Social media empowering change or arm chair slactivism? This has been the conversation on blogs, in newspapers and in the streets this week after the Kony 12 video officially became the fastest spreading viral video of all time, going from 35 million to 70 million views on YouTube in one day this week. Directed by Jason Russell, the video promotes the group Invisible Children and has a simple aim: to make Ugandan warlord and human rights violator Joseph Kony a household name and ensure that US politicians will feel pressured to keep in place the military support for the Ugandan army trying to capture him.
After hearing a couple of friends moaning about how the video is inaccurate, over simplistic and just a way for lazy people to feel better about themselves in the pub this week, while a charity activist friend defended it as a worth-while cause, even if its methods were dubious, I felt compelled to check out the video myself.
Before viewing it, I took the viewpoint that any effort to raise awareness of a problem is a positive step and that we shouldn’t criticise a good cause. In one of my favourite books, John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, the main character Justin Quayle finds himself echoing his dead wife’s words as he tries to smuggle a young child out of a war zone in Nairobi. The pilot tells him that it is against regulation and points out that there are countless other children still in danger and he replies, ‘yes but this is one we can help.’
However, on viewing the video, I’m afraid I have to join the army of cynics. Despite its high production values and tear jerker moments, the video has left me with a bad taste in the mouth. All I could see were white Americans incredibly simplifying a problem. While the clear goal and simple narrative arc may have helped the video go viral and has undoubtedly done a good thing in raising awareness about Kony, it is incredibly naive and slightly insulting to think that hoards of western teens with little knowledge of the background of the situation will be able to make any difference to the lives of people living in Uganda and its surrounding countries.
All I saw while watching the clip was – black people looking sad – cuts to white American teens putting up posters and giving peace signs – leads to world peace. It really reminded me of Team America. After Afghanistan and Iraq, can people really believe that Western military intervention alone is the answer? It is not surprising to find that Russell is a Christian Evangelist and that the Invisible Children movement started largely in Christian American schools. The whole ideology behind the movement is massively hypocritical and to put it bluntly, a bit stupid. Invisible Children offer their unconditional support to the Ugandan government and army without mentioning the human rights abuses and use of rape as a weapon of war that this regime has indulged in. Nor does the video make any mention of other wars and human rights abuses going on all across Africa. It makes it very convenient to think that Kony is the only warlord committing atrocities in Africa. If the Ugandan military does capture him? What’s the plan for stopping the others?
Furthermore The Visible Children Tumblr, set up by Grant Oyston, points out that Invisible Children only spends about 30% of its funds on the ground in Africa, the rest is spent on its staff wages, movie making and Washington lobbyists. A very cynical person (me) could say that the money ($9 million in 2011) is being spent on making Americans feel good about themselves, rather than helping anyone in Africa. In a recent post Grant states that he’s not telling anyone what to do with their money, but suggests that if you really want to make a difference in Africa, it may be best to support a reputable NGO like Oxfam, Women for Women or WaterAid who have a more long term realistic plan for making a difference.
Russell himself has stated 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.” So basically Invisible Children isn’t actually devoted to building the schools that are shown in the video, it’s all about raising ‘awareness’.
Etan Zuckerman’s essay Unpacking Kony offers a comprehensive critique of the campaign. “I think they genuinely believe that the key to arresting Kony is raising awareness and pressuring the US government,” Zuckerman writes. “I think, however, that they are probably wrong.” He points out that in the last few years Kony not been in Uganda, but has been hiding in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Central African Republic and in southwestern Southern Sudan: all areas covered in dense jungle, with governments and regimes that have shown themselves to either be corrupt or unstable. This makes it very unlikely that the US military will be able to ‘help’ the Ugandan or any other African army find Kony. They have, after all, been unsuccessfully looking for him since the 80s. The video also conveniently forgets to draw the dots between the fact that Kony’s army is made up of child soldiers, yet finding and arresting him will require strong military action. Also Kony is unlikely to go without a fight, which will mean spilling the blood of the children they are trying to save.
Aren’t we just reverting to colonial ideology if we think we can march in and dictate to African nations, telling them how to run themselves? The video makes no mention of empowering Africans or calling on other African nations to help Uganda. In my humble opinion, I think that development in Africa wont come from American Military involvement but from African people empowering themselves. If there is anything we can do, it is to diplomatically support strong African governments and provide charity services to areas that want and need it.
Today, Kony’s LRA is estimated to only consist of a couple of hundred soldiers, although the video suggests that it is bigger than it is (the 30,000 abducted child soldiers refers to the number recruited since the 80s). Although having a simple message is great for grabbing people’s attention, the crushing reality is that whatever problems these African countries have will not go away if or when Kony is captured. What about the estimated 48 women who are raped every hour in the DRC, many being left permanently disfigured and unable to have children as a result, or the fact that 5000 children die every day from drinking dirty water? While I’m not criticising anyone who has shared the Kony 12 video or who truly wants to see Kony arrested, I just hope that their compassion reaches to donating money to the charities that are saving African lives as well. It is true that although we can’t save every child, we can save some, but I think that providing clean water and funding rape survivor centres through charity work is the only real way to do this.
Here is a link to a list of blogs and essays critisising Kony 12> http://visiblechildren.tumblr.com/post/18954353409/not-alone