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.

________________________

The posts I linked to above, and other resources:

22 thoughts on “Kony 2012: history, nuance, and advocacy’s Golden Rule

  1. This is my favorite piece so far on Kony2012. Why? Because I think that many other bloggers are guilty of distortion as well. From my watching of the video, I got a clear sense that IC’s sole goal is the removal of Kony from power, with the intended consequence of eliminating the LRA’s potential to harm civilians. Nothing more. I think many bloggers are unfairly arguing that a) IC claims to be doing something more than that (though I appreciate the discussion regarding the positives/negatives of IC’s operational methods) and b) that viewers of the video will immediately conflate supporting the Kony2012 campaign with ‘saving all the children in Africa’.

    I like that your piece makes a clear argument that IC is guilty of a distortion which has potentially negative consequences, without falling back on any cliches (white man’s burden) or manipulation of their message. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It seems like a lot of very productive dialogue is forming and I hope IC takes the criticisms into account.

    • Tommy, thanks for reading!

      I have to say that I’m impressed with how quickly IC has engaged with its critics. And even if their response hasn’t been very thorough, they’ve been professional and dignified about it. It bodes well for the state of discourse.

    • Its not unfortunately a piece I agree with much at all really ,

      Its all very clever but rather misses the point of what IC are trying to achieve.

      I worked on anti LRA ops for three years in Sudan ,DRC CAR and Uganda . I have seen what the LRA does to individuals and know its effect on the communities that live in the area in which it operates.
      I too have read the Invisible Children viral video on facebook and have a slightly different take on it .

      If the piece is not academically irreproachable, if it’s not informative about the politics ,history or geography of Uganda past or present and if it’s not a lot of other things that you suggest it should have been either frankly I don’t care a jot.

      They are not trying to educate or to influence a better US policy in the region. I have been to conferences at which dozens of academics , politicians ,journalists , commentators and soldiers have debated that subject for days without any clear conclusion. I don’t think that The State Department and all the US agencies populated and advised by hundred of Africa specialists from the top US universities or with years in the field are all dummies so perhaps improving US policy in Africa is best to left to them ,Congress and The President. Perhaps Laren and his boys know their limitations.

      Invisible children are trying to inspire ,empower and mobilize public opinion in order to achieve a very narrow objective . A continued US Special Forces deployment against the LRA and they are doing a fantastic job .

      If they focus the attention of hundreds of thousands of young people on the fact that there is a monster on the loose in Africa who has kidnapped , enslaved and murdered tens of thousands of people and who by virtue of the insecurity he creates denies hundreds of thousands of others access to humanitarian aid and government services then their campaign has succeeded in my book.

      If many of these kids they influence are in the US where they are able to bring continued pressure on the US political machine to make the US Government continue to provide the military capability to kill or capture Kony then that is a huge contribution to achieving that end and furthermore they are doing it at exactly the right time using exactly the right media. Brilliant!

      Kony has proven to be an exceptionally capable guerrilla fighter that has defied all efforts to destroy him and who has inflicted significant casualties on those who have tried including the US trained Special Forces of a number of nations.

      The US are providing mentors , and inputs from technical assets, analysis and fusion to provide actionable intelligence. They are providing command control and communications capabilities and logistic support so that Ugandan and other countries forces can locate and neutralize LRA groups. Without this assistance Kony could die of old age in the bush.

      Given the overstretch in USSOCOM it is going to take some persuasion to keep US forces in the AO for a long deployment without some pressure in the US and without them the probability of success are not good for a whole heap of political ,logistic and tactical reasons.

      Invisible Children’s efforts were pivotal in getting the LRA Disarmament Act legislation through Congress and signed off by President Obama last year so they know where ,when and how hard to push. If they think this pressure is necessary to keep the troops deployed they are very well informed and are probably right.

      Laren and his buddies against all advice, trail biked and helicoptered in to LRA territory on numerous occasions actually living with the LRA to gather evidence for their campaign. Crazy guys with a lot of balls. They have been on this for nearly ten years relentlessly.

      I salute them ,wish them well and hope irrespective of how educational it isn’t or how lacking in political balance it is ,that their campaign to raise awareness of the LRA and to pressure the US to maintain the current operations against them succeeds.

      • I couldn’t agree more, so maybe I should better stay quiet, but I just can’t help myself.

        I can’t count how often I’ve read today that Kony is not active anymore and there are other more important problems to deal with. From my point of view the main problem is that there are too many people who think that they can do whatever they want and get away with it. If Kony can get away with it, I can get away with it. Removing this perception is much more important than removing a single person, no matter how evil this person is. If this campain can help to remove this perception by capturing Kony, then the effort was well spent. Not capturing Kony is the most important outcome of this effort, but discouraging all the other and future Konies.

        For the past hours I have read comments from countless educated intellectual people criticising the video and the campaign behind it. The more or less well hidden message in most if not all of these critics was “the problem is a lot more complex and I’ve spent x years on helping to solve it and I didn’t get a fraction of the attention and appreciation that this pathetic video got in a single day”. Well, life’s a bitch, isn’t it? Get over it, learn something, and be more efficient in the future.

        I’ve read comments questioning IC’s financials and that only some 30 percent of the funding are spent in Uganda. Do I really care? Or do I care that the money that gets spent is having an effect? I imagine two people in front of me. One says “I’m going to take every single cent and spend it exactly on the cause, I will keep nothing for myself or my expenses, I’ll walk instead of paying the bus, I won’t eat and I’ll sleep in the wilderness. In the end I may be too weak to do anything useful, but I will not have spent your money on something that you didn’t intend to pay for”. The other one says “I’ll spend half of what you give me on some propaganda that will make sure that we find a few million people supporting our campaign. I may spend an undefined amount of funding on personal expenses, but I can guarantee that we will be successful”. Guess who would get my money? I’m not saying that IC’s financials are 100% pure or not. I have no idea, because I didn’t investigate it. Because I just don’t care. The only thing that counts is the return on the investment and whether I believe that they can deliver what they promise. And currently they’re showing a pretty impressive example of what they can deliver.

  2. Great commentary. The one thing that is missing, though, from this and other critiques is a suggestion of where people can put their donations instead. People are seeing this video, then reading the criticisms and essentially saying “Oh, I was going to donate to Invisible Children, but now that I’ve learned they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, I’m not going to.” Okay, fair, but these people’s money could be VERY, very well spent elsewhere. I’d like to see more of IC’s critics offering alternatives for where all these well-intentioned dollars could go, as opposed to right back into the would-be donors’ wallets. Personally, I am contemplating War Child UK, which does similar work but does not seem to be as steeped in controversy. I would welcome comments as I am still researching the organization.

  3. It’s amazing how controversial this video has become… almost with the same passion/fervor about whether we should have gone to war (Iraq). It seems like most of my colleagues who have dedicated years of their passion/lives towards child protection and the rehabilitation of ex-combatants are opposed to the IC video. I agree that there were missed opportunities to be had here. I see the IC video as an amazing social media campaign – almost like a Hollywood drama, which then allows for breaking of the “Golden Rule”. But when talking about intervention and people’s lives, who’s ultimately responsible for the “whipping American public”. For some reason, scientology comes to mind… Great post though, thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all. One happy result of this campaign is how engaged and critical people have been. Even if someone doesn’t agree with me, I’m glad there’s a conversation going on. You’ve already read what I have to say, but a few of the comments deserve specific responses. Sorry that it’s taken me so long to get around to it.

    JR: You’re right that most of the commentary hasn’t offered alternative places to donate. For me, that’s because I don’t want to seem partisan — wrangling donation dollars to my favored cause. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll notice that I rarely recommend donations to particular organizations. It helps me stay a bit more neutral. But since you asked: yes, I’ve heard good things about War Child, though I don’t know their work in detail; another great organization is Hope North, founded and run by Ugandans (usually a good sign); finally, check out Global Giving’s partners in Uganda. And when thinking about donations, this post offers some good food for thought.

    Steve: Your narrow focus on one particular goal is admirable, and I understand that you have personal experience and investment in it, but I find it ultimately short-sighted. Kony’s an evil man, no doubt about it. The world would be better off with him behind bars or six feet underground. But increased US military involvement in the region could be a net negative for everyone involved, even if it leads to the successful capture of Kony. Failing to at least acknowledge that is naive and dangerous.

    Finally, Michael: It doesn’t seem like you actually read my blog post. Most of your comment tries to refute arguments that I never made. I was tempted to just dump it in the spam folder, except that you were at least on topic if not on point. If I’ve misunderstood, please feel free to clarify your viewpoint.

    • My point was that I’ve read these arguments all over the place but explicitly not in your post and I wanted to acknowledge this difference. Most of the posts of people that claim to be involved in the same battle show more envy of the video’s success than care about the common goal. I didn’t know that I have to strictly limit my comment to your words. That’s a tight constraint because often what has not been said tells more than what has been said. However, I said what I had to say. Feel free to trash it.

      • Ah, sorry I misinterpreted! To be honest, I was a little worried that you were just going around, posting the same response on a bunch of blogs without actually bothering to read them, which is usually considered poor form (it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened — not on this issue, but on others). I thought I’d call you on it and see if you were actually paying attention. And you were! So I’ve got some egg on my face from this one. Thanks for reading.

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