Kony2012: Universal lessons for activists

Many people have already weighed in on the Kony2012 campaign launched by Invisible Children, but there are so many lessons it offers to other activists and cause-related NGOs that it is worth revisiting with a critical eye. After all, although we may not want to admit it (or we may think it is somehow of a higher order because of our good intent), advocacy of any kind is — by its very nature — designed to manipulate to some degree.

First, just to recap (in case you have been hiding under a rock and are not yet aware): Kony2012 is the video produced by the NGO Invisible Children calling for young Americans across the country to use Twitter, Facebook and posters plastered on posts and walls everywhere to call for the U.S. military to help capture Joseph Kony — the ruthless leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a lawless rebel group first formed in northern Uganda that has become notorious for kidnapping children and forcing them to become soldiers in its army — with “initiation rites” that typically include killing members of their own families. The 30-minute video has already gone down in social media lore for attracting 100 million views (and 25,000 Tweets every 10 minutes) in just six days after being posted on YouTube.

However, the campaign almost as quickly attracted criticism, with some of the harshest coming from the people it was supposedly designed to help — the Ugandans themselves. Because we don’t often ask the so-called “beneficiaries” of our good intentions what they think of our aid, the Kony2012 backlash is fortunate in that it forces us to take a long-needed look in the mirror. I know from living in the Gaza Strip for months at a time that there often are many, sometimes conflicting, feelings about foreign helpers that locals are afraid of expressing for fear of offending supporters they want, but who are frequently misguided. Consider this recent Facebook post from one of my best friends in Gaza: When foreigners come to Gaza, they respect us; but we don’t respect ourselves!

Here are some of the lessons I have distilled from my study of the Kony2012 “explosion,” in the hopes that they inspire introspection and debate:

  • There is no black and white, good vs. evil. Every situation is complex and every party to a conflict contributes to the problem. In the ebook, “Beyond #Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness & Activism in the Interne...,” Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, observes: “Without an effort to understand the long-term, root causes of the conflict, we will end up with a superficial analysis and thus a superficial solution.” This is especially true when the simplified narrative is used to not only attract new recruits to the cause but to formulate policy demands. That is a lesson dramatically evident in the Save Darfur campaign, which tore through campus clubs and other activist groups well before the Kony hurricane hit. The Darfur situation was boiled down to a confrontation of good (black Christian pastoralists) vs. bad (Arab nomads), similar to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.The reality, however, is that the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan is not so much a dispute between ethnicities or religions but one caused by a climate-change-driven shortage of natural resources. And both sides of the conflict are afflicted by bad actors. (Actually, even the Rwanda situation was not quite as simple as it was painted. The massacre of Tutsis — and their sympathizers — by Hutus had been preceded by centuries of minority Tutsi rule.  Following the brutal Hutu-led attacks, the victims became the victimizers. Tutsis pursued fleeing Hutus into neighboring countries, requiring the international community to airlift aid to many individuals who had once been killers.)In the Ugandan context, writes Branch, activists “tend to represent the conflict as one pitting the basically benevolent, but short-handed, Ugandan government against the utterly irrational and incomprehensibly evil LRA. The natural solution suggested by this narrative is to provide support to the Ugandan military to eradicate the rebels. While tempting, this solution is deeply wrongheaded and highly dangerous.”  By the mid 1990s, he points out, it had become clear that there were certain forces within the Ugandan government that were allowing, or enabling, the LRA to evade capture due to their own economic and political interests. (In fact, one could argue that if it had not been for the oppression of the Northern Ugandan tribes by the military led by President Yuweri Museveni, who hails from the South, Kony would never have emerged as an enemy to begin with.)

    In addition, according to Dr. Ayesha Nibbe, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University who is writing a book about the effects of humanitarian aid in Uganda, more people have died due to the poor living conditions in the camps to which they were herded by the military than from the violence of the LRA and the conflict overall. “Stopping Kony” addresses just one part of the problem and only one of the players.

  • It is dangerously tempting to exaggerate conditions on the ground as we vie for the attention of a fickle public in a noisy environment. In order to get people to pick up the phone, click on a link, etc. and give, charities and activists typically exaggerate — or at least, accentuate — the worst of the conditions on the ground, while ignoring the many other facets of reality.  In the case of Uganda, it was lucrative for NGOs to focus on Kony, his child soldiers and the “night commuters” (youth who fled the internment camps in the north at night to sneak to the city — reportedly to hide from the kidnappers).  “Since night commuting was such a compelling story, humanitarian, media and advocacy organizations were able to create a whole industry around it for several years,” notes Dr. Nibbe in her dissertation. And yet, Uganda and Ugandans are not defined by Kony or the night commuters. (In fact, Kony today is hiding in other countries and the conditions on the ground are much alleviated.) Meanwhile, however, the public discourse has not caught up. In “How to Write About Africa,” Binyavanga Wainaina instructs: “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.”The same exaggeration often occurs among activists who have chosen Gaza for the focus of their attention. I have travelled to Gaza several times a year since 2009, and have seen it change in both large and small ways since the major Israeli attack the same year of my first journey. In some ways — most notably the scarcity of fuel and the continuing ban on most exports — is the same or even a little worse. But in most others, it has gradually gotten more livable; re-building is underway at a fairly rapid pace, there is no longer a shortage of most consumer items, and it is somewhat easier for many of the Palestinian residents to leave and re-enter through the Egyptian border. And yet, activists for Palestinian rights tend to talk about Gaza as if it exists in a time warp, forever mired in unrelenting misery.

    A view of Gaza City most activists don't imagine, or describe if they go there

    A case in point is an April op-ed by Ralph Nader, in which he refers to the “dire living conditions in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air Gulag.” As theGaza Gateway website points out, “there are real problems in Gaza and they are bad enough as it is. Amplifications and exaggerations draw attention away from these issues and are easily refuted. Once those who say ‘everything is terrible’ are exposed as not credible, trust easily shifts to the other side, to those who say ‘everything is fine.’”

    I myself have engaged in many a heated discussion with fellow activists who insist on describing Gaza as it existed in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Israeli attack, and on calling for more “aid.” But Gazans don’t want, or need, most aid. What they want and lack the most are freedom and economic independence — and that is at least as “dire” as a shortage of food or medicine.

    That is why, when I speak on my experiences, I often title my talk, “The Thousand Faces of Gaza.” As novelist Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria noted in a recent TED talk, the world is made up of many overlapping stories, and Gaza (including its Hamas-led government) is no different.

  • International aid can make the situation worse — or at least institutionalize it. To conduct research for her book, Dr. Nebbe lived in northern Uganda for more than two years in both Gulu town and one of the internal displacement (IDP) camps – starting when the war was in full-swing and ending with the last round of attempted peace talks. “Everywhere I walked, LandCruisers buzzed by me showcasing various organizational emblems from WorldVision, the UN, Save the Children, etc.,” she writes. “These white vehicles driving triumphantly down the streets of Gulu with their huge flags had an air of pageantry, like medieval horsemen galloping into battle.” More insidiously, she concluded that the international community has become a complicit set of actors in the two-decades-long conflict between the LRA and the government of Uganda. Food aid is doled out only to residents of the internment camps, serving as an incentive to keep these unhealthy living arrangements — already in existence for 12 years — in place.In 2003 (when the three young Americans who founded Invisible Children first visited the region), there was reportedly a total of fewer than 20 NGOs working in northern Uganda; by 2006-7 there were more than 200 serving a district with just 300,000 people. International aid is now the biggest employer in the north, and students all over Uganda rush to earn university degrees in NGO management or humanitarian studies. It’s no surprise, then, that Gulu also has become the most expensive town in Uganda.

    Although some journalists and NGOs are clearly aware of the complex political situation behind the simple “stop Kony” story, Dr. Nebbe speculates that most stick to a single narrative because they are afraid of landing on the wrong side of President Museveni and thus losing their privilege of operating in the country.  Likewise, she adds, donor governments and NGOs don’t want to lose Museveni’s Uganda as an “African success story” — a status he earned due to his concerted fight against HIV, his cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns in Somalia and a recent discovery of oil on his turf.

    The primary objective of Invisible Children is to lobby for U.S. military intervention to help capture Kony. However, Patrick Wegner, a PhD student in international law who blogs at Justice in Conflict, notes that all of the military efforts to date have mainly resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths. It’s easy to understand, then, why such a “solution” is highly unpopular with Northern Ugandans, and why the Kony2012 video has reportedly been met with boos by the residents.

    NGOs are both a blessing and a curse in Gaza as well. While they provide essential aid and services, they reinforce and perpetuate an ongoing dependence. In addition, they operate according to Israel’s rules, and thus ironically prop up the very occupation that causes the need for their services to begin with. Read here for a more detailed discussion of the NGO “industry” in Gaza.

  • White savior” activists too often become the stars of their own dramas, when they should be elevating the people whose cause they are championing.  Invisible Children was started by three young Californians who visited Uganda in 2003 and stumbled across some of the “night commuters.”  Jason Russell was one of the three, and more than the Ugandans they are working to help, he is the real star of the original Kony2012 video that went so viral so fast. Russell is introduced to viewers as the protector of the young child soldier who escaped from Kony, a stubborn citizen who refuses to let the government discourage him, a crusader who gets laws passed. The contrast between Russell and his cute, blond son and the dark, evil Kony and his innocent, traumatized victim smacks of a benevolent neocolonialism.

    Jason Russell

    This tendency to make heroes of the brave white activists who “put themselves in harm’s way,” while barely mentioning the indigenous residents who accomplish so much in near obscurity, is a systemic pattern. Although Palestinians are imprisoned, beaten or killed routinely at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces, it was the nine internationals who were killed while trying to sail into the Gaza harbor on the ship Mavi Marmara who generated global outrage. It was also Rachel Corrie — a 23-year-old American who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to stop a home demolition in Gaza — who achieved iconic status, not one of the many Palestinian martyrs.

    As an international traveler to conflict areas myself, I am too aware of the tendency to regard our travel alone as worthy of “hero” status.  And too often, we focus our talks when we return on the horrific conditions and victimized people, while giving short shrift to the progress on the ground by local heroes who sacrifice every day. That is the main reason why I started the Palestinian Gandhi Project with a fellow “traveler” — to give voice to these local champions.

    On the blog “Wanderlust,” an Australian international aid worker describes the same situation in Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake ripped through the capital, Port-au-Prince. In the two days before international teams reached the ground, Haitians freed tens of thousands of friends, neighbours, loved-ones and complete strangers. “Those rescuers’ stories won’t be told,” he wrote. “The fact that news media (arriving after the first 48 hours) cover stories of international teams but not of local Haitians skews our impression of what’s happening on the ground. We reinforce unhelpful stereotypes about the supremacy of foreign (usually Western) assistance over local strengths and coping mechanisms. We sideline the bravery and sacrifice of tens of thousands of earthquake survivors who risked their own lives to save others in huge numbers… The public and donors need to be reminded that it is here, before a disaster strikes, where the real investment in preparedness pays off — not in expensive response teams, but in relatively simple interventions like community first-aid training, basic search-and-rescue skills for villagers, simple training and techniques for surviving a disaster.”

    In 2010, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof addressed this tendency of Western reporters and charities head on. He was responding to a reader comment: “Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.” Here is the essence of his reply:

    “The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.”

    In a later commentary on the same subject, Kristof wrote: “It’s also clear to any journalist that it’s very difficult to engage readers and viewers in distant crises. That’s why television has pretty much stopped covering public health and global poverty. Some years ago, Anderson Cooper went out to eastern Congo to report on the crisis there. It was expensive and risky for CNN — and his ratings for those shows fell. The lesson for any television executive producer is not to cover such crises, but to throw a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and have them yell at each other. It will be less expensive, more entertaining and will get ratings up.

    “I’ve written scores of articles about human trafficking over the years, with and without bridge characters, and the difference is stark. If a column consists entirely of Cambodians or Indians or Pakistanis, no one usually pays attention. In contrast, the trafficking articles that everyone remembers are the ones in 2004 in which I describe buying two teenage girls and returning them to their families. The approach may have offended some people as patronizing, but it sure brought attention to the issue…”

    I applaud Kristof for being so willing to hear and acknowledge such criticism. But we have to work harder, I believe, to help Americans and others relate to their fellow humans in other regions, without needing to “insert” ourselves. On the NGO front as well, too often, NGO “speak” such as local “participation,” “ownership” and “stakeholders” are mere euphemisms for international direction and control.

    As Laura Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, writes in the ebook Beyond Kony12: “Smarter advocacy will support efforts that empower local leadership, rather than empowering communities with solutions designed thousands of miles away. It must recognize that people suffering from atrocities — even in some of the poorest places in the world — are not simply victims. What is needed..is not saviors coming in to fix everything, but supportive global communities that provide funds, expertise and assistance for local initiatives that are already underway.”


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