Consider Kony 2012: White guilt goes viral

Last week, hacked pictures of scantily clad Christina Hendricks and Olivia Munn went viral, yet my facebook feed was bombarded with Joseph Kony. Joan Holloway’s weapons of mass distraction were finally unleashed, and everyone is focused on a central African warlord. I was confused.

I must confess, while I was very loosely familiar with the LRA and their bizarre history, Joseph Kony didn’t ring a bell. I was also surprised by how this video exploded. A friend of mine put together a great timeline of the facebook reaction. This is to be expected; there’s the knee-jerk, naive response, then the cranky, Holden Caulfied-esque counter, but eventually things die down, and cooler heads prevail once the dust settles. But the view count on youtube continues to grow, and, as of writing this, Invisible Children have sold 500,000 action kits – at $30 bucks each, that’s no chump change.

There are a myriad problems in Africa, and there are also countless organizations – some more reputable than others – trying to help out. So what makes this so special? Let’s have a look and try to approach this thing critically.

There’s a lot to like about Invisible Children’s campaign. Particularly, it gives the audience a very tangible way to participate. Many charities lack this kind of media savvy, and are unable to empower their audience like Invisible Children have. It’s not enough to just ask for money; people want to feel like they’re contributing to the leg work. Invisible Children’s action kit achieves this, and the number of units they’ve moved proves it.

Secondly, I like the move to make international issues part of the mainstream discourse. The Arab Spring and SOPA’s failure to pass have legitimized social media as a political tool for otherwise voiceless participants. I’ve always thought the political landscape could take a quantum leap if people engaged in politics the way they do with sports or celebrities – imagine if Canadians talked about Stephen Harper as much as Sidney Crosby. It’s cynical to suggest that the average person is incapable of participating in the political discourse. It’s more reasonable to suggest that the traditional regimes of power have constructed walls to exclude the hoi polloi from the dialogue. But I digress.

A lot of the debate around Invisible Children has been about the value of awareness. Supporters of Kony 2012 have been dismissed as armchair activists, or slacktivists, but as I said the action kit bypasses this – though we’ll wait and see how successful the “Cover the Night” campaign proves to be. Moreover, it’s hard to quantify an awareness campaign’s worth. I think it’s fair to say that Invisible Children were on the mark to observe Kony is a dangerous entity who has flown under the media’s radar.

Much as been said over Invisible Children’s usage of finances. From the horse’s mouth:

Thirty-seven percent of our budget goes directly to central African-related programs, about 20 percent goes to salaries and overhead, and the remaining 43 percent goes to our awareness programs. […] But aside from that, the truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be. I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization.” (source)

There you have it. The majority of their funds is committed to awareness, which probably means more slick videos like the one we’ve seen. I’m not convinced this is a problem, though. IC have been forthcoming about their emphasis on awareness vs. aid. Aid is not their goal, and as long as they’re clear about that, no big deal. There are various other aid organizations that are ready to accept your donations if that’s your thing.

Now for the bad stuff.

My biggest problem with IC is their support for direct military intervention. For the life of me, I can’t understand why someone would suggest this as a solution despite the last 60 years of history. It didn’t work in Vietnam, it’s been a disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and the jury’s still out on Libya. Moreover, as we’ve seen with Bin Laden and Gaddafi, these war criminals are rarely brought to justice, and when they are, as with Hussein, the subsequent trial is a fiasco. I find it difficult to believe the efforts in Uganda would prove much better.

Furthermore, suppose we do go into central Africa (because Kony hasn’t been active in Uganda since 2006), and catch him. What are the costs? History suggests that we’ll burn one half of the territory to save the other half. Add to this the fact that Kony uses child soldiers, which means American/western soldiers will be forced into a situation where they’ll be killing children. This is just a recipe for disaster, and will likely yield similar results as Somalia in the 90s when Clinton sent in troops only to pull them out when things went south.

To quote Archibald Percival, Lord Wavell:

The advantages are nearly all on the side of the guerrilla in that he is bound by no rules, tied to no transport, hampered by no drill-books, while the soldier is bound by many things, not the least by the expectation of a full meal every so many hours. The soldier usually wins in the long run, but very expensively.

Kony is a guerrilla warlord and has home turf advantage. Our formal military is a blunt instrument, and is ill-equipped to handle the challenges guerrillas and terrorists present. War is often a battle of attrition, which gives the mass military complex of the west the advantage, but it’s a steep cost, and it’s usually the innocent bystanders who pay the steepest price.

(Invisible Children’s crew posing with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army)

On top of the immediate damage a military intervention would cause, I would argue we are actually perpetuating the problem. Do third world countries need more examples of western hegemony? Aren’t we disempowering Africans by clumsily stepping in and trying to solve their problems by running roughshod through their landscape, leaving Uganda smoldering in our wake?

The picture above shows some of IC’s brass having a photo-op with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. IC also funds Uganda government’s military. Both of these militaries have been accused of rape and looting. The Uganda government has also been responsible for horrendous homophobic laws. IC are legitimizing these abhorrent entities, arguing they are best equipped to handle Kony. But in this case it’s hard to believe the end would justify the means.

Joseph Kony is a symptom of a disease, not the cause itself. Bringing him to justice is the right thing to do, but we must be more pragmatic. Our current model of military intervention would do more harm than good. Turning Uganda into Afghanistan would only further entrench the problems that allow people like Kony to thrive in the first place.

If you want to support IC despite everything I’ve said then that’s great. My goal here was to contribute to the dialogue over Kony 2012. All things considered, I think IC have done a great thing by both introducing Kony into the mainstream discourse and enabling young, internet-saavy social media users to participate in international issues. But this is an extraordinarily complex problem, and reducing it to and in-and-out military intervention is egregious.

My opinion is that more dollars should be committed to aid. Third world countries are breeding grounds for sociopaths such as Kony, so if we can take long-term measures towards empowering Africans then warlords like Kony will lose their niches. Of course this is a tough pill to swallow as it means patience, and Kony ought to have been eliminated ages ago, but we must distrust short-term solutions that threaten to perpetuate the problem.



p.s. For more critical articles on Kony 2012, please check out


~ by braddunne on March 12, 2012.

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