Are Avaaz democratic? They certainly think they are
At a basic level, petition sites - Avaaz, 38 Degrees, change.org - are tools to lobby local governments, national governments and international institutions on specific issues. They’re reformist, basically.
Avaaz recently launched a huge poll asking millions of members in a hundred or so countries what issues they wanted tackled in 2013. They views themself as democratic and member-focused: a campaign director there said “we’re an organisation that’s 100% member-funded, through £5 here or £20 there. As such, that our bosses are our members isn’t just talk, it’s a very real thing”.
Not very democratic, really: four reasons
One. There’s no accountability of staff. What are the processes if the paid staff don’t listen to the “members” at Avaaz? None. Not even an elected board of members at the top to rubber-stamp, nothing. They say the site would dry up without user support, which should be read as ‘we still exist, therefore our members must support everything we do’. This ignores that people and organisations will use the sites even if they’re anti-democratic, because they need the big list. “Go where the people are” is the maxim - if you need 500,000 signatures for your petition in a short time, how else will you get them?
Two. There’s an information imbalance between the staff and the members. The staff have access to the email lists. They hear the inside information and decide whether to distribute it, potentially angering “members”.
Three. There’s little solidarity between existing petition sites. As Occupy’s Naomi Colvin pointed out, it’s because of the grassroots funding: “great as it sounds (and often is) to be funded by the people who join your campaigns, it creates a big incentive to get involved with any issue gathering some momentum. The risk is you end up with campaigning groups competing against one another, rather than getting on with changing things.”
Four. Staff set the boundaries. With their supporter survey, they choose the questions. They can choose to not list ideas they don’t want to work on. They can interpret “war, peace and security” as an area to work in very differently to how an anti arms trade activist would. They have moral carte blanche, in their eyes, to use this as a guideline to justify virtually whatever actions they take in 2013 - if they pick the most popular ones it’s listening to the members, if they pick a less popular issue it’s encouraging minority voices. Either way, people will feel involved by filling out the survey - another win for Avaaz.
If you liked this post, maybe read my other one adding to the clicktivism debate: WHY SOCIAL MEDIA ALONE WON’T SAVE US.