Tilting at Windmills: KONY2012

I know everyone and their dog has been talking this to death. But since I don’t have $30 to spend on two rubber bands and some glossy paper, I thought I would just put my $0.02 here.

Why do people have such a problem with the movie?

The KONY2012 movie is misleading and misguided in that it selectively provides information that depicts the situation as (a) one that is currently prevailing in northern Uganda, (b) one that can be easily fixed by just taking down Kony, and (c) one that must be fixed by American/Western involvement. Every documentary film obviously has a perspective and must selectively filter what it wants to convey. I just think that this one is far too slanted and simplified, and doesn’t begin to do the complexity of the problem justice. It doesn’t even focus on the real priorities of the problem; if you ask people from any of the LRA-affected countries, I doubt any of them would say the top priority is capturing and bringing to trial Joseph Kony. But of course its targeted Western audience loves to have an enemy with a name and a face, and with Bin Laden now dead, who better to fill that void? The campaign to distribute posters and sell “activism packs” however, aims to make those people somehow believe that by doing so they are doing something about it, when really it is about as useful as giving little kids superhero costumes and telling them they can telekinetically move only invisible things to stop only invisible criminals. (I am suddenly reminded of this. Huh. How strange. And very special. But I digress.)

What’s wrong with raising a little (or a lot) of awareness?

I have no problem with raising awareness,  nor do I deny its value, and if anything, I commend IC for having brought the issue – and thus the critical discussion of how it might be addressed – to the limelight. But I just don’t believe that on this particular issue, that lack of American awareness is the problem, nor, for that matter, do I believe that American military intervention is the solution. I certainly don’t believe that resources gained from the newly increased awareness are best spent on bracelets and posters from IC. Viral video = awareness achieved. Fuck the gimmicky merchandise, let’s talk logistics.

Do I think Invisible Children is a terrible organization?

No, I don’t actually think they are some kind of corrupt, money-mongering-in-the-name-of-children agencyI just think they could be more accountable than they have been in the past.

Do I think they mean well?

Sure they do, and so do the blindly #savetheworld tweeters who join their campaign. But many a well-meaning foreign aid venture has been ineffective in the short term and/or detrimental in the long term. This kind of ill-informed Western intervention doesn’t have a good track record, either in a military context or a financial context.

Do I think there are better, more effective organizations to give my money too?

Absolutely I do. (This question is probably misleading in that it might imply that I actually have money though, as opposed to just growing debt. I digress again.)

Do I think the campaign is harmful? 

No, not necessarily, but I think it does have the potential to be. I think it gives a lot of people the false impression they are doing something, but I also think those same people, not having seen the video, were not going to do fuck all with that $30 or the 30 seconds they spent tweeting it, besides buy another hipster tie or make a new meme about Justin Bieber.

In terms of direct impact, whether or not the campaign proves to be mildly effective or mildly detrimental remains to be seen when IC decides what to do with the money and awareness it raises. If the awareness serves only to pressure foreign governments to provide military intervention to capture Kony, I think it will do more harm than good. If the money goes towards funding more merchandise, more films, or more of anything that focuses the problem primarily on Kony, I think it will be useless. Hopefully with awareness levels at pretty much a maximum, IC will now start using more of the money they collect towards their on-the-ground projects in Central Africa, some of which I think have merit and have been well-considered. Projects that help victims of LRA attacks and former child soldiers reintegrate in their communities are worth supporting.

But on a more abstract level, I think the real harm is in people seeing the video and believing that the people in Africa are helpless to help themselves, which perpetuates the global context of paternalism and myths of plight and despair that are simply unfair to the dignity of African people.

Surely all this criticism is a little harsh?

I would say much of the criticism against IC has been a bit backlashing, and some of it perhaps undeserved. But this is an organization that hasn’t had the most glowing reviews from charity evaluators in the past, so I also think the volatile response has also served a very important purpose: with such scrutinizing eyes on IC, they are under much more pressure to raise their own bar, and really show what kind of locally-developed, community-based projects they can help grow, to promote independent agency and sustainable futures for people affected by the conflict. And if they do demonstrate that they can effect real, responsible and empowering change in LRA-affected communities, then as soon as I climb my way out of my own debt, I’ll gladly contribute to their cause.

Some links, for those who want to take a closer look:

Kony2012 edumacating us about Africa
The Problem with Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012”
Invisible Children’s official response to critiques
Invisible Children responds to criticism about ‘Stop Kony’ campaign
A Peace of my mind: Respect my agency 2012!

Updated March 15, 2012 to add the following link:
Hunting Kony: View from former Uganda advisor on LRA ICC case

Updated March 22, 2012 to add the following link:
The White Savior Industrial Complex

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