Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reflections on Kony 2012

Lots of buzz these past few days over the Kony 2012 video.

Given the amount of attention I’ve given to the use of social media and online communication in the Arab spring (and the fact that a good part of my day job is spent trying to measure advocacy impact) I was struck by the speed with which the video exploded on the Internet.

Obviously, the campaign has been in the works for some time, and a lot of work has gone into its preparation and delivery, but a good social media/PR team doesn’t guarantee success.

The video can be found here and the situation it describes is no longer a fully accurate picture of the situation. Kony is no longer in Uganda, the Lord's resistance Army is not the same sort of threat that it was five years ago, the “Night Commuters” are no longer trapped in their horrible circular migration. Nonetheless, the video has been a huge success.

Predictably, there has been a major pushback in response, and a whole host of criticisms have been leveled against the Kony 2012 video and Invisible Children, the organization that created it and the surrounding social media campaign.

The video has been attacked on a variety of fronts (here's a good place to start or here), but most of the criticism addresses some key points:
  1. The video oversimplifies a complex situation
  2. The video does not reflect the current state of affairs
  3. The video advocates the use of force to resolve a situation that would be better resolved without violence
  4. The video perpetuate the stereotypes of Africa as nothing more than a place of violence and death
  5. The video embodies the worst examples of white European paternalistic urge to "save Africans"
  6. The organization does not make good use of the money they raise
These are, of course, all good criticisms. The organization has done a reasonable job of responding to some of them (see here) but I think they're all missing the point.

Teju Cole @tejucole, a gifted Nigerian American writer, posted some particularly biting responses on his twitter feed  two days ago:

Here’s the thing. I think Cole is way off base here. Now, don't get me wrong, as someone who occupies a world that is both American and African, I think Cole has worthwhile insights, but I also know several people who've given many years of their life in service to communities across the African continent. To paint these people and their work with the brush of the "white savior industrial complex" does them a gross disservice. Commitment to a life in the relief and development sector is commitment to a career full of small victories in the face of enormous setbacks. It's a field where you start out naive and idealistic and then you grow beyond that or you leave the field. I certainly think the Kony2012 campaign is a deeply flawed one, but it's also a pretty remarkable one that shows great potential for other endeavors.

The world is full of young people who want to help each other, and to dismiss that as desiring a "big emotional experience that validates privilege" is like telling a child that his crayon drawing is poorly executed and unrealistic. The people whose eyes are being opened by this are not adults. They are children and teenagers who were still in diapers when the “American war of choice” began in Iraq.
To speak with so much contempt and condescension is to plant seeds of cynicism in the hearts of the young.
(As I write this, I'm reminded of the Rumi story about Moses and the shepherd)

But here's the thing...Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the US state dept. was made aware of the video by his 13 year old daughter (link).

Imagine that conversation.

And then imagine if Christine Shelley, State Department spokeswoman during the Rwandan genocide, had been asked by her daughter each evening, “What are we doing to help the children of Rwanda?”

Two days ago a friend of mine made a passing comment on Facebook in defense of the Coney 2012 video and an older family member responded by saying, "Atrocities happen all the time, I've never heard of this guy until you mentioned him just now, what makes the situation any different than any of the others?"


There you have it.

For a quarter of a century people have successfully ignored this horrific unfolding atrocity that is STILL GOING ON.


We are reaching the point now where, thanks to YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and Skype, the wider world can only be ignored through an act of willful self-imposed blindness. And it is becoming harder to maintain that blindness.

Ultimately, the most incisive and relevantcritiques of Invisible Children as an organization are the same critiques that have been directed at just about every other major organization in International Aid and International Development, and they largely boil down to this:

The programs that generate the most donor funding are rarely the programs that do the most good for their target populations.

If you want to motivate people to dip into their wallets, the best thing in the world is a photograph of a starving little African baby with a swollen belly and flies crawling on his face. It just works.
But they want you to spend that money on food for the starving baby, not on projects that address the structural causes of food insecurity in the undeveloped world. Alex De Waal’s Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa addresses this issue far better and far more extensively than I could really hope to.

For me, however, I don't see this campaign as part of a long string of bloated miserable Band-Aids that some guilty first world culture has perpetuated to assuage some innate guilt of being privileged. Instead, I see it as reflecting a new scale of human interaction. If you really wanted to, you could find and become Facebook friends with a former "night commuter" from Uganda within 5 minutes (you could probably find a twitter feed from one in even less time).

The Indonesian tsunami of 2004 (which, by the way, was the first time where individual giving to a major disaster outstripped government aid) and the Iranian post-election fallout in 2009 were harbingers of this.
It is so important to remember that the real uptake on this video is taking place among people who have not even finished high school yet, and ultimately, the true impact of this video will not be seen in the money that it generates for Invisible Children and their work.

The important thing about the video is not the video itself, but rather its success – we're only discussing it because the video is an internet sensation. So is this a fluke, a random moment of emotion that (as Cole puts it) "validates privilege" or is this in fact something new?

I think this is something new. Don’t try to kill it before it can grow.


  1. The problem i have with the Kony 2012 (which makes me agree wholly with Teju Cole)is the lack of participation. My friend Victor Ochen a former child soldier himself, now a youth advocate in Uganda who was affected by Kony screened the flick in Lira, Northern Uganda and the response was of outrage.
    As an African, i have a serious problem with westerners taking up 3rd world causes with the best of intentions but often missing the point. In this case, the obsession with Kony only resulted in pain for the victims who were deeply deeply offended by the Kony 2012 kit. as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and whilst Kony is now on the ICC hit list, there must be more credit given to the victims and their agency. There must be respect given to them not self serving patting on the back by the invisible children group who failed the victims and treated them as mere tools of their advocacy as opposed to human beings, with real feelings, real opinions and real solutions. That the ICC has finally had one conviction after a decade in operation ($9billion later) tells me that we must pause before jumping with joy on the so called kony 2012 victory.

    1. Good points, of course, and the cost of achieving that single ICC victory is discouraging for sure. My point, however, is that the awareness of this issue is bigger than the push to bring Kony to justice.

      This issue, I feel, hit huge because the degree of connectedness that is felt by the younger members of the internet generation. This awareness is being translated into action in a way that is far more dynamic than was previously possible.

      Kids don't just watch the video and give IC their money, they go to Wikipedia, they watch other videos, and they talk about it with friends on facebook & twitter.

      This does translate into action -

      Give the kids more credit - they're going to have to clean up the messes that their parents helped to make, and I feel they're up to the task and willing to take it on.