Putting Kony 2012 in Context

In the last issue of Journal of Human Rights Practice, there was a debate about the Kony 2012 film and campaign by Invisible Children, four authors contributed analyses of the phenomena that captured the world’s attention last March.  Now that we’ve passed the campaign’s self-imposed “expiration date,” it’s worth revisiting it to explore some of what these authors critiqued, to offer yet more criticisms on the campaign, and also to defend some of the campaign’s accomplishments.

All four essays are worth reading. Sam Gregory explores the important pitfalls of centering a film around its audience the way that IC chose to, especially in regards to how the film was interpreted outside of that context.  David Hickman rightly points out that the film lacks an observational mode, rendering any exploration of the war’s history impossible.  Meanwhile, Lars Waldorf correctly observes that the campaign has raised the alarm, and that online attention must transition into real action. Mark A. Drumbl offers a strong analysis of the depiction of child soldiers. These are all important aspects of the film from which IC and others seeking to replicate their success can learn. But there are a few moments when the essays address the pitfalls of the film without considering the context in which it is set and the other activities of Invisible Children.

When he questions IC’s failure to garner offline support, Waldorf cites the poor showing in April’s Cover the Night activities.  However, I think it is important to situate Kony 2012, both the film and the campaign, within the organization’s almost decade-long campaign to raise awareness about the LRA conflict.  The fact is that IC has translated its surface appeal into real action on numerous occasions, with tens of thousands of American youth committing to day-long actions to draw attention to various aspects of the conflict.  In addition, IC and its partners were able to mobilize over a thousand supporters, myself included, to descend on Washington, DC, in 2009, helping usher the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act into passage.  It was hailed as the largest lobbying initiative for any Africa-related bill, garnering record-breaking bipartisan support. This law would later be the foundation for President Obama’s decision to deploy 100 military advisers to the region and the stepping stone for the post-Kony 2012 lobbying push to gain more funding for civilian protection programs in LRA-affected regions and to expand the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program to include LRA leaders, both of which have passed.  In November, long after the luster of the viral video had worn off, IC was able to host a massive summit in DC that included political and civil society leaders from LRA-affected countries as well as representatives from the AU, UN, and ICC, with an audience in the thousands. Whether you support the goals or not, this is a record that overshadows the piecemeal results of Cover the Night, and the number of victories IC can claim is a testament to the depth and breadth of the organization’s grassroots support.

When Drumbl criticizes IC, he argues that the organization fails to provide other needs that victims may require beyond the capture of Joseph Kony.  Here he makes the same mistake, failing to look beyond the film itself while criticizing the organization as a whole.  IC’s programs in Uganda have included scholarships for children to return to school, employment in a number of agricultural and craft-making programs, teacher exchange programs, and efforts to rebuild schools and provide better sanitation in villages. In an effort to criticize IC’s humanitarian proposals, Drumbl also states that child soldiers are often not rescued at all; most former abductees actually defect.  But IC understands that, and while they may urge their donors to “help bring them home,” their efforts to make that happen are actually through leafleting and radio broadcasts specifically targeting conscripts, encouraging them to defect.

One critique that Waldorf levels, however, is very important to expand upon.  In this video, as in their other videos, IC has taken clear sides in the conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda, depicting Kony as pure evil.  While Kony has committed egregious acts of violence, often on innocent civilians, it is imperative that an organization with the platform that IC holds turn some attention to the Ugandan government, which has allowed Kony’s terror campaign to continue to benefit its own agenda, which has employed devastating tactics on civilians under the auspices of anti-LRA missions, and which has forced millions of civilians into displacement camps with such deplorable conditions that they have been described as torture and genocide.  Anything less is a misrepresentation of the situation and a disservice to the mission of ending the conflict.

Another problem that IC has chosen to ignore was highlighted by Drumbl, and that is that the organization fails to depict the complexities of opting for prosecuting Joseph Kony over other alternatives, such as Uganda’s recently-ended amnesty program.  While Invisible Children’s programs fund radio come-home messaging aiming to encourage defections by promoting amnesty, the organization’s video made no mention of how the amnesty complicates the ICC’s indictments for Kony.  And worse, when the Ugandan government chose to end the amnesty program in May, Invisible Children failed to use its platform to adequately condemn the decision, choosing to sign a joint statement [pdf] with other organizations, but without broadcasting very much information to its massive support base.  When coupled with its support for the ICC indictments and Uganda’s military solution to the conflict, Invisible Children is involved in what is an increasingly militarized, judicial agenda that is replacing amnesty and negotiations.

What we have seen in the last year is that IC’s support base has grown, but its policies have remained the same.  The group is still using a simplified narrative to gather massive amounts of support, pushing a military solution as the only way forwards.  On this, their critics and I agree.  However, it is important to also consider the places where IC has succeeded, in its ability to raise awareness, in its efforts to support the local population, and in its work to protect civilians.  It seems that we are past debating whether Invisible Children has had an influence or whether they are doing any good at all; the debate should be about whether the net influence is positive, and whether the good work comes at a cost. As we move forward in 2013, it is critical that Invisible Children do three things: give a more nuanced and balanced depiction of the conflict, including naming and shaming the government where it is desperately needed; take a step back from its pro-military agenda, allowing room for amnesty and protection of soldiers forcibly conscripted into rebel ranks in their messaging; and stop dismissing critics, engaging them in a healthy dialog about how best to resolve the conflict.

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