Kony 2012: The Morning After

Almost overnight, the internet’s seemingly unflinching support for the Kony 2012 video crumbled. How that happened is really interesting.

A few bloggers wrote about why they don’t care about Kony 2012 (ironically, by trying to stay away from the bandwagon it seems to have brought them even further in…) and facts emerged about Invisible Children’s activities and operations.

Glenna Gordon took this picture of IC's founders in 2008, at the Sudan-Congo border in April 2008.

Grant Oyston, a sociology and politics student in Nova Scotia, Canada, was one of these bloggers. He made some points about the campaign and IC in general.

One of the biggest arguments against Invisible Children is its support of military intervention and the Ugandan army (IC says it is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”). However, there are several documented cases of rape and sexual assault among the SPLA as well as the Ugandan army, both operating in the region.

There’s also an ethical point about military intervention. Fighting fire with fire may work in certain instances, but when dealing with the Ugandan army and the SPLA, which aren’t formal armies in the traditional sense, the situation is different. Many soldiers within the Ugandan army were recruited as child soldiers and are themselves a part of the system which they’re trying to stop. That presents a clear problem, one which is hard to resolve using just military means.

There are also many who are firmly against military intervention in certain cases of civil war in Central Africa, for the simple reason that it would merely send the conflict even deeper into a spiral.

Joseph Kony has held power in Uganda since the mid-80s. By now his reach has crossed borders and tribal divides. As of 2006, he’s rumoured to be in hiding outside the country in any case. So questions are being asked about the relevance of military intervention versus longer-term solutions such as socioeconomic empowerment and education.

The Daily What agrees:

Let’s not get our lines crossed: The Lord’s Resistance Army is bad news. And Joseph Kony is a very bad man, and needs to be stopped. But propping up Uganda’s decades-old dictatorship and its military arm, which has been accused by the UN of committing unspeakable atrocities and itself facilitated the recruitment of child soldiers, is not the way to go about it.

Chris Blattman, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Economics at Yale, says that “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or the saving of Africa. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

The argument for socioeconomic intervention is complex and highly subjective, but the broader idea which Prof. Blattman illustrates is particularly interesting in this situation.

The video indicates that the problem of child soldiers in Uganda was largely unseen and unheard by governments across the world, and that IC have stumbled upon this tragedy like pioneers, and as such are to be the group leading the revolution against it.

That inherent assumption has angered many, especially scholars and NGO workers who deal with central Africa on a daily basis.

This is not an unheard-of problem, and the fact that Kony has not been arrested yet does not mean that there has been no progress towards that goal. Literally hundreds of charities operate within central Africa to try and counter the problem of child abductions and child soldiers, without using military means.

Another point against the company is about its finances – which are public. Of the $8million+ spent by Invisible Children last year, only 32% went to direct serivces. The rest went to salaries, travel, transport and film production. In addition, there is no external audit.

The flipside of this argument is of course, that all charities have to pay their staff, and many charities pay their staff very well. So long as enough money is being spent on the work they do, their internal allocation of capital isn’t reason enough to condemn an organisation.

WrongingRights.com has published rules for the Kony 2012 drinking game, a part light-hearted, part shockingly-apt critique of the problems with IC’s video.

Crucial among these is the argument that the video assumes “white college students to save them through the innovative use of bracelets”.

Another subjective argument, but one which has been mentioned a lot on Twitter and also ties into Prof. Blattman’s argument about the White Man’s Burden.

However, there is a lot to be said for what this video does achieve, the most important of which is an increase in public awareness.

Chris Blattman acknowledges that,

Their movie did more to bring the Lord’s Resistance Army and the war in northern Uganda to US audiences, especially Congress, than any other advocacy organization on the planet. That deserves credit.

I’ve been having this debate with a friend on Facebook, and I’ve got her permission to include it here:

Her status this morning: Feel pretty bad for posting the Kony video. Incredible video, great cause, highly dubious aim but having researched Invisible Children all I can say is DON’T give them your money!

Comment: So what did you find about them? This video is everywhere

 My friend: ‎31% of their money goes on project activities, the rest is on staff salaries and travel, the three founders (who make it all about them with their relentless self-promotion) spend almost everything on travel and their film company!!

Me: I still maintain that it’s a good video for public awareness. If you throw a stone you’ll hit at least a dozen people who now know about Kony and the LRA, where this side of a week ago many would have no clue.

I fully agree with what’s being said about IC in general – its unquestioning support for military action for example, doesn’t sit well with their goals of trying to achieve peace in Uganda.

BUT, they’ve done a great job alerting people to what goes on. And that’s very important.

After watching that video, at the very least people will be informed.

From there, if we’re lucky, they’ll find local charities or organisations like UNICEF with tangible success in Uganda, to help and support.

If they’ve been drawn into IC’s marketing ploys and support them, then that’s a different issue.

My friend: No completely agree, that’s why I shared it – its an amazing video for raising awareness about Uganda and Kony (from what Ive seen on twitter, most of the people RT’ing it seem have no prior knowledge so that’s great). It’s really having an emotional impact on people, and I want to hire them for our campaigns! Where it gets dangerous, is if this video starts to have more impact on viewers other than raising awareness amongst people who have never taken an interest in world stuff, or been fortunate enough to have studied IR! I don’t think that’s likely though. It’s another fad.

Me: I would agree with you totally too! People who follow videos like that, made by anyone I would say, do scare me.

For most people, watching a video like that prompts you to research the various issues surrounding the crisis at hand, and also to look deeply into the organisation – especially if it’s one you haven’t come across before.

They’re great at PR though, if you look through the hashtags on Twitter for Kony 2012, it’s having a wonderful impact and I’m touched to see many people planning to go down to Uganda and volunteer, and look for ways to actually help rather than pulling out their wallets!

What I especially disliked about that video though, was the way he used his son to try and pull on heartstrings. I’m pretty certain that his ‘explanation of the civil war in Uganda’ was staged, and I think using a pretty sweet little kid as emotional blackmail just looks cheap and also, gives your actual cause less credence.

The exploitation of child soldiers in Uganda is dire enough, you don’t need to contextualise it using a cute little American kid to draw people in. And if that’s how you get your audience, it’s unlikely you’ll get much more than sheep to follow your cause! That may sound elitist but I think you know what I mean!

My friend: I have mixed views about using the son. He was the star of the video, not the Ugandans, and that’s bad. But then, its a sad fact that people in the West are drawn in by blonde kids being sad more than they are by African NGO workers and Activists. If you want to get people to listen, then you have to grab them where they will be affected – and thats unfortunately showing them a video of a cute blonde kid. Im not sure where I stand on it ethically.

The video isn’t perfect – in fact, taking into account the inferences and assumptions made, it’s far from perfect. But it should be seen in perspective – what does it do properly as well as what does it misses the mark on?

Now that these facts about IC are broadly known and are being circulated online almost as fast as the video itself was, maybe this will prompt more people to question their support for the organisation.

The important thing to distinguish between here is the cause and the organisation. This company may not get it right, but there are many who do.

But ask yourself this, if you’ve seen the video: do you know more about child soldiers now now than you did last week? If the answer is ‘yes’, then that is no bad thing.

If the answer is ‘no’, it’s probably also no bad thing.

Also ask yourself if you’re likely to forget the facts about the atrocities. Unlikely, right? Mission accomplished.

We’re more inclined now to do something about this tragedy than we would have been without the video.

The very fact of its existence is prompting us to research the topic, see what experts have to say, and in that way we’re already more involved than we thought we would have been.

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