“We have unprecedented capacity to do each other harm”

Katie Silvester

Avaaz founder Ricken Patel spoke about human rights, poverty and democracy at this year’s Commonwealth Lecture.

Ricken Patel, the public face of campaigning movement Avaaz, is a master of the soundbite. “Our planet is threatened by multiple crises – climate crisis, financial crisis, food crisis, biodiversity, nuclear proliferation. These crises could split us apart, or bring us together like never before,” he told his audience at this year’s Commonwealth Lecture.

The president and executive director of human rights campaigning organisation Avaaz spoke about how much human rights have improved across the world over the last few decades – perhaps because more power than ever before is in the hands of citizens, via the ballot box.

“From Tahir Square to Wall Street to staggeringly brave citizen journalists in Syria, to millions of citizens winning campaign after campaign for change, democracy is stirring,” he said.

Avaaz, which means ‘voice’ in several languages from Turkish to Hindi, campaigns globally on issues such as democracy, climate change, poverty and human rights. The organisation, funded by donations from supporters, has 50 employees and operates in 15 countries, claiming to have 20 million members worldwide.

Patel himself was born in Canada to an English mother and an Indian Kenyan father. The 35-year-old studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and did a masters in public policy at Harvard, going on to work for the United Nations, the Rockerfeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation, before helping to found Avaaz in 2007.

His talk began by pointing out how life has begun to improve in the poorest nations. “In the last 30 years, we’ve cut global poverty by nearly 50 percent. At the current rate, our generation will be the last to know poverty. Look at democracy. We’re seeing unprecedented growth of democratic governments in the world today. For the first time in human history, over half the world’s people live under democratic government.”

He continued: “Perhaps the most powerful trend in the last 50 years is the unprecedented empowerment of women. The number of women members in parliament has gone from 1,800 to over 20,000 since 1980.

“For the first time, half of our species has been liberated to bring their full genius, emotional intelligence, knowledge and wisdom to every sector of our society.”

Patel believes that the key to closing the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want is to create “highly functioning democracies” globally. He spoke of a 20-year plan to bring about such a political system worldwide.

“The difference between us is closing and we’re realising that every human life is equally precious to us,” he said. “All the barriers we’ve known of race, nationality, language, religion, culture and sexuality are coming down and as they do we see ourselves in the other.” But he cautioned that as technology and science progress, so does our ability to damage the planet on a larger scale than ever before.

“We have unprecedented capacity to do each other harm. Take our biosphere. The universe that human life can inhabit is razor thin, 3 km below our feet is too hot to survive; 3 km above our heads the air is too thin to breathe. You could walk across the living universe in your lunchtime. “This razor thin biosphere that sustains us survives by a delicate miraculous balance and we have the power to threaten it.”

The Commonwealth Lecture, which took place at the Guildhall in the City of London during Commonwealth Week, has become an annual feature on the Commonwealth calendar. The event aims to stimulate understanding, discussion and debate on the Commonwealth, its role in world affairs, its institutions and its cultures.

About the author:

Katie Silvester is Editorial Manager of Global: the international briefing


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