Avaaz: Global, progressive activism in your inbox

Do you suffer from progressive-cause fatigue? Does daybreak reveal an inbox bursting with entreaties from progressive politicians and causes pitching the cause-du-jour and pleading for you to add your name and slide the cursor to “submit”?

If you immediately hit “delete” and don’t even bother to skim the offerings, read no further. But if you’re someone whose store of empathy is never quite full, read on.

Just a few days ago my inbox contained a petition of a different stripe. This one was forwarded by a friend whose passion for all things Greek is boundless. The petition addressed the clash between strict EU fishing regulations and a significant artifact of Greek culture—the caique, a painted, handmade wooden fishing boat beloved by locals and tourists alike. As part of their commitment to ensure the recovery of depleted fish populations in the Mediterranean, the EU has been offering cash subsidies to fishermen in exchange for stepping away from their livelihood. In Greece, the EU mandate has resulted in the confiscation and destruction of 10,000 of the traditional boats over the past decade.

The petition, calling on the Greek government to halt the destruction and find a way to repurpose the caiques, was just one of many posted on the website of Avaaz (a word that means voice in several languages), an international organization dedicated to using the fast-response capability of the Internet to funnel protest efforts and press for social justice, one local issue at a time.

Avaaz wants you to get involved

With over 14 million members in 193 countries and more than 74 million actions across the globe since 2007, Avaaz shines a light on issues you’re not likely to see on the nightly news.  Their focus is broad and ever shifting—from calling for an end to prison sentences for Honduran teenagers who take the morning-after pill; to demanding repeal of the Moroccan penal code that allows rapists to avoid prosecution by marrying their underage victims; to seeking information on the whereabouts of internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has tragically been “disappeared” once again by the Chinese authorities.

Although at first glance Avaaz’s mission sounds like starry-eyed idealism—organizing “citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world we want”—their tactics are pragmatic and effective.

On its website, the organization explains the mission in this way:

Avaaz empowers millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.  Our model of Internet organizing allows thousands of individual efforts, however small, to be rapidly combined into a powerful collective force.

The Avaaz community campaigns in fifteen languages, served by a core team on six continents and thousands of volunteers.  We take action—signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions, emailing, calling and lobbying governments, and organizing “offline” protests and events—to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform the decisions that affect us all.

The case for global activism

The tactics of Avaaz follow a now well-trodden tradition that was first formulated in the 1960s by British lawyer Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International. Since Benenson’s first letter-writing campaign (which called for the release of two Portuguese students imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom), mobilizing international support for social justice through letters and petitions has become an axiom of progressive activism.

One perspective on the imperative for global activism was recently outlined by former British diplomat Carne Ross. In his just-published book, The Leaderless Revolution, Ross recounts the failure of governments and established institutions to address the most pressing problems of humanity in the early twenty-first century.  “It would be foolish,” he writes, “to place our faith in one form of management—government—to solve them.” Avaaz and its online community couldn’t agree more.  The strength of Avaaz’s mission lies in the belief that concerned individuals must step into the breach and defend the rights of other individuals around the globe.

The Internet and armchair activism

The Internet, with its immediacy and direct access to a wide community, has rendered the petitioning tactic even more effective than it was in Benenson’s time. One question that rankles, however, is whether signing onto an online petition, such as those on the Avaaz website, is just a facile substitute for direct engagement.

Theorist, historian, and social-activist hero Howard Zinn may have indirectly provided the best answer.  Shortly before he passed away, Zinn expressed his optimism to an audience of college students when he testified to his faith in the power of information to inspire.  He put it this way: “People are decent, and when the truth comes to them, they react. “

As always, Howard Zinn was right. Some type of reaction is better than no reaction at all. So when the truth shows up in my inbox, I recall his words and the words of others like him who dedicated their lives to fight for social justice and who not once allowed themselves to feel cynical, defeated, or fatigued.  And then I figure that the least I can do is to pay attention to the truth and offer something meaningful from my place of comfort. Yes, that means that more often than not I type in my name and then “submit.”