the draw in responding to the first signs of the protest movement than most aid organisations, even than most media outlets that pride themselves in getting speedily to difficult places.
To begin with, Avaaz sent a team of staff organisers to Lebanon after spotting the first signs of a nascent protest movement in Syria. Contact was then made with Syrian activists inside the country, and go-betweens recruited, notably Wissam Tarif, a highly respected Syrian pro-democracy leader who is widely consulted by journalists and senior western diplomats.
From there its involvement in the Syrian Arab spring drew it steadily further and further into the conflict. First off Avaaz sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of communications equipment – satellite phones and internet connections known as BGANs – that gave the protesters a link to the outside world.
As with earlier Arab spring engagements in Tunisia and Libya, they realised that equipment alone was not enough: the protesters needed to know how to use it if they were to be effective. So Avaaz sent in trainers who could give grounding in how to use the satphones as well as basic training in citizen journalism.
“Verification was a key element,” says Patel. “We could get stuff out, but the media didn’t know what they were looking at, or couldn’t be sure where it had come from. So we began playing the middle man, verifying information. That was in some ways the greatest value we brought to maintaining the oxygen of international attention on these protest movements.”
Reports coming from Avaaz-trained citizen journalists in Homs and other key conflict zones, channeled through the Avaaz communications hub outside the country, has been a major source of information on the uprising and the regime’s bloody response, used by news outlets around the world.
Getting in the equipment involved opening up smuggling routes across the Syrian border into hotbeds such as Homs and its most badly bombed neighbourhood Baba Amr, which led Avaaz seemlessly into the next phase of its engagement. With the smuggling routes open, it could help get $2m of blood bags, tetanus shots, respiratory machines and other medical supplies into the country, bringing relief to communities that were desperate for help and that more establishment institutions like the ICRC had failed to reach.
It has also smuggled 34 international journalists into the trouble zones. Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist, entered using another conduit, but the French photographer Remi Ochlik who died with her as a result of Syrian government shelling was helped in by Avaaz.
Journalists who went in with Avaaz’s help have at times also needed help in escaping the violent suppression of the Syrian regime. So it was that Avaaz came to be involved in the evacuation mission of four western journalists last Sunday night. So what precisely was its role in that mission?
“We provided the communications hub where messages could come and be relayed between the Syrian activist networks,” Patel explains. “In the course of that relaying our team gave advice. We were involved in the planning and the thinking, but we did not ink this plan or give a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ order, or direct the operation.”
Patel says that to have given such a top-down order would have utterly unethical given the risks involved. It would also have been against the core principles of Avaaz which exists to connect online activists with those leaders on the ground who make their own decisions.
“Think about the expertise that is needed here. You have a set of Syrian activist networks that have sustained a peaceful protest movement in the face of every horror this police state could throw at them. They know their country and how to do this better than anyone on the planet.”
But does that absolve Avaaz from responsibility for what happened? “No,” Patel accepts.
“I wouldn’t separate ourselves out from what happened. We were absolutely involved in the operation and we supported the co-ordination of it. We just didn’t make the final decision.”
Patel says he is proud of Avaaz’s record, compared with that of more cautious international organisations. “The international community has failed to act, failed to support the Syrian people, they’ve been full of words and light on actions. We’ve given concrete support and assistance.”
But the loss of life has still been a heavy burden. He prefers not to think about the 13 who died in the latest mission, so much as the 8,000 who have died in total as a result of the Syrian regime’s bloody reprisals.
“To lose so many incredible activists who our team is very close to has been very hard. We feel sadness and despair at the cruelty that is being inflicted on these people and inspiration at the staggering bravery they are demonstrating.”
Has he ever had any doubts about the fireball of energy that his creation has helped to unleash around the world? To organise a petition against News Corporation is one thing, to be involved in a life-and-death struggle in Syria another entirely.
“No, not at all,” he says. “I think this has been one of our community’s finest moments.”
from Ed Pilkington