Our Top 10 of 2013. No. 7: Can we change the world, one click at a time? Ricken Patel, a young Canadian, thinks so, and he has 20m followers to show for it. Profile by Robert Butler
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
THERE WAS A fund-raising event on a roof garden in Kensington earlier this year for Resurgence, an elegant small-circulation magazine whose contributors range from James Lovelock to Annie Lennox. The campaigner Tony Juniper, who recently co-wrote "Harmony" with the Prince of Wales, was speaking to a carefully chosen audience about the magazine’s core themes of sustainability, social justice and spirituality. These were subjects dear and self-evidently important to those present, which they felt had been marginalised in today’s world. What was needed was more than a magazine, Juniper said—what was needed was a mass movement. Michael Mansfield, the radical QC who has appeared in some of the most famous cases in Britain over the last 40 years, was also present. "There’s an answer to this," he told everyone there, "and it’s one word." With his pinkish features and flowing silvery hair, Mansfield cuts a Wildean figure. He had everyone’s attention. "Avaaz."
Avaaz is an online campaigning organisation that’s halfway between an NGO and a megaphone. After only six years, it has 20m followers—more than the population of the Netherlands. Avaaz, which means "voice" or "song" in Persian, was set up with the overarching goal of closing the gap between "the world we have and the world most people everywhere want". From the outset it has been unashamedly idealistic and aspirational. Its executive director is Ricken Patel, and his ambition goes back half a lifetime.
When Patel was 18, he was on holiday in Mexico with his family, who live in Canada. One night he sat everyone down, very gravely, and told them he had an idea for making the world a better place. His insight was that most people in the world want pretty much the same thing and what they want is actually quite modest. He was going to mobilise global citizens to act together to achieve this. His family were taken aback, and Patel remembers his aunt making the first remark. "So, you want to be a do-gooder?"
The method he would eventually settle on was only just getting going then: e-mail. Millions of people know "Ricken" as the name at the bottom of the chatty e-mails they receive asking them to take some sort of action. If they don’t take a simple action (clicking "send"), something bad is going to happen. Or if they click "send", something bad that is going on right now can be stopped. Either way, please do it quick.
I spent a week in New York, not at Avaaz’s HG—because a virtual organisation doesn’t have an HQ—but at its most visible hub, to observe the person behind the name that pops up in in-boxes all over the world.
"Anything we should be on top of?" Patel is in his office, staring at his silver MacBook Air, which is at eye level, perched on a silver stand. He is on Skype, talking to Emma Ruby-Sachs, a senior manager for Avaaz in Chicago. Every day at Avaaz is dress-down day: Patel wears a polo shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops and his index finger rests, delicately, on the bridge of his nose.
He is a soft unflappable talker, all "sort ofs" and "kind ofs" and upward inflections, and when he makes a sweeping statement, which is often, he laughs on the big phrase to soften its impact. His language can be wonkish, but the tone is brisk and eerily analytical. On his desk, there’s a bunch of keys attached to an oblong key-ring that has the computer password on it. The password changes every few hours. Do-gooders make powerful enemies: the most recent cyber-attack had lasted 36 hours. Patel immediately wrote to members, saying that the attack probably came from a government or large corporation with "massive, simultaneous and sophisticated assaults from across the world to take down our site".
Outside Patel’s small grey office, there are a dozen workstations and, beyond them, windows overlooking the corner of Broadway and Union Square, where a market sells fresh vegetables and "community compost" and the smell of hot dogs drifts past a shiny chrome statue of Andy Warhol. A whiteboard by the window sketches a more sinister world: the words "organised crime" appear in the centre and dozens of lines radiate out from them to "Albanian", "Russian", "border countries", "whistleblowers", "Vatican", "Interpol", "CIA", and "Kony2012". The aim is to find the weakest point in the flow of arrows—the link in the chain that might snap.