Joseph Kony campaign under fire

  • 8 March 2012
  • From the section Africa
  • comments
File picture taken in 2006 of members of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army as their leader Joseph Kony meets with a delegation of Ugandan officials and lawmakers and NGO representatives in DR Congo near the Sudanese border
Kony's forces are accused of atrocities in four African countries

It is always hard to criticise good intentions. And yet...

The extraordinarily sudden success, if that is the right word, of the social media campaign by three American advocacy groups aimed at shining a big spotlight on the notorious Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony has prompted some scathing reactions from plenty of well-informed quarters.

I will link to some of them below, but here is an outline, each introduced with a relevant tweet, of what strike me as the main arguments being made against the film and the campaign.

  • Awareness raising is useless. Foreign advocacy campaigns achieve almost nothing, it's argued. The money would be better spent on competent aid programmes.
  • Don't get people fired up by telling them they can solve something that is not within their power to solve. This is self-explanatory, but here is another tweet that caught my eye on the same point: My basic premise is that the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.
  • Thirty-one percent of the money received goes toward helping anyone. This is a frequent criticism of advocacy groups - that the money they raise simply perpetuates a self-promoting cycle of expensive films, travel etc... rather than putting money into local communities.
  • Don't make yourself the hero. This is both a reference to the self-absorbed role of the film's narrator, and to the broader sense that such campaigns can be deeply paternalistic, even neo-colonial, in their portrayal of Africans as helpless victims who must be saved by brave foreigners.
  • Bad aid is worse than no aid. Helping people is a complex business. Campaigns like this one have, in the past, had a distorting impact, with money channelled to inefficient organisations rather than those best placed to help. At worst, this can even make conflicts harder to end.
  • There are plenty of examples of children and youth from N. Uganda who are agents of their change. Don't let @invisible convince you otherwise. This speaks to the most basic argument against foreign aid - that it undermines local, indigenous organisations and governments. The pressure should be applied to Uganda's president, not US President Barack Obama.

There are plenty of forthright arguments against all these points - and the relative success of a social-media driven campaign like Stop Malaria shows that the established aid industry can often benefit from a good shake-up.

The organisation leading the StopKony campaign issued a response on its website to these points, and it must be stressed that the group has been pushing the White House on this issue for some time.

There are many blogs that elaborate on the wider issues at play, like Michael Deibert's on the Huffington Post that tackles the Ugandan government's errors, and the Unmuted blog that focuses on the disempowerment of Ugandans.

And there are other critiques of Invisible Children itself, like Michael Wilkerson's piece on the Foreign Policy website.

And a UN forum has even chipped in with an opinion piece.

As for my own view, let me not dwell on the merits of the film itself.

It's slickly made and has clearly struck a chord with its intended audience - people who knew nothing about the LRA or, consequently, Uganda.

The more immediate question is: will all the fuss it has generated make a positive difference? The campaigners behind it have written a detailed and well-reasoned letter to President Obama outlining various demands.

If, as a result of the campaign, the US takes further steps to ensure Joseph Kony is brought to justice, then I would consider it a success.

At the same time, there are broader issues at stake here, and I do share the concerns articulated in some of the blogs and tweets above, particularly when it comes to the importance of African governments, leaders, institutions and individuals taking control and responsibility.

The outside world has a role to play, but it is patronising and above all cripplingly counter-productive to believe we have all the answers.

Around the BBC