Jumping on the 'Kony 2012' bandwagon

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Activist and Blogger Ben Irwin considers the latest viral internet video - 'Kony 2012' from Invisible Children - and considers the reality in Uganda and our reaction to the problems in Africa.

The problem with Invisible Children's new documentary, Kony 2012, isn't how it depicts Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. They hit that nail on the head.

Kony has made a career of kidnapping children, forcing them to kill their own relatives, and conscripting them into his violent (and pointless) crusade. Kony has long since abandoned whatever shred of humanity was left in him and become a monster.

What they got right

Invisible Children is right to demand Kony's arrest and trial before the International Criminal Court.

The problem with Kony 2012 isn't its relentless optimism, either. Far too many people have resigned themselves to the seeming inevitability of injustice. Invisible Children is defiant in its belief that we can do more than observe history; we can shape it. That's something else they got right.

Social media reactions to Kony 2012

And the problem isn't, as some have charged, that Invisible Children spends most of its money on advocacy rather than direct aid. To be sure, I think they gave the wrong impression in Kony 2012 when they characterized their work in Northern Uganda as follows: "We were committed to stop Kony and rebuild what he had destroyed. And because we couldn't wait for institutions and governments to step in, we did it ourselves with our time, talent, and money. So we rebuilt schools. We created jobs."

That's unfair to the many humanitarian groups who were active in Northern Uganda long before Invisible Children existed. And yes, Invisible Children should have been clearer up front that direct aid is a relatively small part of their work. Still, there's nothing wrong with being an advocacy group. We need organizations that provide critical services to the poor, but we also need groups who speak out against the systemic causes of poverty and injustice.


The problem isn't even that Kony 2012 oversimplifies the story, as its director Jason Russell acknowledged this week. The problem is that it oversimplifies to the point of being misleading. In so doing, it diverts attention from more pressing issues. It might even undermine Invisible Children's stated goal of seeing Kony brought to justice.

Most of all, Kony 2012 inadvertently perpetuates the stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless, hapless victims who need us to come to their rescue.

From watching Kony 2012, you might get the idea that Kony's fighters, the LRA, are as big a threat today as they were eight years ago, when Invisible Children first started shining a light on Kony's crimes. But that just isn't the case. Kony and his forces left Northern Uganda in 2006. Since then, life has been returning to normal for the region. World Vision, which has rehabilitated more than 14,000 of Kony's child soldiers since 1995, reports that the number of kids coming through its Children of War Rehabilitation Center has "dropped dramatically." 

it oversimplifies to the point of being misleadingKony doesn't control any territory. The LRA is a shadow of its former self, something Invisible Children fails to mention in its video. Most experts believe Kony has only a few hundred fighters left. True, that's still enough to cause mayhem. (And they have.) But the main narrative of Kony 2012 is about six years out of date.

In Kony's absence, most of Northern Uganda has focused on rebuilding and reconciliation. So why is Invisible Children stuck in the past? Why aren't they listening to thoughtful African voices who are warning against the danger of elevating Kony to celebrity status?

Ironically, some believe Kony 2012 will backfire, sending Kony into hiding just as he might otherwise have been tempted to lower his guard. One advisor to the U.S. military command working with the Ugandan government to apprehend Kony said the video "couldn't have happened at a more unhelpful moment."

Night commuters in Gulu, 2006 (credit: World Vision)
Night commuters in Gulu, 2006 (credit: World Vision)

I wonder if this is the danger of focusing your organization on a single issue. Your whole reason for existence becomes tied up with the continued relevance of that issue. The infamous "night commutes" that put Invisible Children on the map have long since stopped. There is much to be done in Northern Uganda, but the focus on Kony is misplaced. Invisible Children needs to move on.


"White man's burden?"

Sure, Kony makes a compelling villain. He is unambiguously evil. But there are bigger fish to fry in Uganda, much less other parts of the world. I wonder how much more could be accomplished if people like Jason Russell used their talents (and he has plenty to spare) to mobilize our generation to combat climate change or address some of the deeper structural issues that keep so many people in poverty.

Joseph Kony is an easy target — particularly because he's so heinous. But because of Invisible Children's video, he's drawing attention away from far more deserving causes.

Finally, Kony 2012 inadvertently perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless. While I think some of the criticism of Kony 2012 goes too far in painting it as yet another example of the "white man's burden," the film does appear to be driven by the assumption that Africans need us Westerners to give them a voice.

Which is a problem, because as Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire put it, "If you're showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no place telling my story. You shouldn't be telling my story if you don't believe that I also have the power to change what is going on."

It's not our job to be a voice for the voiceless, because we shouldn't think of anyone as "voiceless" in the first place. There are times when we can use our voice to amplify the voices of others, but we should always tell their story on their terms, not ours.

There's more to justice than caring. There's more to it than even caring about the right things. Kony 2012 makes for a compelling emotional drama, but it falls well short of the hard work, careful thought, and — above all — respect for those we're all trying to help that ought to characterize advocacy initiatives like this.

Ben Irwin is an activist and blogger based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

16th March

March 16th, 2012 - Posted & Written by The Editor

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