On Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Campaign

By: Siena Anstis · March 15, 2012 · Filed Under International Law, Politics · Add Comment 

If there was a prize for the NGO who best commodifies white man’s burden on the African continent, and more specifically in Uganda, Invisible Children would win.They recently struck again with a new video and campaign titled “Kony 2012.” I was surprised to see it popping up everywhere on my Facebook feedback yesterday: clearly, their social media tactics are to be admired. Their underlying message – which is, of course, more important – is not to be.

I think it would be useful for persons unfamiliar with the issues featured in the movie and with the difficulties of poverty porn messaging to read up on some past blogs about Invisible Children before sharing this film. A friend has circulated a list of links providing critique from bright and well-qualified individuals speaking on these issues:

Wronging Rights is headed by two human rights lawyers who, for many years, have been on top of the development and humanitarian aid debate, as well as international justice. A few thoughts on the previous Invisible Children “Abduct Yourself” campaign from their blog:

First, organizations like Invisible Children not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used todevelop more intelligent advocacy. And yeah, this may seem like an absurdly academic point to raise when talking about a problem that is clearly crying out for pragmatic solutions, but, uh, the way we define problems is important. Really, really important. Choosing to simplistically define Congolese women as “The Raped” and Ugandan children as “The Abducted” constrains our ability to think creatively about the problems they face, and work with them to combat these problems.

Second, treating their problems as one-dimensional issues that can be solved by a handful of plucky college students armed only with the strength of their convictions and a video camera doesn’t help anyone. These gets back to something very simple and very smart that Alanna Shaikh wrote a few months ago: “Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before.”

Over on Texas in Africa, the blog has previously hosted two students who have provided some additional thoughts on Invisible Children. The students made a good faith effort to get in contact with Invisible Children and get both sides of the story on their former abduction campaign:

This is a symptom of the larger problem at hand. Not only does IC fail to base its decisions on what Ugandans think is best for them, the organization also make efforts to explain away any dissent. IC has become a brand with machine guns and cameras as its apparent logo and celebrity filmmakers as the protagonists against the evil LRA. The war is no longer about the people versus the LRA; it has transformed itself into something far too sensationalized and, at times, seemingly insincere. Poole, Russell, and Bailey v. Kony.

… And this is why we are as concerned as we are. IC has great potential and opportunity to do good. The organization has successfully motivated masses of young people to be globally and politically active. Advocacy, however, does not end at trendy t-shirts and cool graphics.

While I could reiterate what bad advocacy looks like and why we do not want nor need it, Texas in Africa has provided a thoughtful list of issues to consider as well. There is little I could add to it and I strongly suggest you read the whole post here.

Unmuted has also posted an excellent critique of this new video. An extract:

The dis-empowering and reductive narrative: the Invisible Children narrative on Uganda is one that paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering. Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of child and youth advocates who have been fighting to address the very issues at the heart of IC’s work. Want evidence? In addition to the organizations I list above, also look at Art for ChildrenFriends of Orphans, andChildren Chance International. It doesn’t quiet match the victim narrative, does it? I understand that IC is a US-based organization working to change US policy. But, it doesn’t absolve it from the responsibility of telling a more complete story, one that shows the challenges and trials along side the strength, resilience, and transformational work of affected communities.

Revival of the White savior: if you have watched the Invisible Children video and followed the organization’s work in the past, you will note a certain messianic/savior undertone to it all. “I will do anything I can to stop him,” declares the founder in the video. It’s quite individualistic and reeks of the dated colonial views of Africa and Africans as helpless beings who need to be saved and civilized. Where in that video do you see the agency of Ugandans? Where in that Video do you see Jacob open his eyes wide at the mere possibility of his own strength, as Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters describes here? Can we point out the problem with having one child speak on the desires, dreams, and hopes of a whole nation? I don’t even want to mention the paternalistic tone with which Jacob and Uganda (when did it become part of central Africa by the way?) are described, not excluding the condescending use of subtitles for someone who is clearly speaking English.

Finally, a few words of my own. My impression is that the movie is being used as means for Invisible Children to (i) stay relevant and (ii) raise more funding. Capturing Kony and the focus on international justice is a good excuse. Regardless of this opinion, running campaigns to raise awareness is not necessarily damning in itself (and, indeed, in many cases should be commended). Rather, as all the writers above suggest, the manner in which it is done is very important. A few comments on this new video.

The issue with social media is really highlighted by Invisible Children. The number of “likes” on your Facebook page is not necessarily related to the quality of information you share. Social media allows making anything viral, quickly. People often do not look into the substance of the message, or even watch the video you are sending. Once you become a brand, you can do anything. Invisible Children has successfully become a brand, but is sharing information that is far from nuanced and based on emotional reactions. It fails to paint the full picture. In addition to what Unmutedand others have said, I’d like to add the following thoughts:

My main concern is that Gulu – and Uganda - has gone through some incredible changes. The economy is booming. The region is re-stabilizing. While Kony’s men continue to kill, rape and slaughter elsewhere, Gulu is not a static, unchanging place. Neither is Uganda, neither is the continent. Portraying a region like Gulu as such, and sending the mass message that the whole continent reflects this, is damaging. It undermines possibilities of investment. It clouds story of entrepreneurship, success and innovation. This goes hand in hand with saying “I work in Africa.” Lumping the continent as one messy area.

When it comes to the ICC indictment of Kony, the film clip fails to consider the difficulties that such an international indictment can have and what alternative effects an offer like amnesty might have had. There have been major debates about the peace versus justice debate (an interesting and recent reflection on this is available here), which not only have an impact on how we conceive of the Kony indictment, but also of the ICC as an institution. When it comes to supporting American troops in Uganda, it fails to consider the wider systemic problems that are likely contributing to a failure to arrest Kony and which have little to do with whether the US sends a few soldiers abroad or not. Surely Invisible Children’s audience is not so simplistic that being presented with these critical questions would kill their messaging? I think Musa Okwonga, writing in the Independent, highlights the tension between the need to draw attention to these issues, while using sophisticated techniques:

I understand the anger and resentment at Invisible Children’s approach, which with its paternalism has unpleasant echoes of colonialism.  I will admit to being perturbed by its apparent top-down prescriptiveness, when so much diligent work is already being done at Northern Uganda’s grassroots.  On the other hand, I am very happy – relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue.  Murderers and torturers tend to prefer anonymity, and if not that then respectability: that way, they can go about their work largely unhindered.  For too many years, the subject of this trending topic on Twitter was only something that I heard about in my grandparents’ living room, as relatives and family friends gathered for fruitless and frustrated hours of discussion. Watching the video, though, I was concerned at the simplicity of the approach that Invisible Children seemed to have taken.

The thing is that Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time.  He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power.  As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together.  Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video.  I thought that this was a crucial omission. Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora.  It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.

About ten minutes into the video, the narrator asks his young son who “the bad guy” in Uganda is; when his young son hesitates, he informs him that Joseph Kony is the bad guy.  In a sense, he let Kony off lightly: he is a monster.  But what the narrator also failed to do was mention to his son that when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it.  He probably should have told him that, too.

There is another aspect about this particular video and campaign that I, and others, find disturbing. Invisible Children says it will be targeting “culture makers.” Not one of these individuals have significant, vested interests in the African continent (let alone Uganda). Not one person is from Uganda or the wider region. Encouraging a diversity of voices, and providing a platform for new African leaders – whether political, economic, or social – would help highlight that the continent is not just Kony, war and rape and would provide a valuable, wider messaging. The bottom line with poverty porn messaging is that it paints leaders who are struggling in their communities to tackle these problems as hopeless and useless. Keep the American “culture makers,” but why not also provide Ugandan leaders with a platform from which to speak?

In closing, I think the ‘we must start somewhere’ and the ‘better than nothing’ arguments are really tricky. The thing with Invisible Children is that they are not just starting from nowhere and they aren’t just doing nothing. They affect a huge contingent of people around the world. Through extensive fundraising, they have incredible resources. They have a strong foundation and could present a more nuanced and respectful campaign if they wanted to. With that said, I guess I think it is a shame that, after all this time and with their experience, they (i) believe their listeners do not want more answers to the complicated questions and (ii) that they have not considered including and uplifting leaders from the communities which they talk about who could provide a more honest and in-depth picture.

Regardless, I’d like to thank Invisible Children for giving us yet another opportunity to discuss how destructive bad advocacy can be. Here’s an opportunity to challenge ourselves, particularly those who work in development and aid communication, to try and collectively brainstorm how we can generate important stories and campaigns, while sending messages that are empowering, accurate and thought-provoking. It is also an opportunity for each of us to personally dig a bit deeper into the challenge of Kony and the LRA and become more familiar with these issues in a respectful way.

My first suggestion would be to start listening and engaging with the following individuals:

For more see Siena’s personal site.

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