The man behind Avaaz

Can we change the world, one click at a time? Ricken Patel, a young Canadian, thinks so, and he now has tens of millions of followers to show for it. Profile by Robert Butler

Robert Butler | 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 HQ—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.

Every Avaaz campaign has a TOC, or theory of change. It’s one of a bunch of phrases ("the mission is the metric"; "push it till it pops"; "think like a CEO") that give the conversation here a culty feel. Patel refers me to a business book from the 1990s, "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies", which identifies strong internal cultures or mindsets as critical to the rapid growth of big corporations like Walmart and Procter & Gamble. At times, the talk in the Avaaz office is just like that. For a newcomer, there’s a whole lexicon of acronyms and buzzwords to pick up. I keep hearing "DO" (distributive organising), "DB" (daily briefing), "triage" (prioritise), "sustainers" (fund-raisers), "blasts" (mail-outs) and "Q&Ds" (quick and dirties). And the staff all seem to favour the same three verbs. You’re not really working in this office unless you’re "aligning" things, or "running" at them, or "digging into" them.

The theory of change is: why this, why now, how will it work, and what will it achieve. It’s the TOC that stops Avaaz being just a more elaborate version of Henry Root, the fictional letter-writer who wrote to the London Evening Standard "to complain most strongly about everything". The week I was there, they were trying to develop campaigns in three areas: supporting Russian dissidents, protecting lions in South Africa, and drawing up a petition to stop the Maasai being evicted from homelands in Tanzania. For the first, they were planning a joint e-mail with a leading Russian dissident, which meant juggling sensitivities (support from outside might compromise the Russianness of the dissident’s perspective; and not everyone at Avaaz was comfortable with his other political views). For the second, they had paid for advertising space by the baggage carousels at Johannesburg airport, to show posters of President Zuma looking on as a gun was pointed at a lion’s head. For the third, they were going to send a petition to Tanzania’s president, but they were waiting to see whether the e-mail would come from a Maasai spokesperson. The more personal the e-mail, the better. It was obvious that each of these campaigns could make plenty of noise; it was less obvious whether any gaps were going to be closed.

If you had to pinpoint the moment when Ricken Patel first sensed this gap in the world that needed closing, it might be the day he went to primary school. His family had moved to Canada from Kenya in the 1970s, an anxious time for Indians in east Africa after Idi Amin expelled 60,000 Asians from Uganda and seized their assets. Patel grew up in Alberta, 35 minutes by bus from the nearest school. It was a First Nations school on a reservation; he was the only child at the time who wasn’t white and wasn’t First Nation. He was witnessing the end of the Cree culture. "It was a deep annihilation of a people’s culture and it was conscious," he tells me over lunch. "They took a nomadic people and confined them to a reserve." He had a friend, Michael, whose front door was broken ("the cold wind blew in"); the family slept in a tent inside the house and ate flour, having nothing else. "History was a very live thing." On his first day at school, he went to the playground, a large field, and came across a two-year-old boy sitting on his own in the middle of an old tyre. There was no one else around. Patel, aged five, went up and said hello. The two-year-old said, "Go fuck yourself."

Patel holds Canadian and British passports. His father is a Kenyan-Indian, his mother English with Russian and Jewish ancestry. His great-grandparents include a cantor in a synagogue in Warsaw, a seamstress for Queen Victoria, and a merchant in Gujarat. He was, he says, "a weird kid". Part of this came from having a brother and sister ten and nine years older. On a blog, his sister Jini, who writes about natural healing, provides a snapshot of a rural childhood. After helping her father build a barn, a doghouse and three acres of fencing, she and her brother Millan built a candy store out of spare lumber at the end of the drive. Entrepreneurship was in the blood. Her dad would repeatedly tell them, in a mantra-like way: "Why the hell would you want to work your ass off to put money in someone else’s pocket when you can put it in your own?" They got the candy for their store from an uncle who owned a pharmacy. "At wholesale plus 20%," writes Jini, "because he was a Patel too and god forbid that he should let us have the candy at cost!" 

For Ricken, the entrepreneurial instinct pointed in another direction. When he was three, his mother read him "A Story Like the Wind", Laurens van der Post’s novel about a teenage boy befriending a Kalahari bushman. When he was four, his teenage brother—now an assistant professor in rare genetic diseases in British Columbia—told him about the cold war and the structure of the human cell. When he was nine or ten, he read Dee Brown’s "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", about the federal government’s unremitting betrayal of American Indians.

In his office one afternoon Patel holds up his iPhone, takes a photo of another spidery diagram on the whiteboard, picks up the Expo cleaner, sprays the board, wipes it down, and takes the top off a red marker pen. "Never done this before," he says, and pauses. "What are the metrics?" He is about to sketch out for me on the whiteboard, year on year, the rise and rise of Avaaz.

The pedagogic style comes naturally, and it’s easy to see in the 36-year-old in front of the whiteboard a version of the young man who turned up at Balliol, Oxford, in the late 1990s to read philosophy, politics and economics. He found aspects of the undergraduate life deeply disappointing. His friend Tom Pravda, who also read PPE at Balliol, sees this as a clash between his north-American sincerity and the guarded banter favoured by many British undergraduates. Patel was also unused to the volume of alcohol consumed and the efforts people made to appear uninterested in the subject they were reading. He felt so uncomfortable in his first year that when he ran for president of the Junior Common Room, and won, he instituted a new system of mentoring for the next year’s intake. He and Pravda campaigned against the introduction of tuition fees. (Pravda wrote his thesis on the subject.) Not every-one appreciated their efforts: Patel recalls that they were nominated for the college’s "most nauseating" duo.

One Balliol contemporary remembers Patel’s room for its tidiness and its framed photos on the wall of him in the rugby team. He had never played rugby before, but Pravda, who was Balliol’s scrum-half, says Patel was "very quick", and he got him to play on the wing. Patel also has a black belt in martial arts. He says that he was "quite directed" at Oxford. PPE is the subject for people heading for public life: the British prime minister David Cameron read it, so did the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband (and his brother, David); and Balliol is the college that invented the course. What he wanted was to have "a coherent world view"—one he could take away and use.

Patel wrote two theses while he was there. The first was on the Asian financial crisis that began in summer 1997. He handed that one in to his tutors. The second was entitled "What’s wrong with the world and what to do about it". The only person who got to see that was his mother. After Oxford, he went to Harvard, where his graduate thesis—on non-military protection of civilians in areas of conflict—was supervised by Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual broadcaster who became a Canadian politician. At the John F. Kennedy school of government, internships are part of the course, and Patel, typically, interned at the United Nations for the then secretary-general, Kofi Annan.

At Harvard he read a case study about Zainab Bangura, an activist in Sierra Leone, who had defended voters at the polls from the threats of soldiers. Patel wrote to Bangura saying he’d like to work for her. A year later, she decided to run for president. "We had two old political parties," he recalls, "fat old men, who had stolen the country blind, destroyed the country, driven it into war, profited from the war and now they were the only two options for people to vote for." The idea was to offer a third choice. How did that pan out? "Miserably." Their party got less than 1% of the vote. He discovered that the choice most people wanted was more money. Election time was the only moment they had any bargaining power.

Patel knew that the "internationals" preferred to stay in the capital with their air-conditioned houses and smart cars, but on his third day in Sierra Leone he left Freetown and headed out, first on a bus and then walking, to look for the rebel leaders. When he found them, he told them he was a student doing research. The 26-year-old rebel leader sat in the front of a pick-up truck, as if he were the driver, to see if Patel recognised him (he didn’t). Patel had brought his own food, and stayed with rebels."They were a lost youth, but they had an idealism of a type and talked about revolution and justice."

He sees his time in Sierra Leone, and then Liberia and Sudan, in diagnostic terms. "I was looking at patients, I almost felt I was becoming a doctor looking at acute cases when things had really fallen apart and then being able to see the early stages of those pathologies in all our societies. Sierra Leonan culture had fallen apart. Sons were stealing from their mothers." He talked to men who had killed women and children and he found these interviews notable for their "banality"; time and again, everyday stories of betrayal, fear and anger had led to events of "extreme cruelty". After Africa, Patel went to live in Kandahar. "Afghanistan had suffered economic failure, state failure, environmental failure and terrible drought, but the culture, the tribal systems and the family systems, the clans and the communities, were rock-strong."

As well as the UN, Patel has worked—either directly or as a consultant—for the International Crisis Group, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Care International and the International Centre for Transitional Justice, experiences that seem to have galvanised him as much as the war zones. Given the talent they hire, he believes non-governmental organisations (NGOs) underperform: "The public sector is just mandate-obsessed and risk-averse and controversy-allergic." And achingly slow too. He takes the kind of numerical approach that you would expect in business into the world of NGOs. Only the numbers that he obsesses about are individual actions: 117m so far, according to the website.

The Avaaz story could start with Monica Lewinsky. If she hadn’t had sexual relations, or not had sexual relations, with Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, America would not have become obsessed with this topic to the exclusion of more urgent issues. Two Democrats, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, software entrepreneurs in California, were so frustrated that they set up an e-mail group to pass round a petition calling for Congress to "censure President Clinton and move on". It attracted half a million supporters and then moved on itself, becoming a well-known voice on the left of American politics, speaking out on Iraq, campaign finance and pollution. It was a classic example of how the boom became the boom. Then a 21-year-old called Eli Pariser, who would later write "The Filter Bubble" about the customisation of the internet, created a website to protest at the polarising reactions to 9/11. "I was suddenly put in touch", Pariser wrote, "with half a million people from 192 countries." Pariser joined forces with Boyd and Blades, pooling address books (MoveOn now has 7m members). Ricken Patel, back in New York, went to a MoveOn event to help as an usher. It was a contest to make political ads called "Bush in 30 seconds" that raised $30m in small donations. Patel saw how fast and effective online organising could be. "I felt, wow! This is the tool." 

Avaaz's members receive short button-holing e-mails every week, sprinkled with phrases in bold type, urging them to "Stop Syria’s death dealer", "Save the bees" and "Ban the lion trade", or "Stop the Serengeti sell-off", "Free Pussy Riot" and "Save the world’s best bank", or "Stop Great Barrier coal", "Save the Arctic" and "Stop rape and murder for profit". There have been hundreds and hundreds of these campaigns. The question is, how effective all this is and does anyone really benefit? The answer to the second half of that question may depend on your politics, but the answer to the first can be glimpsed here and there. Some of the mail-outs are straightforward fund-raisers. In 2012, donations from members paid for satellite internet modems and high-tech phones to be smuggled into Syria through a network of 200 activists, which helped break the news blackout. Other mail-outs are more tactical. In 2011, 160,000 Avaaz members objected to Rupert Murdoch’s bid for full ownership of BSkyB, and 40,000 made individual submissions to the public consultation which, because the process was quasi-judicial, had to consider each one. This helped delay the bid for a couple of months till the phone-hacking scandal blew it away. (Avaaz also promised to pay £500,000 towards a judicial review.)

Ads play a key part here. There was a poster campaign trying to shame President Obama into action, which had a picture of Osama bin Laden and a version of the "I love New York" logo, only this time Bin Laden was wearing a t-shirt saying "I love Guantánamo". During the UN climate negotiations in Bali in 2007, Avaaz took out a full-page ad in the Jakarta Post showing President Bush and the Japanese prime minister on the Titanic. The Asahi Shimbun reported that Japan’s environment minister held up the Post at a cabinet meeting and asked if Japan wanted to be seen as blocking targets for 2020. When the British government created the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos islands in 2010, the announcement from the Foreign Office referred to the "221,000 responses co-ordinated by Avaaz".

To be a member of Avaaz, you have to do very little. All it requires is that you "take an action" once. There are no subscriptions, no annual renewals and, naturally, plenty of members who fall dormant. The person who supports the Avaaz line that pesticides are harmful to bees may or may not share its position on a two-state solution to Palestine. Critics of this kind of online activism dismiss it as "clicktivism" or "slacktivism". Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker piece entitled "Why the revolution will not be tweeted", saw it as a shallow form of engagement compared with the close-knit, disciplined and tenacious struggles of the civil-rights era, when people campaigned year after year, in the face of physical abuse, arrest and jail sentences. Evgeny Morozov, author of "The Net Delusion", writes about "cyber-utopianism", pointing out that authoritarian governments are just as adept, if not more so, at deploying these new tools as liberal activists. Access to information through technology does not inevitably lead to more democracy. Morozov quotes the scholar and activist Angela Davis: "It seems to me that mobilisation has displaced organisation…" A former cabinet minister in Britain told me that when you receive a large online petition, "You freak out for a few minutes, and then you work out how to deal with it." A senior executive at Greenpeace said of Avaaz, "They’re good, but they only come round once." Tom Pravda calls Patel "an instinctive activist". His friend can see problems in terms of relatively simple actions and that enables him to get on with the business of doing something about it. It may not be how most people view the world.

When Avaaz tries to affect policy through online petitions, it follows a relatively secure path, but when it raises money online and directs it to on-the-ground activism, the stakes are far higher and the results more controversial. In February 2012 it was involved in the operation to evacuate four Western journalists from Syria, which left 13 Syrian activists dead. "The question [Avaaz’s] critics are raising now", wrote the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, "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." Last year the liberal American magazine the New Republic ran a story online saying that Avaaz had significantly over-claimed its role in helping Western journalists escape from Syria. Patel responded that a press release had been written hastily, it had simplified the situation to avoid endangering others in the field, and it was the media that had done the main job overblowing Avaaz’s role. But the piece—coming from that publication—was damaging. Others have criticised Avaaz for lack of transparency and arrogance. Some of these charges have clearly hurt. This year Avaaz embarked on a project that polls its members in a "global party conference".

“Take an issue,” I say, as we sit in a café near the office. I reach for one that’s not overtly political. "Rhinos. It’s enormously complicated, protecting rhinos. You get into a very long game."

"Absolutely," Patel says, "and it’s that long game the campaign is designed to take forward." His argument is that there will be other groups which have been campaigning on the ground, understanding the issues involved, for years. Avaaz’s job is to bring "big bursts of public attention".

But public attention is fleeting and people’s sense of responsibility for what happens in other places round the world is fairly slight. Most people aren’t very interested in where their T-shirt comes from.

"True," he says. But then he steps back and describes the problem in terms of how legislation is framed: "We see very strong supra-national legal systems around trade, very weak ones around human rights." In any case, he told me later, "we don’t do as much corporate campaigning as you might expect. If you fight for years and you get Unocal to pull out of Burma, Total goes in the next day."

But Avaaz does campaign actively against Murdoch. 

"Well, that’s a systemic issue. We have to change the system of media regulation...It’s precisely [Murdoch’s] capture of government and politics that is the problem." For Patel, this isn’t anti-business, or anti-Establishment; the opposite, in fact—it’s about maintaining the integrity of institutions that are there to represent the ordinary citizen.

What if he has simply found the 20m people in the world who think the same way he does?

"The altruistic quadrant!" He rejects the thought.  "I wonder if we’re not all idealists, except for a couple of limiting beliefs." 

It’s more complex than that, I argue: what about the deep cultural differences in, say, Uganda, that make prejudice against gays hard to overcome? He doesn’t agree. "It’s much more about the information we possess." In Uganda, evangelical propaganda has been used to link homosexuality to child abuse. When that canard is exposed, the debate will shift.

He sees quite a few problems in terms of simple archetypes—the wise grandmother, looking to make things better, and the malicious gossip, looking to make things worse. Part of his smartness is the way he sees things in basic terms. Avaaz has campaigned about Palestine since the first year. "We’ve been accused of being Zionist and anti-semitic, often by the fringe elements that dominate the politics around this. We are not participating in the narrative frames offered by either party." Of course, being attacked from both sides doesn’t prove that your position is the correct one. Avaaz’s voice is neither that of the wise grandmother, nor the malicious gossip. It’s more like a cross between a crafty strategist, a rabble-rousing journalist and an idealistic social democrat. There’s no doubt that a certain type of emotive topic, worked up into the right 250 words, and passed on to Avaaz members in simple can-do terms, will generate a vast response. This is what they do: get nice people concerned. Half the work at Avaaz is about finding the stories that push the most buttons.

On a screen in the office, there’s a largely blank document with the date, the title "Campaign Call Notes", and a list of the people away on holiday. Then Emma’s voice comes over the headphones, and says, "OK everyone, two minutes..." Suddenly, subjects start appearing down the page on 20 or 30 separate lines—"Tunisia", "$15", "carbon credits", "Belarus", "tigers", "organs for sale", "refugee camps", "pay your workers"—and next to them those Avaaz verbs begin to pop up: "call on", "demand", "end", "stop" and "save". Each line has a little flag—red, green, purple, brown, orange, pink, blue—and each flag has someone’s name on it. The flags run back and forth along the sentence like ants, shuffling the two lines of the campaign to fit, because each person is only allowed two lines. Every week, the Avaaz team gather on Skype and 30, 40, sometimes 50 people join in to decide what they are going to campaign on. Patel is on this call, but he’s not chairing it.

From New York, you can picture the operators of these little coloured flags in South America, South-East Asia and Europe, in an office, café or bedroom, public library or airport lounge, typing away in front of their own screen, trying to put the case for their particular progressive cause in 40 or 50 words. Avaaz has staff in 30 countries, but it is biggest in France, Brazil, Germany, America and India. The staff are not divided up by territories. When I’d spoken to Emma by Skype the previous week, she had been working on a campaign with Alex in Scotland and Sam in England and Pedro in Brazil and Mia in Japan. When one of the New York team, Ben, was in Australia, he stayed up to 2.30am to take part in the Skype sessions. Other Avaaz staff who are not in New York sometimes think they’re missing out—isolation is a hazard in any virtual organisation—but staff in the New York office barely chat during the day. When you do hear people talking, they’re usually on Skype, talking to people in the room and people in other parts of the world at the same time. Often the loudest noise comes from the air conditioning.

After a minute or two of writing, Emma in Chicago says, "OK, everyone, just finish up now," and the flags slow down, running back over their own sentences to correct a spelling mistake or two, before coming to a rest. On the page now, there are about 30 causes, each of which might become an Avaaz campaign, from Kenya’s plans to close down the world’s largest refugee camp to an American gold company poisoning Ghanaian water, from protecting women’s rights in Tunisia to urging others to follow the Church of England’s example and sell shares in News International. Emma says, "OK, everyone, let’s heart those. Say four hearts is your max." Each flag runs down the list putting one of four heart symbols next to the causes they think have the most "Avaaziness".

Back in England, an e-mail arrives around tea-time on Sunday. It’s this week’s global blast. "Dear friends," it says. "At any moment, a big-game hunting corporation could sign a deal which would force up to 48,000 members of Africa’s famous Maasai tribe from their land to make way for wealthy Middle Eastern kings and princes to hunt lions and leopards." As ever, the chattiness leads to a call to action: "If 150,000 of us sign, media outlets in Tanzania and around the world will be blitzed so President Kikwete gets the message to rethink this deadly deal." It’s a strong hook: on one side, an underdog—the Maasai tribe—that could hardly be more photogenic; on the other, extreme wealth, shadowy deals and the whiff of corruption.

After half an hour, 125,000 have signed. They instantly receive a second e-mail asking them to send the link on to friends and put it on their Facebook wall. At 6.20pm, the 150,000 target has been met; soon 935,000 people have signed the petition and 128,000 have shared the campaign on Facebook. A Tanzanian MP who is a confidant of the president tweets that he will pass on these concerns to his boss. But then the issue becomes much murkier. The government comes out strongly denying that it had any plans to evict the Maasai. You could side with Bismarck here: "never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied." Or perhaps Kikwete was never going to allow the sale of the land. Trying to prove the impact Avaaz made here is like trying to prove a negative.

But the credit for any campaign is notoriously hard to pinpoint. Avaaz collected 300,000 signatures asking Hilton hotels to train staff to recognise and report sex trafficking. It threatened to take ads in local papers in McLean, Virginia, where the chief executive lives, "to shame him into action". Hilton has now implemented training for its 180,000 staff, but it says it was planning to do this anyway. Patel is certain the campaign had Hilton rattled. He says, "We have hundreds of examples of where insiders told us our scrutiny and pressure made a difference, sometimes a critical difference." He lists campaigns: the cluster bombs treaty, the Chagos marine reserve, saving the Isiboro-Secure reserve in Bolivia, protecting the whaling ban. His list goes on and on. "Because we don’t focus on one campaign per year like other NGOs, you can’t evaluate by quite the same standard of a soup-to-nuts impact."

Just occasionally you do get a glimpse of soup and nuts. The Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking was shown a memo sent to James Murdoch by his lobbyist, Frédéric Michel. It related to a "debrief" Michel had held with Jeremy Hunt, then the culture secretary. "Key for him", Michel wrote in a text, "is to find a way to weaken Avaaz campaign’s arguments."

"He’s a freak," one member of Patel’s staff told me. He is, in a way. He is the first person I’ve met with a 20-year plan to change the world ("that’s four or five election cycles"). But he doesn’t seem crazy; he exudes intelligence, both rational and emotional. When he talks about conflict resolution, he discusses the conditions in which young children are raised. In the hours of conversation we had, he leapt from J.S. Mill to J.M. Keynes to Sallust to Gramsci, from child prostitution and the Mafia to homophobia and media plurality. He spoke, admiringly at times, about Walmart and Procter & Gamble, Apple and Google, the United Nations and Greenpeace. But his subject in each case, really, is culture with a small c—whether it’s the beery work-shyness of his fellow students, the victim narratives of the soldiers in Sierra Leone, or the paper-shuffling of NGOs. His motto might be: it’s the culture, stupid.

He is defying his aunt’s scepticism (and plenty of others’) by mobilising people around the world to stick up for the bits in our culture that seem to offer people the most hope. Plenty of powerful people would rather he didn’t.

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