There are problems with the Kony 2012 campaign, but there are also problems with many of the problems people have associated with Kony 2012 and Invisible Children.
Then, there are other problems.
As soon as Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video exploded on the Internet this week, responses sprouted up criticizing Invisible Children as a “problematic organization” without explaining exactly what that means or by highlighting things that weren’t really problems.
Some critized the fact that only 30% of their money is spent on direct relief, misleadingly implying that the other 70% went into the founder’s pockets. Others, astutely realizing that Invisible Children’s mission is – and always has been – to raise awareness about children affected by conflict in Africa still complained that most of its money goes toward film production and travel.
And many have criticized the salaries of the founders of the organization for being too high, when they’re actually fairly modest given the scale of International Children’s operations. It’s fine to disagree with Invisible Children’s tactics and goals (I do!), but I disagree with the idea that they’re running a corrupt organization. These criticisms betray a lack of understanding of non-profit management and the nature of awareness campaigns.
Invisible Children’s goals with Kony 2012 are clear: “to raise support for Kony’s arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” I’m skeptical about the first part of the goal, but I’m very excited about setting precedents for international justice in an abstract sense.
Throughout the criticism of Invisible Children that I’ve encountered, I perceive a strain of “who are these guys and what’s their authority? Foreign Affairs says this. A Yale Professor says that. Etc.” Certainly, Invisible Children has been around for a few years now, but they’ve never made such a massive splash and they’ve never been so audacious. Suddenly, people who have been able to ignore Invisible Children are forced to respond to them. I think this is a great thing.
Living in San Diego and having grown up in and worked in DC for most of my life, I’m uniquely qualified to be annoyed by cheery t-shirted SoCal Christian bros as well as defeatist overcoated DC wonks. I’m glad that neither group has a monopoly on foreign policy decision-making, but I’m particularly glad that such a dramatically non-DC group such as Invisible Children is expanding the discussion.
Of course, a lot of people in DC and other ivory towers (not to mention central Africa) are actually qualified to criticize Invisible Chilrden’s tactics and objectives. This is a great thing! What’s even more great is that because Invisible Children has used the Internet to start this conversation, the responses to them are happening on the Internet. What’s not great is that Invisible Children’s lack of pedigree disqualifies it – in some people’s minds – from highlighting important issues.
Last month, I asked Alec Ross what he thought of Facebook’s self-assertion as a non-state actor in its S1 filing. His response was a slight eye roll, a slight sigh, and a half-joking grumble about Mark Zuckerberg being a meddling kid. Welcome to the future. I love this future.
I’ve been aware of Invisible Children for a while, and I’ve always been bothered by their aesthetic sense. Their hair. Their t-shirts. Their jeans. Taste in music, typography, film production, etc. I’m not alone in this (see item #5).
The problem here is two-fold. It’s a problem for me to get hung up on such superficial things, particularly if they prevent me from hearing what they have to say. However, I also think it’s a problem to use aesthetics to hook people into a movement that they can’t fully comprehend.
Invisible Children uses fashion (t-shirt, wristbands, etc) deliberately to get kids’ attention and raise money – their aesthetic is core to their operations. The peril of this is that it simultaneously brings people in for the wrong reasons and alienates people for the wrong reasons. Ideally, their mission should be compelling on its own, which leads to the next problem…
“Stop at nothing” is one of Kony 2012’s slogans. What a horrible slogan, particularly given the circumstances. If the goal is to arrest Kony, how far should we go? Should we mow down the child soldiers he’d hide behind? Or say we can arrest him peacefully; do we wait until we figure out how we’re going to resocialize his troops?
The belief that Kony’s arrest is a noble goal is a dogma. There’s something comforting about it’s simplicity, but – as a tactic to improve life in central Africa – it doesn’t withstand any scrutiny.
Invisible Children’s founders are clearly determined to affect some change in Africa. That’s great, but hold on. There is no massive top-down solution to end egregious injustices in central Africa. Getting rid of Kony will get rid of Kony, but it’s misleading to present his arrest as any kind of grand solution. I’d like to think Invisible Children’s real goals are a bit more nuanced than that, but nuance obviously isn’t their strong suit.
The criticisms levied at International Children’s effectivness and its moral grounds for agitating in central Africa can be directed at the international development community at large. Ethan Zuckerman exposes these issues better than I can in his piece, Unpacking Kony 2012. See also Max Fisher’s The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.
Some counter-Kony posts have highlighted charities doing work in central Africa as alternatives to Invisible Children (not recognizing the irony that we have Invisible Children to thank for sparking so many people’s interest in the region). Donate to other charities if you want, but understand that international development is complex. For instance, a great way to foster the creation of an army of children is to lower birth mortality rates in regions with no educational system, financial system, rule of law, or health services.
See what I did there? Of course you want to lower infant mortality rates! Of course you want Kony to be brought to justice! No good person wouldn’t, but the consequences of these good intentions can be far reaching and disastrous. Development is hard.
Invisible Children has done something astonishing. Overnight, they got millions of people talking about humanitarian issues in Uganda. They’ve produced a 30 minute video about humanitarian issues that tens of millions of people have watched. As I write this, 27,500,000 collective hours have been spent watching the Kony 2012 video.
In response, a 19 year old student in Canada created a Tumblr account called Visible Children in which he makes some of the arguments I take issue with above, but also constantly encourages people to do more research about issues before jumping on board with a cause.
I find it absolutely wonderful that I live in a world where this can happen. I’m extremely averse to military intervention, but I like that we’re having a global conversation about how the United States directs its attention that feels like it might actually go somewhere. The SOPA protests proved that “slacktivism” can impact policy decisions in the U.S.. I’d like to see it steer our foreign policy priorities as well, even though I don’t think we should steer things so specifically toward Kony.
If you’re not sure if this is all a good thing, spend four and a half hours watching Frontline’s excellent Bush’s War. It wasn’t long ago that a very small group of (mostly) men were able to commandeer so many of our resources into the Iraq War. I like to hope that we’re figuring out how to use the Internet to make those decisions in the future.
Again, 27,500,000 collective hours have been spent watching the Kony 2012 video. It’s a really well made video. I reblogged it. I shared it on Facebook. I got really excited by the prospect of ending a war. I didn’t think about it.
The reason the State Department, USAID, World Bank, UN, etc would never be able to make a video like Kony 2012 is that they’d never be willing to remove all the nuance and complexity that should go with it. It’d end up being boring. It’d end up being depressing. You’d feel powerless after watching it. Meanwhile, Kony 2012 makes you feel like you can do something, like wear a wristband. It’s narcotizing. I wonder along with Ethan Zuckerberg:
I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?
What’s terrible about Kony 2012 is that it exploits the emotion of the crowd. Fortunately, many are now finding the wisdom of the crowd through discussion about what to do (or not do) in central Africa, but plenty of others just want Kony’s head. This is bad. It’s actually pretty heinous. It feels more like a call to start a new war rather than a call to end one.
27.5 million hours. That’s somewhere around 50 lifetimes.
I spent the first part of my post-undergrad life working in international development. I became uncomfortable with it pretty quickly, but my disenchantment culminated during my internship with the Center for Digital Inclusion in Rio de Janeiro in 2005.
To be clear, my disenchantment is largely with myself. I found myself in Brazil, ostensibly helping people, but really being ineffective. Ineffective because I’m not Brazilian. My Portuguese is pretty good, but it’s not great. My understanding of the culture is nascent. I had plenty of skills to offer, but for me to deliver them was grossly inefficient. I spent a lot of my summer blogging. If I really wanted to help people, I would have done it at home in San Diego or Tijuana. I wrote about this while I was down there.
Now I’ve been back in San Diego for seven more years. Have I immersed myself in public service? Nope. Well, I’ve done some things, but still.
27.5 million hours thinking about problems far far away, that you can help stop with a credit card, that are easy to understand, that you can help without making yourself vulnerable. 1.6 billion minutes. 99 billion seconds. Tick. Tick. Tick.