“KONY 2012” Campaign and America’s World Police: Too Simplistic?

The “KONY 2012” video is a pretty inspiring call to collective action – it’s being posted and reposted across facebook like a wildfire. It’s ostensibly a good cause, and is simple enough to understand and get people motivated behind. I recognize that. Yet I can’t help but ask if we can use this same sort of energy more effectively.

I wonder if this global justice campaign is so popular because it’s so easy – it’s one “bad guy” and all we need is to send in our “advisers” (i.e. special forces) to help Uganda hunt him down. Then bingo, we’re heroes – America the world police is back.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. As Foreign Affairs noted:

During the past decade, U.S.-based activists concerned about the LRA have successfully, if quietly, pressured the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Among the most influential of advocacy groups focusing specifically on the LRA are the Enough project, the Resolve campaign, the Canadian-based group GuluWalk, and the media-oriented group Invisible Children. Older agencies, from Human Rights Watch to World Vision, have also been involved. In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

Until the underlying problem — the region’s poor governance — is adequately dealt with, there will be no sustainable peace. Seriously addressing the suffering of central Africans would require engagement of a much larger order. A huge deployment of peacekeeping troops with a clearly recognized legal mandate would have to be part of it. Those forces would need to be highly trained, have an effective command structure, be closely monitored, and be appropriately equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment and helicopters, among other things. It would require a long-term commitment and would be targeted not only at chasing the LRA. Moreover, it would make the protection of the local populations a key priority. Finally, the deployment of such a force would need to have emerged from concerted efforts in international diplomacy — including with the African Union, the United Nations, the ICC, and governments in the region — not as a knee-jerk reaction to the most recent media splash.

So does the military solution the video calls for make any sense? In fact,  the U.S. already has “advisors” working with the Ugandan military, and their missions (as the Foreign Affairs article describes) have largely failed. Kony has not been even close to being caught, nor does it seem – as the above analysis makes clear – that removing or killing Kony would do all that much in the grand scheme of things. (Curiously, oil was also recently discovered in Uganda – hinting at our government’s interests in the region a bit.)

The oversimplification of the problem by the filmmakers for Invisible Children is understandable – they’re trying to make the issue as simple as possible. But the issue is unlikely to be solved by their proposals, so what’s the point? And what other issues are we ignoring in the process? With our limited attention spans, it’s crucial that we choose our campaigns to mobilize thousands of American do-gooders wisely.

Would we be so willing to latch onto a campaign to stop an abuse that is more complicated and we benefit from, even peripherally? Take, for example, the Niger Delta and Chevron’s unrelenting contamination of the water body that was the source of livelihoods of hundreds of thousands. A fantastic documentary was made about the issue, but the problem still rages on today- with Chevron happily denying wrongdoing and trying to make amends with charity without fixing the problem. We can and should start taking action.

I’m inspired to see people taking action (even if only “clicktavism” for now). That’s the most compelling part of the campaign; the idea of “global citizenship” which runs deeply throughout it – a sense that we’re all in this together. So in that respect, I really applaud their efforts. But I just hope our generation can harness this same level of energy and use it to fight for the global issues that aren’t so clear cut, and may even challenge us to sacrifice more than a few bullets.

UPDATE  (10AM) – My buddy Orion just showed me this excellent tumblr post, which explained the critique of Invisible Children in even more scathing detail. This image, of their founders posing with guns, says a lot.

UPDATE (10PM) – another, even more thorough blog post in Foreign Policy from someone who really knows about Uganda!

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2 thoughts on ““KONY 2012” Campaign and America’s World Police: Too Simplistic?

  1. Dean, your critique gives so much insight to this “Kony” Facebook explosion. I actually did not know about the recent oil discovery in Uganda… very intriguing. Also, this “clicktavism” is such an effective form of awareness, I wonder where social media will lead us in the next 5-10 years? Will only parts of the world be noticed if they are on Facebook?

    • dean.chahim says:

      Thanks Annie! I’m optimistic – I think this is, despite my critique, a good sign. We can mobilize people and opinion quickly around issues. I too am curious where it will lead us!

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