On the Kony Campaign

I've finally got round watching the Kony 2012 campaign video. If you've been living under a rock, here it is:


To be honest, I didn't immediately know what to think of it when I first saw it. The knee jerk reaction is to immediately get swept up in it all, share the video, and get one of those cool little action kits stat reenacting the video..

As a piece of film making it's brilliantly effective. There's a really clear message, simple enough to explain to a child (in fact, the film maker explaining the story to his five year old son is used as a proxy for the audience through the film), and three clear steps outlined at the end, that you can take to be able to count yourself as a member of the crowd of well lit, photogenic young faces in the video, who Clearly Care More Than You Right Now.

Even now, I'm still not quite sure to make of it.

But they say writing is thinking, so with some luck, writing this post will help me get an idea of what I can do with these feelings of wanting to help, but wanting to do so in some more meaningful way.

I've spent the last few hours, glued to my mac, reading around the subject now, and these are the points I'm thinking about the most:

It's simplistic and not very demanding

Considering the horrifying subject matter, it's very easy to watch. John Vidal puts it quite nicely:

"I think it's very successful because it doesn't ask very much of people. It doesn't ask people to understand much more than 'There is good, and there is bad.'"

I think there's something interesting there. Ethan Zuckerman, who has been been blogging about Africa for more than 10 years, wrote a brilliant post about the subject, Unpacking Kony, which I'll be quoting from liberally from in this post, but what I found interesting was this snippet in the responses from the commenters below, after he's successfully explained that the issues about Kony 2012 are so much more complex than just getting rid of a single crazed warlord:

what CAN we do? Much of the appeal of Kony2012 is that it gives us white, American liberals a method to engage and do SOMETHING with our bleeding hearts.

I have no doubt of the complexity of the problem, and I appreciate the detailed blog post you’ve written. But you’ve made the same omission as many others who’ve written truthful narratives about Africa: you’ve left us with the impression that there is no solution, because all the players are bad and untrustworthy, so we shrug our shoulders, blame the Africans, and turn away.

Give us hope; point us toward a solution; give us something specific and achievable to do!

This is what Invisible Children has appreciated about human psychology and has done so effectively.

On another piece about it in the Guardian, there's another telling email about the interest in the campaign, but not for diving into the details:

a reader has just emailed me saying: "I am a mum in Devon with three kids, just about to run six miles for Sports Relief, please get behind this. Hollywood slick, who cares, support the kids – raise awareness and then start the criticism. It is a simple message which my 15-year-old son sent to me – Hollywood or not, it works!"

I think they supports his suspicion earlier in the post about how much of an attention span we actually have for emotionally charged campaigns like this one:

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

I'll come back to this, once I've given an idea of how complex the situation in Uganda is, from a couple of hours of reading around the subject. This will be incomplete, but should show there's to this thing than getting rid of Joseph Kony:

Things have moved on since the scenes in the video

In the video, the night commute was introduced, where children in villages walk to larger towns and cities to sleep enmasse, to avoid being abducted into the LRA's ranks. This was happening in 2006, when we see the video of Jacob talking about what happens, but now, in 2012, children are sleeping back home, and the LRA is both much smaller, and moved across the borders into neighbouring countries instead. The focus in Uganda is now on rebuilding, and reconciliation after the fighting.

The LRA is still a despicable, dangerous organisation, but they're not as large a menace to Northern Uganda as they were a few years ago.

A discovery of oil in Uganda means there'll be more and more troops in that area

One development in the last year that would affect things is the discover of world class oil deposits in the area. More quotes from previous Guardian article:

Izama says there's a crucial natural resource angle that's being overlooked, pointing out that Uganda recently discovered "significant deposits of oil" near its border with the DRC. "This is the one game changer in the history of conflict in that region" Izama said. He said joint military operations are increasingly concentrated in the oil-rich area.

Where there's oil, there'll be more security troops (which brings issues of its own), which changes the story once again:

"For Uganda to exploit oil on that border region, it has to run a very large security operation. Part of that includes securing the border against rebels groups including the LRA, the Allied Democratic Forces, Congolese militias and several other Sudanese and Congolese groups that are all operating in that area," he said. "LRA is actually a minority." "Governments that are motivated by exploiting solely this resource can be pretty excessive in their choice of policies. I think that Invisible Children really lost that wonderful opportunity," Izama added. "The big story in Uganda is about the oil."

The practicality of arresting Kony

There's a huge swath of jungle that the LRA could be hiding in, and they've been hiding out in the jungle for decades now - it won't be easy to find them. Also the Ugandan army has been trying to find Kony since 1987 without much success. America's advisers might help, but the army still remains poorly equipped, underfed, incompetent and deeply corrupt.

There's also the inescapable fact that the LRA's soldiers are children, and engaging militarily means going to war with children:

It'll be children who are Kony's bodyguards. If they do get Kony there will be a wall of children to get through. How will they deal with that?

Uganda has plenty of problems even without Kony

Uganda has had a long sad history of terrible goverment. The current president, Yoweri Museveni has been in power for more than 24 years, and before him, Uganda has been known for leaders like Idi Amin, and strongman army generals like Tito Okello. Power has usually been taken by force rather than elections, and while Yoweri Museveni is so far the least bad, during his reign he has invaded and occupied the DRC in the Second Congo War, and most recently cracked down on opposition for walking to work in protest over the economy.

Even with Kony gone, Uganda is still a country riddled with corruption, recovering from wars, and with disproportionate spending by the president spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fighter jets and electrion campaigns, rather than protecting people in the north of Uganda.

More complex than "get rid of the bad man"

Now we have an idea of just how messy things are in Uganda, you can see why people could take issue with the simplistic "Get rid of the bad man" narrative, even before people talk about the how Invisible Children, the NGO behind the campaign, spends its funds.

Here's another video response to the original film from Ugandan Journalist [Rosebell Kagumire], expanding on these issues, to hopefully save me from some more typing:


I can understand the accusations about the 'white Americans saving the feckless Africans' tone as well, but I wonder if they are failing to take into account the context in which this campaign is spreading, and why this is important.

Allowing for different levels of engagement

There are realities of presenting video online that you can't avoid - certain kinds of video work better on youtube than others, especially if you want it to be shared as part of a campaign, and I think making these videos need to be judged in this context. Rather than being in a dark cinema, you're never more than a second away from another browser tab, showing something else from the internet.

Also, there just aren't that many people with the time or spare attention to dive into some of these issues, and I think that setting the bar so high that only academics or Africa bloggers who have a full picture of the situation can comment on it, just guarantees obscurity for these issues, and shuts out a whole swathe of interested people who want to do the right thing, but just don't have the spare cycles, to make the required investment in background knowledge yet.

Ethan's response to the bleeding heart liberal blog commenter is a great example of this:

Here’s what I do as a white American liberal focused on sub-Saharan Africa:

  • I write about a range of stories about issues on the continent. Some look at tragic situations like northern Uganda (which I’ve been writing about since 2006). Some look at stories of innovation and creativity on the continent. I try to feature a variety of views of a complicated continent, because looking at Africa in terms of crisis and failure ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • I support local, African-led organizations that work on problems in their community, through financial support, writing about their work, and in a few cases, sitting on their boards of directors.
  • I support organizations like Medicines Sans Frontieres that have consistently done important work providing health and medical care to people affected by conflicts in Central Africa and elsewhere. I pick these organizations because they spend less money on “awareness-raising” and advocacy and more funds on the ground.

I don’t know if those approaches will help you in your quest for something “specific and achievable”, but I’ve found it more satisfying than supporting efforts like this one.

In short, when the commenter is essentially saying "I have a limited about of goodwill, time and money, and I want to do something good with it", the closest thing to an answer I see here, assuming you don't want to dedicate masses of time to being an Africa blogger yourself or board member of a charity, is "support Medicines Sans Frontieres".

I think that what the Kony 2012 team have done is pretty clever in terms of packaging a deeply unsexy, harrowing subject, and found away to engage people who would never come across this - they've accepted that lots of people have a bit of attention, and it's not reasonable to expect people to reorientate their entire life about a single campaign. Once you have accepted that the question becomes one of how best to use that limited attention, or how to package an issue to ensure some actual coverage outside very specialist communities.

Comedienne Jane Bussman has another similar, take on - these are a few quote from Polly Curtis' Kony reality check news roundup in the Grauniad:

"I think they really sat down and worked out the best way to get attention to what should be the biggest news story in the world but never is because the children involved are black," Bussman said. "Everyone is going ballistic on the Internet today," she added, "because they say the film is white-focused."

People need to realize, Bussman said, that "it's really bloody difficult to get the media to give a damn about stories with black people in the middle. ...The fact that they managed to make it an issue took some real some real brains."

Bussman takes issue with those who criticize the film for oversimplifying the situation in Central Africa. "If they got 27 million people watching it, it ain't that f**ing stupid," she said.

I'd like to think in future that there's scope when organising similar campaigns, to explicitly design for different people having different amounts of attention, time or money in mind from the very start, in such a way that even the lightest-touch interaction acknowledges the existence of extra levels of complexity, that more engaged people will have to deal with.

Ideally, such a campaign would provide a pathway to progress people from the lighter levels of engagement, to the deeper levels of knowledge, so that as a campaign spreads, the number of well informed people talking about the subject grows, to head off accusations of gross oversimplification.

But for now, it looks like we'll have to rely on the sheer ubiquity of the Kony 2012 campaign, to cause these voices to emerge unprompted.

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