The Opinionist

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Why I’m wary of KONY2012

Yesterday was one of those days when the internet exploded.

From the moment I switched on my laptop till the point when I closed it and went to bed, Facebook and Twitter were awash with Uganda, with Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign going the most viral I’ve ever watched a viral get; 28 millions views and YouTube and another 12 on Vimeo by the end of yesterday, and those aren’t the latest figures.

Yesterday morning this seemed pretty damned exciting. As a South African living in the UK, I’m forever listening to people go on about ‘Africa’ as though it’s some indefinable, amorphous Gondwonaland of a continent, and it was heartening to see this sudden rush of interest in a decidedly non-sexy, non-white, non-holiday-worthy part of the world. Until, that is, I remembered Ethiopia. What do you think of when you think of Ethiopia? Five to one, unless you’ve been to the area, have personal links to Africa or are adventurous in your culinary choices, you think of famine. Because that, more than anything else, has been the legacy of Live Aid; creating a permanent and insoluble link in the western consciousness between Ethiopia and starving babies who don’t know it’s Christmas. What do you think of when you think of Sudan? Darfur? Somalia? Yesterday, when I posted this fantastically scathing article about the campaign on Facebook, a friend replied, ‘But at least they’re raising awareness, that’s better than nothing.’ Perhaps, but the question is what kind of awareness they’re raising.

But to return to Invisible Children. My discomfort with this sudden social media outburst increased when I watched the video (patronising much?), and then increased even more when I read this thoughtful post about why the IC campaign won’t work, and why it isn’t a justified use of resources.

But that’s not all. To break it down, then, let’s have a look at how the promo works, and the myths it perpetuates.

Myth 1: The power of celebrity. There’s something very about peculiar about IC’s desire to make Kony ‘famous’, as though turning the benevolent eye of the Twitter-using world on him will make him easier to find and easier to catch. The eyes of the world were very clearly on Osama bin Laden and it took a long time to find and kill him (if it happened! We all know the CIA probably faked it. In fact they probably faked him), and even then it was probably only because some faithless woman betrayed him. IC’s invocation of the magic nature of fame suggests a bizarre naivety; if Kim Kardashian can’t get away from us, then neither will Joseph  Kony. I’m being, admittedly, facetious, but nonetheless these privileged Americans are invoking the highest church of privileged America as an answer to an incredibly complex situation that I suspect they don’t really understand. Kony was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2005; he’s hardly unknown by influential policymakers. (The very fact that, when you Google ‘Kony war criminal’ the second link that comes up is Miranda Kerr supports KONY2012, should give you a good idea of the self-referential flavour of this campaign.)

Myth 2: Good guys and bad guys. IC are good guys! Look at how they swoop in on their metaphorical white horses to save the troubled folk of northern Uganda, just like John Wayne and every other white saviour in the history of US cultural and political mythology. Joseph Kony is a bad guy! Catch him and you will solve this problem. Now I do not disagree that Kony is a very very very bad man. He kidnaps kids. He hurts them in ways I can hardly handle thinking about. I would like to see him strung up by his teeth. But Yoweri Museveni’s Ugandan government is no cup of tea either. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘US reliance on the Ugandan army has to some extent shielded Uganda from meaningful criticism of its poor domestic human rights record.’ KONY2012 is an advocacy campaign aimed at pressuring the US government into working with Museveni’s Ugandan army and finding Kony. But the situation in northern Uganda isn’t as simple as finding and killing one bad man, and further international support for a dangerous and corrupt regime probably isn’t going to help things on the ground. According to one seasoned Uganda watcher, Museveni is the reason that Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has survived for this long. Add to this the fact that the LRA, which is unquestionably dangerous and fucked up, is latterly understood to A. not be in Uganda anymore and B. have shrunk down to very few fighters, meaning it’s not the threat it was, and you might wonder if, possibly, the people who live in this place might benefit from a different approach to this binaristic old story of good and evil. Which brings me to…

Myth 3: Africans need saving. This one goes way back to the misty days before Bono, but it’s been a belter of late. Remember Live 8? When the only African person who appeared on stage was Birhan Woldu, that girl who’d nearly died in the famine, who was embraced by Madonna (Madonna!) and then sent on her way with much warm-heartedness about how lovely she looked and didn’t we all do well? Yep, it’s that old chestnut again. Now I realise this is an ideological argument that might not convince people – so what if the advocacy doesn’t come directly from the people who’re concerned, as long as it happens? – but it does have real consequences. As was revealed in full glory online yesterday, IC spends only about a third of its budget on the ground in Uganda. The rest goes on staff salaries, or on making these slick, professional films that travel so well by broadband. If a tiny proportion of the tens of millions of people who watched this film decided to donate some money to them, we could be talking hefty sums. Those hefty sums will, largely, not be spent rehabilitating child soldiers or rebuilding communities in northern Uganda, but on ‘educating’ and ‘informing’ Americans about the Lord’s Resistance Army. Which do you think would be more valuable? And how many people, having given their guilty dollar to IC, are likely to seek out one of the on-the-ground aid organisations run by Ugandans, who may have a clearer idea about what local people want and need, and give them a dollar? Nope, IC’s campaign makes very sure that any public awareness of the area is filtered through, you guessed it, IC. And that’s not even considering the very potent arguments that have emerged in recent years about the development industry itself, which some suggest has more valuable effects on the consciences of wealthy westerners than on the lives of the people it claims to help.

I don’t doubt for a moment that IC means well, and that they genuinely want to make a difference, and that Kony should be brought to trial and hopefully eviscerated. But the group was started by filmmakers, and that shows; their production values are impeccable and the whole experience is Hollywoodised, repeating familiar narratives about what ‘we’ can do to rescue ‘them’, with a convenient villain who abuses children (everybody loves children) and the benevolent, heroic presence of the American rescuer. Indiana Jones, anyone?

Addendum: the other thing that yesterday’s flurry of activity brought home to me was the dangerous shallowness of social media. Remember that furore about Emma West, the racist woman on a tram in England? She said some horrible things, became the object of an immense global outpouring of righteous vitriolic rage and was charged with Racially Aggravated Assault. Now I’m not excusing West’s tirade, but watching the video made it fairly clear that something was up with her. No one who clicked forward had any idea about the context or about her situation or about why she was being so hateful and paranoid. But we all clicked forward anyway, because everyone hates a racist, and why not show how right on you are when it takes so little effort? Emma West became, briefly, a byword for racism, a global hate figure, a marker for everything that’s wrong with them – you know, the bad people – and right with us – the morally superior clickers. Yesterday millions of people watched the IC video, went oh that’s awful and clicked forward. And you know, you just know, that posts like this one, or those linked to above, will be read by a fraction of those people, and that Uganda will forever mean Kony in their minds, assuming they ever think about it again, and that the difficult, complex realities of the situation in that part of the world have now been comfortably papered over. Oh Twitter, did no one ever tell you that with great power comes great responsibility?

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1 Comment

  1. Good article. There is the unpleasant reek of the circle jerk (sorry) about advocacy groups. They’re the ones who often get the presidential facetime but don’t take much responsibility for actually doing anything. Beyond yakking. And your mention of Birhan Woldu reminded me what a revolting lie that Live 8 promo video, er I mean concert, was. Her life was not affected by Live Aid at all. The Canadian journalist whose crew shot the original film of her paid for her education.

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