Beyond Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness, & Activism in the Internet Age
I spent this weekend reading through Beyond Kony2012 Atrocity, Awareness, & Activism in the Internet Age. It was compiled and edited by Amanda Taub of Wronging Rights fame. Below are some excerpts from the authors (including yours truly) that contributed to the book. If you are interested in going beyond the slick simplicity of the video that kick-started the international kerfuffle, and getting a history of the LRA and Joseph Kony, grab yourself a copy.
How Civilians Became Targets: A Short History of the War in Northern Uganda
These lines describing the horrors of war in Acholiland, familiar as they may sound today, were not written five or ten years ago. Rather, they were written 150 years ago by Samuel Baker, and the war 1 How Civilians Became Targets: A Short History of the War in Northern Uganda 2 was not that of the government and the LRA, but that of the slave traders, Egyptian administrators, and rival Acholi clans. Indeed, massive violence is no stranger to Acholiland, and forms of violence even seem to repeat themselves. The raids by slave traders of the 19th century are reminiscent of the attacks by the LRA; the British so-called pacification effort involved huge levels of forced population displacement, mirroring the mass forced displacement of recent decades; and rumors that outsiders were going to grab Acholi land have swirled for over a century.
Kony2012: Treat the Political Causes of the LRA, Not Just Its Violent Symptoms
This history, simplified as it might be, is important if we are to understand the contemporary narrative of Joseph Kony and make informed decisions about it. Because of that history of rebellion, reprisal, and ethnic exclusion, several Acholi elders gave tacit support to Kony’s rebellion and encouraged their Children and relatives to join him. To them, military power was not an end in itself. Rather, it was the means to the material gains that came with being in power.
Entering the Humanitarian Aid Zone
Both Jan Egeland and Invisible Children generated a huge buzz about the night commuter phenomenon
in the international press. In response, shelters were set up for the Children by UNICEF and their partner
organizations. Unfortunately, the shelters became a major destination for what was termed disaster
tourism by ACholi leaders. Every evening, when the night commuters were going to sleep, delegations of
journalists, donor reps, movie stars, UN officials, and other voyeurs stomped through the shelters to gawk
at the Children…
While it is clear that donor nations have political aims in mind, it is less clear why non-governmental and multilateral humanitarian organizations that aim to alleviate suffering cultivate a narrative that exacerbated the crisis in the North? One answer to this question came from the top UN official in Gulu: “Humanitarian aid is a business.” Is there an element of self-interest that encourages humanitarian agents to Choose narratives that perpetuate their “business”?
Three Strikes and Kony’s Still There: What I Learned from Negotiations with Joseph Kony and the International Criminal Court’s Efforts to Indict Him
Peace is good politics. Whether you’re an elected official, an undemocratic despot, or a rebel in the bush, you make more friends talking about peace and prosperity than giving speeches about death and destruction. Unfortunately, death and destruction also have proven lucrative to many of the same people. As a result, government officials and rebel leaders often pursue a path that affords them an opportunity to fight and talk…
In the end, wanting an agreement and coming to an agreement were two very different things. The actual doing of peace_ – reaching a deal to stop the fighting – proved too difficult.
Can a military intervention stop the Lord’s Resistance Army?
In 2002, Uganda received permission from the Government of Sudan to pursue the LRA to its bases in southern Sudan, which was not an independent state at that point in time. The attack, called ‘Operation Iron Fist’, destroyed many LRA bases in southern Sudan. The rebels reacted by outflanking the Ugandan army and returning to northern Uganda, attacking areas that had so far been untouched by the war. The LRA abducted more and more people to compensate for the losses they suffered from Operation Iron Fist. At the end of the operation the whole of northern Uganda was a warzone and 90 per-cent of the population lived in the ‘protected camps’ under grievous conditions.
These are two reasons why the current US initiative to catch Joseph Kony is likely to lead to more civilian casualties while the prospects of catching Kony remain uncertain at best. We have to understand that the local population will suffer the consequences if a military intervention fails, while the advocates of the intervention will at most witness them on the news. In order to avoid negative consequences for the civilians, a military approach must be combined with efforts to develop the region and improve the local armies and police forces in charge of protecting them.
Ethical or Exploitative?: Stories, Advocacy and Suffering
Storytellers aren’t experts in trauma psychology, and I don’t think they have to be. I do believe, however, that interviewing trauma survivors requires extra preparation. When it comes to telling stories of trauma, empathy alone is not enough to make our practice ethical.
Trauma stories need trust. The subjects must trust the storyteller – and so must the audience of the story.
But there are also fundamental problems with the storytelling building blocks that are there. The footage in KONY2012 isn’t dated. When Jacob, an escaped child soldier and a key character in the KONY2012 narrative, sobs on camera, we don’t know if that happened nine days ago or nine years ago. That matters. It matters as a point of fact: As critics have pointed out, the story of the LRA and its abuse of children has changed over time. Offering viewers the illusion that Jacob’s story is also the story of the present skews the facts. It also matters because dateless footage of a sobbing African child reinforces media stereotypes about Africa as a place of unending violence, static and senseless.
The Power of Images: Who Gets Made Visible?
And I stood back a few feet, uncomfortably taking photographs of their hijinks. I took the photographs because I saw a situation I thought worthy of photographing. I was predisposed to doubt Invisible Children – they don’t have a good reputation in Uganda, where I lived at the time – and these antics seemed like confirmation of my worst fears about their motivations.
I stood back, and to the left – not wanting to interrupt their activities, nor wanting to endorse them through participating. I was documenting, I told myself, showcasing their bad behavior. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t believe unless you were there. Or unless there were photos…
The narrative presented by Invisible Children continues this trajectory of meaning: Invisible Children offers American youth the chance to save Africans. We can change things, the video promises. We can fix Africa’s problems. In fact, we not only can, we must, because Ugandans are faceless, passive victims, just waiting for us to act. The steps to do this are simple, Invisible Children says: sign the petition, buy our action kit, donate money, and share this video online.
Learning From Save Darfur
Today it remains true that public awareness can keep an otherwise obscure foreign policy issue on the radar of busy government officials in the U.S., and indeed other democratic states. But if concern by an American audience was the only ingredient needed to stop the world’s worst crimes, millions of Darfuris should have been able to return safely to their homes years ago. The real question is: What happens after awareness has been raised?
It seems like a distant memory now, but back in 2006, the Save Darfur movement, with its signature green wristbands, buzzed through college campuses the way Kony2012 has done this month. The campaign turned tens of thousands out to rally on the National Mall, its posters were plastered throughout the New York subway, and it secured primetime spots on television.
Avoiding “Badvocacy”: How to Do No Harm While Doing Good
The hero of Kony 2012 is, without question, filmmaker Jason Russell. It is Russell who is fighting the bad guys, as his son puts it. It was Russell who, along with two of his friends, “discovered” the LRA crisis on a trip to northern Uganda a decade ago. And it was Russell who promised a young Ugandan boy that he would fix this conflict and make things better. If film viewers join in Invisible Children’s awarenessraising efforts, Russell promises, they can also be part of saving people from the horrors of the LRA…
These subtexts could not be farther from the truth. Ugandans and Congolese in LRA-affected areas have been engaged in efforts to stop the violence and build the peace for years, and, in Uganda, for decades. Groups like the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative have engaged in peace building activities, working to end the fighting and keep children safe. Other community-based organizations help ex-child soldiers reintegrate into their families and communities, provide health care to those hurt in the war, and assist displaced persons who had to flee their homes. Africans in these communities are anything but passive victims. They are leaders.
What Have They Got to Lose?
Poor people’s time is actually more valuable than other people’s. If you’re wealthy and you waste some time, it’s probably leisure time anyway. If you do lose time you would have spent earning money, you can cut back on luxuries to compensate. When you are poor, the opportunity costs are far greater. Leisure time is almost non-existent. There are no luxuries to give up if income is lost. There is no room for waste. Wasting poor people’s time can cause significant harm. In practical terms, that sets a high bar for aid projects. You can’t just say, “It’s better than nothing.” “Nothing” is not your baseline. Your baseline is “will this improve an already complicated life full of responsibilities, social ties, and (yes) material possessions?”
Armchair Critics Respond
Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub
One particular insult kept popping up: that those who questioned the campaign were just “armchair critics,” inferior to the brave activists who were taking “real” action and raising awareness of a serious problem. The most prominent articulations of the argument appeared in the New York Times opinion pages. On March 12th, Roger Cohen wrote that he backed Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell over his “armchair critics,” because “he’s put his boots on the ground and he’s doing something.” Two days later, Cohen’s colleague Nicholas Kristof echoed his thoughts, referring to criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign as “the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.” Similar sentiments could be found across the internet, on blogs, and in the comments sections of Kony-related articles.
Africa’s New Status Quo: Connected, Bold and Vocal
As it always does, the internet exhaled as quickly as it inhaled, and the world returned to its tepid state of being. The normalcy of global injustice; the calculated, unabated global spread of the cavern between privilege and want; the cries for freedom almost matched in octave with the inanity and fervor for the latest gadgetry. In a heart beat, we are back to the bitter sweet symphony of humanity’s march through time and space. Except that this time, there is a wrinkle in the fabric of normalcy. African agency is alive, and self-aware. The new normal is an Africa shaped and built by the new storytellers, the technically savvy youth bulge, and the uncompromising entrepreneurs. The new normal is an Africa embracing its role as a global partner worthy of respect and not just a perennial recipient. The question is, did the world recognize what just happened?
Beyond Kony2012 – Reasserting the Transformative Power of Youth Activism