08 March 2012

#Kony2012 Deserves More of your Time Than a 30 Minute Video

Advocacy group Invisible Children (IC) wants to bring an end to the leader of the violent Lord's Resistance Army Joseph Kony. Since the three founders traveled to Uganda in 2003 and documented the children displaced by conflict in the north, IC has transformed into one of the leading international advocacy groups in the United States.

Presently, the nonprofit uses media campaigns and awareness raising to bring the issue of the LRA to the halls of Washington DC with the hope that the US will act to end the violence of Kony and the LRA. It is a daunting task given the overall lack of interest about the issue. With little interest in Uganda and its neighbors, the United States has shown little will to act in humanitarian circumstances. Recent examples of little or no action include the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the 2004 genocide in Darfur.

In the case of the LRA, it is further complicated by a long standing conflict between the Acholi people and the present government of Uganda. The LRA emerged from the Acholi region in the late 1980s in response to the young government headed by Yoweri Museveni.

As Michel Deibert explains, "Upon taking power, the Museveni government launched a brutal search and destroy mission against former government soldiers throughout the north, which swept up many ordinary Acholi in its wake. Some Acholi began mobilizing to defend themselves, first under the banner of the Uganda People's Democratic Army (largely made up of former soldiers) and then the Holy Spirit Movement."

A charismatic Joseph Kony seized on the ideas of Holy Sprit Movement leader Alice Lakwena to lead an Acholi defeat of the government. Kony climbed to lead what would be come the Lord's Resistance Army where he terrorized villages with violent attacks and formed an army that included many child soldiers, a tactic previously employed by very government he was fighting. What started as a form of resistance against a brutal regime turned into a sort of domestic terrorist organization.

Kony was eventually indicted for war crimes in 2005, peace talks fell apart in 2007 and a Ugandan-government lead force utterly failed in 2008. By this point, the LRA was actively hiding and moving around countries in the region including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). By moving from country to country, the LRA succeeded in complicating the response by the government of Uganda and the potential for international action.

To further complicate the issue, the LRA were supported by the government of Sudan to destabilize Uganda. In response, the south Sudanese rebel group the SPLA, who were at the time seeking independence from Sudan, provided support to the government of Uganda. The SPLA were successful in driving out the LRA who now operate largely in the DRC and CAR.

At present, peace does not seem to be an option. The International Crisis group writes in its November 2011 report, "There is no prospect of a negotiated end to the LRA problem, given the collapse of the multi-year Juba process and the lack of any apparent interest on the part of either Museveni or, especially, Kony to go that route again after three more years of fighting. Instead, the AU, under pressure from some member states and the U.S., announced in late 2010 that it would authorise a forceful mission against the LRA and coordinate regional efforts. A year and counting, however, planning has foundered over its inability to reconcile differences with and between key member states and donors."

The lack of interest by Museveni is rooted in the fact that the LRA's activities in Uganda have all but entirely ceased. From the same ICG report:
The reasons for military failure are at root political. Museveni scaled down the operation to pursue other ventures he felt would win him greater political capital at home and abroad. Since the LRA has not been able to operate within Uganda for years and no longer endangers its security, few opposition politicians or community leaders there demand its defeat.
Invisible Children's founders learned about the devastating damage caused by the LRA in northern Uganda and shared it in their documentary. The natural response to seeing such harrowing circumstances is to do something. This moment is capture in the documentary and is played again in the recent video.

Jason "Radical" Russell interviews a young boy Jacob about the death of his brother at the hands of the LRA. Jacob's utter despair swells as shares what he would want to say to his own brother and begins to sob. Earlier,he explains that he has nothing and feels no reason to be alive. It is heart-wrenching to watch a young boy at a point where he would rather be dead that continue living and see the impact such horrible acts have had on his life.

The video fades to black while Jacob continues to cry. Then a soft whisper with white subtitles, "Jacob it's OK," says Russell. He narrates, "Everything in my heart told me to do something. So I made him a promise." The instinct to act took hold of Russell and he told Jacob, "We are also going to do everything we can to stop them."

The film transitions to connect the individual, Russell, to the audience of over 32.6 million people (YouTube views as of 10:49 AM EST) who have now seen the video. He did something to act 8 years ago that brought about the founding of IC and tells viewers that it is now their turn to act. Jacob serves as a bridge from the self to others and then becomes a bit player in encouraging people to take action.

The audience will be joined by 12 policymakers and 20 celebrities who are dedicated to capturing Kony, disarming the LRA, and setting child soldiers free to return home. "If we succeed, we change the course of human history," says Russell.

How will that be done? By buying goods from IC with Kony's name featured, making donations and tweeting using the hash tags #Kony2012 and #StopKony. The campaign aims to go viral and by every account it has been successful. Celebrities are tweeting about Kony and his name became a trending topic in the US on Wednesday.

The video is well produced and visually captivating. Making it personal draws in the audience to learn more. Featuring his son is a nice touch by Russell. An important scene in the video is when Russell's son is told what his dad does for work and sees a picture of Joseph Kony. He is then explained that Kony is the bad guy. Russell wants his audience to say, "Wow! This is so simple that even a little kid can get it. Kony is one bad man."

To achieve this end, IC has to be a bit fast and loose with the facts. They tell people that Kony is the #1 criminal wanted by the International Criminal Court. The truth is that he was the first warrant served by the ICC because the young body knew there would be no resistance to it being served. There is no question that he is a war criminal, but the top listing is less of a rank than it is an ordered listing.

An article in Foreign Affairs last year on the decision by the Obama administration to provide military advisers to Uganda condemned the practice employed by advocacy groups, including IC.
In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony -- a brutal man, to be sure -- as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.
The Kony video aptly illustrates how IC approaches advocacy.

It is about the self. The children who suffer from the injustices of the LRA are the others living out a modern day heart of darkness. It is the 'white man's burden' to ensure that violence against children comes to an end. We must do something.

The problem at hand is extremely simple, they say. The audience are forgiven for not having know about it prior to that moment, but now that they do know it is imperative that, like Russell, they do something. The three men that founded IC did something and now it is your turn is the message.

Such a structure plays on the desire to do something. It continues the trope that Africa is a monolithic region where people go to save others. By making Kony famous the children can be saved. A dynamic of helper and helpee strips dignity from the children and portrays them not as individuals with agency, but a group in need of saving.

Ugandan TMS Ruge writes about this in his response to the Kony 2012 video:
Africa is not short of problems, epidemics and atrocities. But it is also true that it is not short of miracles, ingenuity, and a proclivity to surprise. We as Africans, especially the Diaspora, are waking to the idea that our agency has been hijacked for far too long by well-meaning Western do-gooders with a guilty conscious, sold on the idea that Africa’s ills are their responsibility. This particular affliction is called “white man’s burden” in some circles. Please don’t buy into this. Africa’s problems are our own.
And Uganda Journalist Angelo Izama for the Royal African Society blog 'African Arguments' adds:
The real danger of the game-show type ‘pornography of violence’ that Invisible Children has made so appealing is that it has a dangerous hold on policy types in Washington DC whose access to nuanced information and profiles of issues is similarly limited... The simplicity of the good versus evil narrative where good is inevitably white/western and bad is black or African, is also reminiscent of some of the worst excesses of colonial era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance; they do not bother to seek it. As a colleague once said to me, a campaign such as this could not be mounted around peace in the Middle East because it would require actual scholarship and knowledge of the issues.
A hard message to read when coming from a place of wanting to act.

The desire to act is inherently one of the challenges of advocacy. IC and other younger advocacy groups are praised for their new approach, but the truth is that little has actually changed. This is just a much better packaging of the same message that Bob Geldof and Bono championed at Live Aid: A horrific problem is being ignored and we must stop it.

The power of the message should not be ignored. People face terrible circumstances around the world that deserve attention and action. There is an inclination among us to do something when another person is facing a life threatening situation. It is exposed in Peter Singer's drowning child exercise where he argues that if we would act to save a drowning child right in front of us, why wouldn't we do the same for a child thousands of miles away?

The premise is grounded in the instinct to do something. Successful advocacy campaigns connect to this desire. It is why the Save Darfur movement picked up steam on college campuses in 2004-5. The problem is that the point at which it succeeds, advocacy fails. For Darfur, the changes on the ground were hard to reflect in advocacy communications.

Just at the moment when campus advocates were achieving strong numbers Darfur transitioned from need security to needing relief. However, given that the campaign was built around the former and based its recommendations on that understanding it was hard to all of a sudden change message and risk losing people. There were some wins accomplished through the advocacy efforts, but they were small and ultimately poorly targeted in terms of the changing situation.*

Invisible Children is making some of the same mistakes with the LRA. The focus remains on Uganda where they played a part (it is hard to know how big or small) President Obama sending 100 military advisers to help root out the LRA in October. Dan Solomon summarizes their mission saying their goal is, "to assist and, well, advise the Congolese, Central African (from CAR, rather than the region), Ugandan, and South Sudanese military forces in an escalated counterinsurgency campaign against the LRA throughout the region. Frankly speaking, the military advisers’ presence will likely improve, rather than deteriorate, the implementation of human rights norms in the multinational military campaign."

This could help bring an end to the LRA, but given the failure in 2008 and the lack of coordination among the countries in the region it appears to be an immense challenge. Hence the IC campaign. On the other hand, Invisible Children do deserve some credit. While their advocacy efforts have done more to entrench ideas about the relationship between the United States and Africa, their LRA Crisis Tracker in partnership with Resolve is excellent in terms of pulling together, sharing and visualizing data. A better innovation is the Early Warning Radio network that allows people to prepare for upcoming attacks.

There are also the missing considerations of Ugandans themselves. This short video from CODOC shares the view of some Acholi people who have already forgiven and just want the rebels to return home.

The desires of the people seen, including one of Kony's wives do not fit neatly into the story presented in the video by Invisible Children. As the man who says he has forgiven points out, it is his own personal view on the matter. That is an important consideration when shaping policy for how to realize a future without the LRA.

It is important to distinguish the difference between simplifying the story and creating a distorted narrative. Dave Algoso explains the importance of this balance saying, "Unlike a distortion, a simplification is actually backed by and derived from a more considered analysis. A simplification is tied by a clear (if unstated) chain to a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the problem. Some advocates would claim that it’s okay to use a distorted narrative, as long as it leads to the right policies. This thinking is dangerous because it detaches your policy agenda from reality. You start believing your own distortions and lose any assurance that you really are pursuing the right policies. Even worse, other people start believing your distortions."

The plan right now for IC is to stay the course. Russell narrates, "In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in. But in order for the American advisors to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They've done that, but if the government doesn't believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony's name is everywhere."

The actual goal, to stay the course, is not all that sexy. Hence, the additional goal to capture Kony by the end of the year. This is akin to going all in before the cards have been dealt. From an advocacy perspective, IC has implemented not only an expiration date on Kony, but on themselves. If nothing changes between now and the end of the year, accomplishing the first goal but failing the second, what will follow?

One way that development and aid communications have failed is by making otherwise complex and multifaceted problems appear to have simple solutions. When things do not go as promised people are left jaded by the experience and grow to distrust implementing NGOs. IC may very well be setting themselves up for the same outcome.

While the reach of the video has brought the problem of the LRA to the homes of millions of people. There is something to be said for that accomplishment. Unfortunately, that is where the upside ends for this campaign that relies heavily on stale tropes about helpless Africans in need of foreign saviors. The story of how the LRA came to being is lost in the false feeling of empowerment of the audience that masks the dis-empowering storyline of people like Jacob.


* For more detailed look at this, read Bec Hammilton's Fighting for Darfur. I recommend it often and for good reason.

** Why Dev is collecting posts and articles about the Kony 2012 video. Take some time to read through a few of them. The concerns are held by aid workers, African diaspora and Ugandans. Whether this or any of the others will change your mind, the least you can do is spend as much time as it took to watch the video and learn more about the LRA, Invisible Children, Joseph Kony, and Uganda.

*** If you feel you must do something, here are two suggested alternatives that support former child soldiers in Uganda.

- Concerned Children and Youth Association - http://www.ccyauganda.org/ HT @innovateafrica
- Africa Canada Accountability Coalition http://www.acacdrcongo.org/ HT @intldogooder
- Please offer other suggestions if you have them.