#Kony2012 and the white man’s burden

The Kony2012 video produced by Invisible Children has gone viral and although it is 30 minutes long has been viewed by 75 million people (and rising) since its launch at the start of this week. Apparently most of them under 25 years old. It has also provoked an avalanche of criticism from “experts,” but also more importantly from people in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.

Ethan Zuckerman wrote Unpacking Kony2012 one of the best commentaries to the #Kony2012 phenomenon. A freedom of expression advocate and supporter of bloggers worldwide he starts his article by saying: “the Kony 2012 campaign is a story about simplification and framing. Whether you ultimately support Invisible Children’s campaign – and I do not – it’s important to think through why it has been so successful in attracting attention online and the limits to the methods used by Invisible Children.“ Marc DuBois has also blogged perceptively and amusingly on how “the aid industry has just been Biebered.”

If you want a great summary of the key problems with Invisible Children read Ethan’s article but I want to focus on his conclusions about what it tells us about western activist campaigning, the use of media and the perils (and advantages) of simplification. The worst part of the Invisible Children approach is not the over-simplified or misleading depiction of the situation, but the way it portrays armed Western intervention as the magic wand solution without almost any reference to the needs and voices of the Africans who live in the region.

I agree that the international community should make more serious efforts to work with local communities to arrest Joseph Kony and bring him to justice before the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is not so clear that US special forces are the superhero solution. The reality is that the projection of highly trained and technologically sophisticated Western military force has had very limited positive impact around the world and has created numerous civilian casualties and often a popular backlash.

In the complex, impoverished and fragile context of North Eastern Congo and Eastern Central African Republic, where Kony is reputed to be hiding in the jungle with around 200 fighters who pillage remote villages to survive, the presence of 100 US special forces in neighbouring Northern Uganda has not yet delivered a solution. It is not clear that they can. And there is the added concern that they are working with corrupt, incompetent and brutal local military units who are themselves responsible for widespread human rights violations. We need more of a community policing approach that works with locals than a war on war criminals.

Long term positive change in Congo, CAR, Uganda and other countries in the region will depend on the empowerment of local communities. There are echoes of Bob Geldof in the way Invisible Children seem to be so absolutely certain that they know how to solve the problem without going to the bother of giving real voice and agency to local people. The largest UN armed intervention in history failed in Congo because of a strategy that focused on integrating warlords instead of protecting and empowering local communities.

If there is one simplistic message that it would be good to spread widely in the West it is that those who can make the most effective and sustainable difference in all the troubled parts of this world are local people. Community leaders, activists, women, journalists, lawyers, students anyone who is willing and able to organise to make a difference. Such people don’t need Western guidance they need support and the security and protection to engage in their work on behalf of others. The reality is that in Uganda, Congo and CAR those that speak out for the rights of others are likely to be repressed. The same is true from Afghanistan to Colombia, from West Papua to Western Sahara.

Marc DuBois points to the discomfort and defensiveness of the Western aid industry when confronted by an idealistic Western youth movement that might subvert their funding and ignores their expertise. However, the real weakness of Western intervention in the global South is that after 50 plus years the fundamental model, with some laudable exceptions, has not moved far beyond the patronising and ineffective, what DuBois describes as “white-man-to-the-rescueism.” And Teju Cole has written a stimulating article on the White Saviour Industrial Complex.

It would be great if the Invisible Children constituency could get behind the idea of US ratification of the ICC. A simplistic focus on the hypocrisy of the US sending soldiers to Africa to (supposedly) hunt war criminals whilst undermining the ICC would be welcome. And it would be great if there could be stronger multilateral efforts to bring Kony, Sudanese President Bashir, and the others on the indicted list, to justice in The Hague. Done in the right way the projection of forceful international policing would not necessarily be a bad thing.

But real change will come from those working within their own communities. The best we can do from the outside is support those working non-violently for the rights of others. And try to ensure that we do not have a negative impact through military adventurism or economic exploitation. If you want to do something practical support the Human Rights Defenders Fund where all funds will go directly to support the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk because of their work in the global South.

And if you have not seen Ethan Zuckerman’s lecture: Cute Cats and the Arab Spring, you should…

You can read Invisible Children’s response to some of the criticism here.