Kony 2012: Overrated

I’ll begin this with a disclosure: I spent four years being heavily involved with Invisible Children (IC), the organisation behind the viral Kony 2012 campaign. I was a founder and officer of a student club which raised over £20,000 for Invisible Children, I went to ‘Displace Me’, attended ‘The Rescue’ and even attended their first internal […]

I’ll begin this with a disclosure: I spent four years being heavily involved with Invisible Children (IC), the organisation behind the viral Kony 2012 campaign. I was a founder and officer of a student club which raised over £20,000 for Invisible Children, I went to ‘Displace Me’, attended ‘The Rescue’ and even attended their first internal conference “Africa: It’s not a country” in 2008.

I have so far seen two broad responses to the Kony video:

1) This is great! Stop Kony!

2) I am a wise internet philosopher, you naive children will accomplish nothing with your internet advocacy.

…and I identify with the second response.

Invisible Children is a shiny young NGO which from the start has put out slickly edited, emotionally moving, indie-music laden films which have inspired high school and university students to engage with and support the organisation. Superficially at least, the ‘program’ side of the organisation seems equally inspired, with the money raised going to micro-economic and educational initiatives in Northern Uganda.

This all sounds very nice, but the basic fact is that IC, in both its advocacy and program, focuses on the symptoms rather than the disease.

IC’s programs on the ground in Northern Uganda have measurably improved the lives of several thousands of Ugandans, but they have done this only by spending millions of dollars. How you say… lacking in efficiency, you twenty-something philanthropic dilettantes. Invisible Children represents the poisonous subspecies of aid organisation which is predicated on the belief that good intentions are an adequate substitute for previous experience in aid work, a holistic understanding of the problems being tackled, or any of the other multifarious strengths which large/established aid groups are able to draw upon. Invisible Children’s exciting mixture of media savvy, good intentions, and no experience has only succeeded in throwing a lot of money at a nasty problem. Awesome, great job!

Likewise, while IC’s innovative use of social media is something other philanthropic groups can learn from, the blunt truth is that their documentaries simplify the issues to such a degree as to make their ‘awareness-raising’ almost a disservice to those being ‘informed’.

Have you watched the KONY video? Now you know all about this tragedy, right? How Kony is the bad guy and if we raise enough awareness the good guys will get him, and then everything will be all right in Africa, and Bono will shed a single golden tear.

Needless to say, it is a bit more complicated than that.

In 1987 Kony’s group, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) were formed by some grumpy members of the Acholi tribal group, who were angry because a confederation of southern tribes (Luo and Kikuyu) had just pushed the Acholi and Lango dominated government from power. Yoweri Museveni’s new southern government proceeded to kill the shit out of people in Acholiland, just like the Acholi troops had done under the previous government in the Luwero Triangle. The Acholi were pissed about getting their own dose of brutal officially-sanctioned violence, and the LRA began fighting for their right to control the government and get another turn at being huge dicks to their fellow Ugandans. This went on from 1987 to the late ’90s, until Kony went crazy and decided to stop fighting the government and just commit atrocities against his Acholi brethren instead.

Nowadays Kony’s LRA is but one of many groups carrying out low-level warfare in the Northeastern Congo (see Mai Mai Sheka, FDLR, etc.), the employment of child soldiers and brutal wanton violence are characteristics shared by all the rest of the groups (as well as the official armed forces of the Congo). But whereas most of these groups are dicks to everyone except the small minority, they purport to be fighting for, the LRA are just dicks to everyone. Apart from this, the LRA is the same as every other ‘tribalism as politics’ style organisations which are sadly common in central Africa, and currently are the ruling governments in Sudan, Uganda, and the D.R.C.

The LRA is not particularly unique, and, even more crucially, is a symptom of a disease, not the disease itself. Joseph Kony is merely the product of a very complex mess of deep-rooted social and economic issues. He is a particularly nasty symptom who chops off people hands, kidnaps children, and brutally murders lots of people. But even if Kony is removed, the underlying social and economic ills will simply manifest as something else, like the Rwandan Genocide, the war in South Sudan, ethnic cleansing in Darfur, or the Congo war (which killed six million people). Hail Malthus.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that we leave the people of the Congo to be brutalised by Joseph Kony and his ilk. The point is that the straightforward problem and solution presented by IC bears no relation to the very complicated problem and potential solutions on the ground in Central Africa.

Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign is not a sophisticated program aimed at the root cause of the injustices in the Great Lakes region of Africa (although these exist), it is just another ill-conceived, shiny, and simplistic form of philanthropy that make people feel like they are making a difference while in fact accomplishing no lasting positive change.

If you have seen the Kony video I am glad that you are now at least aware of a tragedy which you had formerly never heard of, but I hope that people take this as a wake up call to learn about and confront the injustices in our world substantively, rather than settling for the superficial good/evil narrative IC presents and the well-intentioned ineffectiveness their programs exemplify.

Hrw.org is a good starting point.

  • Greg Davies

    Heeley Road? Wtf