I’ve been wavering about writing this post for months. On the one hand, I don’t find it productive to tear down other organizations when their motives seem to be benevolent. On the other, well, I can’t keep quiet anymore.
A few weeks, Mohammad Radwan–who briefly worked for Avaaz–wrote a blog post in response to their campaigning against BDS. That petition appears to have been taken down, so I can’t comment as I would like to, but I find it extremely problematic that Avaaz would consider a campaign against a nonviolent boycott to be a human rights issue. More recently, The New Republic questioned Avaaz’s role in Syria, noting that prominent Syrian activists such as Rami Jarrah are “livid” at Avaaz taking credit for things they may not have done. There are other issues raised in the piece as well, and I highly recommend a read of it.
My own distrust of the organization, however, is based on four distinct issues, mostly related to Syria. I hope that readers will correct me if wrong, or contribute if I come up short.
Avaaz is naive about Syria
Avaaz’s primary purpose is as an “online campaigning community for change.” With this in mind, I–unlike Radwan–don’t really have a problem with their choice of campaigns (though my point stands that a boycott of Israeli products is not a human rights crisis). That said, over the past year, I believe that Avaaz has seriously overreached beyond both its mission and its abilities, particularly in Syria. As Guardian writer Julian Borger put it: “Amid the bloodshed of Syria, the organisation’s commitment is less likely to be queried. The question its critics are raising now is whether a group that started out in the high-tech safety of the internet has found itself out of its depth in a brutal conflict in the real world.” (A separate Borger piece directly addresses Avaaz co-founder Ricken Patel about such allegations, but Patel skirts the question).
What I know is this: For a year or more, Avaaz has been funneling satellite phones into Syria (prior to that they were doing so in Yemen, and possibly Libya). From my point of view, there are numerous problems with this: First, they are an online campaigning organization with no real Syrian contacts, at least in the beginning (more on this later). Second, satellite phones are scary and insecure. That alone isn’t a reason not to distribute them–activists make decisions of need over security all the time–but it is certainly reason to be cautious when doing so…and yet, from all accounts (and I’ve spoken with numerous Syrian opposition activists about this), Avaaz apparently did not supply security training with their satphones. They did not explain to Syrian recipients that using one can easily expose your location. They did not take precautions, and that may have gotten people killed.
They’ve also sponsored petitions calling for EU sanctions on Syria (this, despite the fact that Syrian opposition groups are not universally in support of sanctions).
Of course, they have a country director for Syria, so they’re not going in blind…or are they?
Who is Wissam Tarif?
For a year or more, Wissam Tarif has served as Avaaz’s country director* for Syria. His activities, in addition to satphone distribution, include tallying death tolls, and his reports on those counts include his email address and a note to contact him with questions about methodology. I have done so, politely and approximately five times, but have never received a response. Neither have other people I’ve spoken to.
But alas, poor inbox management alone is not a solid reason to question Tarif. Rather, I’d prefer to question who he is.
In March 2011, Tarif started giving interviews to media outlets, and was often quoted as being a “Syrian activist,” though an April 2011 Atlantic piece clarified that he was actually Lebanese, not Syrian. Nonetheless, in one CNN interview, he was quoted as saying: “We have been living in this country for 50 years under emergency law. This element of fear has to be broken.” The “we”–to me, anyway–implies that Tarif was identifying as Syrian. Interestingly, in that same interview, Tarif was quoted as saying: “People–the Syrian people who are living in exile, Syrian people who are living abroad, who are calling Arab networks, TVs and hiding their names and disguising their voices should stop it now.” Pretty bad advice, considering recent events.
In the Borger article in which Patel is interviewed, Tarif is referred to as “a highly respected Syrian pro-democracy leader who is widely consulted by journalists and senior western diplomats,” another uncorrected misidentification.
Tarif’s Wikipedia page is of little help. At best, it’s a vanity page (“Appreciated for his in-depth political and strategic published analyses, he has made a reputation not only among the diplomatic and political communities in Lebanon and Syria, but amongst intellectuals, communicators and thinkers”), evidently written by a PR expert or serious fan.
Why would a 37-year-old Lebanese man pass himself off as Syrian for the purpose of taking down the Assad regime? (or, at the very least, not correct those journalists who mis-identify him) I don’t want to get all conspiracy-theory on this (as some have done) or mislead you about my feelings on the Syrian opposition (I support the on-the-ground opposition wholeheartedly). But I think, amid criticism about Avaaz’s work from some of my ardently anti-Assad Syrian friends, it is a question worth asking.
First, that criticism: One friend calls them “sloppy” on sourcing their statistics, stating that their claims are rarely backed up with evidence from on-the-ground Syrian groups. Another tells me that their numbers appear to be guesswork**, ignoring the more methodologically sound numbers provided by the LCCs and other groups. Yet another contact–who was privy to a conversation between an Avaaz staffer and a donor–tells me that he overheard a conversation in which the Avaaz staffer claimed that they see a death certificate for each Syrian reported dead…that is simply impossible.
My own frustration is in Tarif’s refusal to answer my emails asking about their methodology, despite this tagline on most of his reports: “For further information about how all our figures were recorded, please contact Wissam Tarif on +961 71 688 549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.” (And no, I haven’t phoned him. That’s weird).
In respect to questions about Tarif’s Syrian identity, another contact quite fairly reminds me that Syrian and Lebanese heritage often overlap, “so its like a sin of omission to say ‘we’” but nonetheless agrees that Tarif passively allowing the media to portray him as Syrian is “fucked.” Indeed, as yet another Syrian friend notes, “Every time an opposition group allows any room for conspiracy theorizing, it’s damaging to us.” Indeed, particularly given that one of the biggest accusations coming from the pro-regime side is in respect to “foreign involvement.”
Thus – Tarif’s motivations may be wholly pure, and I am not in a position to question them (especially when he won’t answer my damn emails). Nonetheless, it is naive of Avaaz to employ someone as country director who is not Syrian and not trusted by segments of the Syrian opposition.
Avaaz is a lobbying organization
Apart from Syria, I have two remaining criticisms about Avaaz. The first is this: They are not a 501(c)(3) (non-profit) organization, rather, they are a 501(c)(4), the classification of organization that can lobby, engage in political campaigns, and don’t have to name their major donors. To put this in perspective, the 501(c)(4) designation applies to PACs, leading Stephen Colbert to label 501(c)(4)s “spooky PACs.”
That said, they are required to report their financials, and–judging by their most recent 990 form from 2010–those financials seem fairly reasonable for a charitable organization in New York City. $500K for salaries (in 2010), $180K for fundraising expenses. $3 million for “other expenses” (“other” in this case is anything but grants paid to US recipients, salaries, benefits, and fundraising). Of that $3 million: $1.7 million went to grants paid to non-US orgs (reasonable). $600K went to other salaries (totally reasonable). $400K on IT (very, very high. my organization spent $14K on IT that same year). $260K to advertising (not totally unreasonable, but a little high for an org that regularly claims grassroots expansion). $180K for travel (this could be high, or not; if it’s for the four main employees, that’s $45K a year each, high. If it applies to others, it could be reasonable; by contrast, my 30-something person organization spent $28K on travel that same year, total).
To their credit, they recently updated their About page to increase transparency (a few months back, there was no reference to their financial status, for example).
Avaaz does not understand technology
This one’s a two-parter. Remember that $400K Avaaz spent on IT in 2010? In 2008 (the closest year available) they spent $179K (insofar as those are reasonable numbers–and I don’t think they are–that is a reasonable increase). And yet, that expense was not enough to prevent a security breach: In 2007, they experienced a security breach that Patel described as “a small crack in our security that had allowed a hacker using a packet sniffer to detect email addresses containing the word ‘avaaz’” and that compromised member (read: donor) data, leading to those users being spammed.
Look, shit happens, but they did not at the time apologize publicly for the breach. One can only assume that they called those whose accounts were compromised, but a transparent, public explanation goes a long, long way toward ensuring confidence amongst your member base.
And then, in December 2011, it happened again, and again no public recognition, explanation, apology (I learned about it from a donor/member who did receive an apology call). And again, the wrong way to handle a breach.
But more recently something really set me off: In early May, Avaaz was the victim of a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that they claimed lasted for 36 hours but notably did not take their site down. I don’t doubt either claim.
The normative response to such a large attack varies. If the attack was affecting the site’s speed, or if their host was threatening to take down the site due to the increased traffic, then throwing money at the problem (to the web host, that is) might be the correct response. If neither were true, however, then the correct response would be to take a step back, do nothing in the meantime, then afterward perhaps audit their security.
The degree to which Avaaz prepared for a potential attack is also worth questioning. With a $400K IT budget, one would hope that they had prepped for an attack, with proper mirrors set up (TechWeek Europe has suggested the same). And with such a large budget, one would think they wouldn’t require emergency funds from their members to deal with it.
But what Avaaz did instead was just that: immediately send their members a message asking for donations. In typical Avaaz fashion, the message was URGENT! and vague:
Right now, the Avaaz website is under massive attack. An expert is telling us that an attack this large is likely coming from a government or large corporation, with massive, simultaneous and sophisticated assaults from across the world to take down our site.
That message did not inspire confidence in some of Avaaz’s members, and a long email thread on the (public) Liberationtech email list ensued. Some questioned the existence of the attack altogether, while others criticized Avaaz’s response, with one calling it a “crass fundraising ploy.” I will not speculate on the former, but I think the latter is very fair.
Eventually, someone from Avaaz responded to the thread and the many questions being asked about the attack, stating: “…we have specific interests in not disclosing information — such as that which may make another attack more likely/difficult to defend against.” He also stated that he felt it was appropriate to ask for funds in response.
I don’t, but ultimately that’s a matter of aesthetics–after all, Avaaz’s members can choose whether or not to donate. What I find utterly inappropriate is their arrogance and lack of transparency in the face of criticism from Libtech, which counts among its subscriber/participants much of the core tech/human rights community. In a later email, Patel explained the attack in more detail (to his credit), noting that they had reached out to Arbor Networks, among others, to understand the attack. But he also added: “So while I am told that you have norms about collaboration and engagement among you, I regret that we can’t follow them. Hope you’ll forgive us and judge us by the quality of our work over time.”
As I said before, people can choose whether or not to donate to Avaaz. I choose not to: I don’t want my information accessible to a cadre of former government folks (not that it isn’t anyway), nor do I think it’s very smart of global members to contribute to what must now be the world’s most impressive (and, judging by their history, insecure) database of activists, as a friend in Guatemala recently pointed out.
But as a supposed “member of the community” (as Jake Appelbaum phrased it in a [non-critical] response to Libtech), Avaaz doesn’t really play well with others. They lack transparency. Their campaigners feign openness but then don’t respond to emails. They’re arrogant in their responses. And they’re taking thousands upon thousands of dollars for what, in most cases, is a clicktivism site and in other cases could be putting lives in danger. No thanks.
*Not sure that’s his actual job title, apologies if incorrect.
**Note: I’ve written a paper critiquing media reporting on Syrian death tolls. It is in draft form and not-yet-published but I am happy to privately share it upon request.