Kony 2012: history, nuance, and advocacy’s Golden Rule

I resisted. I really tried. But here I am anyway. Writing about this campaign. If you’re on Facebook or other social media, you don’t need me to include the video itself, since it’s popping up everywhere. But this post won’t make much sense without it, so here it is.

Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012″ video

If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen that I posted commentary last night as I watched it. It’s 30 minutes long, but took well over an hour to watch on my internet connection. That allowed me plenty of time to chew it over. Afterward I checked out their website. I resisted the urge to write anything substantial until I’d read other critical commentary, then slept on it, and woke up with a reluctant decision to blog.

Reviewing the tape

On the one hand, this is a very well done film. The videography, editing, music, everything. It looks good. It’s crafted well enough that millions of Americans are spending half an hour to watch something about a conflict on the other side of the world. That’s no small feat.

On the other hand, those millions of Americans are learning almost nothing about that conflict. I’m so impressed with the filmmakers’ ability to capture attention that I wish they would put it to better use. I wish there was some discussion of Uganda’s political situation or even a mere mention of the name Museveni, because what Invisible Children proposes will have both positive and negative ramifications for that country. I also wish they wouldn’t focus so much on Uganda, because Joseph Kony isn’t even there anymore and the LRA is a regional problem. And while we’re at it: I wish they wouldn’t refer to Uganda as being in Central Africa, because it’s actually in East Africa.

How did I spend half an hour watching this, yet learn so little? Partly because the filmmakers have a strained relationship with questions of empowerment and agency. I wish the ratio of empowered-white-people to crying-black-children in the video wasn’t so high, and that the levels of both were lower. There are a lot of amazing Ugandans doing amazing work to better their communities. Those are stories worth telling.

Finally, there’s what Invisible Children actually advocates: grassroots pressure from Americans to ensure that the U.S. military continues to assist with the tracking and capture of Joseph Kony. In some ways, this is an ideal role for U.S. special forces advisers. If our country has the expertise and the resources to help end a long-running conflict, then let’s do it. But what happens if limited support fails — a strong possibility given Kony’s demonstrated skill at living on the run — and Washington’s decision-makers feel public pressure to do more? Do we switch to drone strikes? Commitment of ground forces?

Whipping the American public into believing that we’re morally right to intervene militarily is always fraught with danger. Stripping away the nuance and complexity of the issue makes it worse. And make no mistake: while Kony is undoubtedly an evil man who should be stopped, the history of the LRA and the governance/military situation in the region make this whole thing more complicated than it seems.

Advocacy’s Golden Rule: simplify but don’t distort

I’ve written about advocacy campaigns before. My stance is a bit contrary to that of many other development bloggers, likely due to our different backgrounds: I started my career in advocacy, while many of my blogging friends are academics. While academics cringe at the narratives used by advocacy groups, I’ve made my peace with their need for simplification. If a given problem requires government action, and we think about the politics and strategy required to make the government move, we can’t help but conclude that our messages must be simple. Otherwise our cause gets lost in the noise of Capitol Hill, or Turtle Bay, or wherever.

But that doesn’t give advocates a free pass. While writing about conflict minerals legislation a few years ago, I distinguished simplifications of reality from distortions of it. This is what I wrote:

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.

So simplify, but don’t distort. I’m only stretching the term a bit when I call this the “Golden Rule” of advocacy. When you distort an issue, you encroach on other issues. If you inflate the numbers on the severity of the problem you’re addressing, you steal resources from other programs. If you misrepresent the causal chain or fail to give sufficient history, you hamstring policymakers and future advocates (including a future you) who have to deal with a mis-educated grassroots movement (see “Save Darfur“). Do unto other issues as you would have other advocates do unto yours.

Invisible Children has done a great job of slimming down reality into a simple narrative, packaging it, and selling it. And boy, do they sell it. You can get an action kit complete with bracelets, t-shirts, posters and more. But they’ve gone too far. Too much style, not enough substance. Their “policy manifesto” weighs in at a mere two and a half pages. The story they tell about Joseph Kony and the policy they advocate for stopping him amounts to distortions of reality. They’ve got the resources, the networks, and the skills to truly promote better U.S. policy in the region, yet they’ve focused it too narrowly in order to make something attention grabbing. I wish they had set their sights higher.

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The posts I linked to above, and other resources: