Africa Notes: Seeing Kony

Invisible Children is getting a lot of press for its new campaign: Kony 2012. They even have a slick movie (see below), which is something they are particularly good at.

Joseph Kony is clearly a bad guy and no one doubts this. The best piece to read on recent effort to go after Kony is a recent piece in Foreign Affairs by Schomerus et al.: “Obama takes on the LRA”. (h/t Blattman).

What I write about below is the debate about Invisible Children’s efforts and influence on US policy. But it might be worthwhile to note that another news item about the LRA seems to have been lost in the blogosphere. Reuters Africa reports that the “LRA launches new Congo attacks, may be “last gasp”.”

Is Invisible Children Doing a Good Thing Here?

There is an active debate out there about this. As one of my colleagues recently posted on facebook: “My development and academic friends think it’s the worst ever. Many other friends are urging us to watch.” That mirrors what I hear, perhaps amplified by the fact that the ex-boyfriend of a relative of a friend was one of the original filmmakers (and maybe still works with IC). A link in her comments to a Foreign Policy Blog piece by Joshuah Keating, summarizes the main critiques in its title: “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things).” More generally, the criticisms focus on their tactics, on their knowledge, and on a fear of how the combination of these could lead to less-than-desirable outcomes.

In fact, in the past a number of observers in the development and aid community have been critical of IC. For instance, over at Metblogs in 2007, they noted that people involved in an IC protest in DC lacked the most basic knowledge about Uganda and the LRA. Of course, that is actually pretty normal for campaigns of any stripe. Participants are rarely well-briefed. However, that does less to excuse their awkward “abduct yourself” campaign back in 2009. Chris Blattman, an expert on the conflict and on child soldiers in Africa, wrote:

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. 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 saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.

However, Blattman may be more optimistic about “intelligent advocacy” than I am. Not everyone in the US should be expected to know about Uganda and the LRA, but it could be, in this case, that a little information is better than none. (For even more information, see the recommended sources below the film clip.) Additionally, it is important to think about how we are defining the goals of the Kony 2012 campaign. If the goal is about keeping the public “aware” of the issue, then something is to be said about their tactics. My (somewhat limited) understanding is that there is a solid literature on “Why Millions Can Die and We Don’t Care” (links to Psychology Today). So while I get why it might seem like a bad idea to Mark Kersten to have “a five year-old white boy feature more prominently than any other northern Ugandan…” in the Kony 2012 film, I also get why they did it. And it definitely works at getting people’s attention.

Knowledge: The Situation is More Complicated…

On the recent Kony 2012 Campaign, Stephanie Carvin at Duck of Minerva had this to say:

To put it simply, the situation on the ground in Uganda is complex. Military humanitarian intervention has serious consequences. Ham-fistedly intervening in a conflict of which few have a nuanced understanding of the conditions on the ground, where local actors are already engaged in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, is not going to help and may in fact serve to make a difficult situation worse. Buying a bracelet from an American run NGO will not change this.

I am increasingly getting the feeling that if this is the future of international politics and humanitarian intervention, there are high-definition troubled waters ahead.

Fear: How this can lead to worse outcomes

Mark Kersten, again:

In the end, ‘Kony 2012′ falls prey to the obfuscating, simplified and wildly erroneous narrative of a legitimate, terror-fighting, innocent partner of the West (the Government of Uganda) seeking to eliminate a band of lunatic, child-thieving, machine-gun wielding mystics (the LRA). The main beneficiary of this narrative is, once again, the Ugandan Government of Yoweri Museveni, whose legitimacy is bolstered and – if the ‘Kony 2012′ campaign is ‘successful’ – will receive more military funding and support from the US.

Final thoughts:

Invisible children have come a ways since 2007 and should be commended in their efforts to learn and communicate more effectively about Uganda. No one can argue that they haven’t tried, for instance, they have funded the LRA Crisis Tracker, something I stumbled upon via the more reputable ReliefWeb website. That said, I think Blattman and others are right that there are other experts to consult besides advocacy groups when deciding on what to do about Kony.

The Kony 2012 Movie:

Recommended sources on Uganda and the LRA:

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