Teaching Resources and Lessons: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 as Teachable Moment

Many development workers, development professors, development bloggers, and even (far more importantly) several Ugandans, are not pleased with the Invisible Children Kony 2012 campaign. But, as this excellent overview in The Guardian makes clear, the debate is ongoing. As the debate unfolds, I wonder: What can we learn from this experience, now? And how might it lead us to better advocacy and development work?

By any measure relating to public movement building, Invisible Children’s work is incredibly impressive. Yet, as I mentioned yesterday, if they do not capitalize on their profound marketing capabilities by creating a public more informed about the issues they say they care about, then they have failed. For the moment, I want to respond affirmatively to the people who commented on yesterday’s post and the several people who contacted me elsewhere by saying, yes, this is a great opportunity for more and better learning about Africa, development, human rights, conflict, international tribunals, history, and even Uganda in particular.

I’m going to start with a few basic resources. Because, let’s face it, many of the 32 million+ people who have watched the film have never read one single book about Africa. That’s fine. Let me be clear: I share the moral outrage against Kony and everything he’s done. However, if we want to be serious about supporting a more fair and just world – and serious long-term solutions in the region where Kony has operated – then we must have a far deeper understanding of the region and of development than Invisible Children’s narratives permit.

Today, I’m starting with three quick and compelling resources. In the coming days and weeks we’ll share increasingly complex information.

First, how big is Africa? As the map below demonstrates, it is massive. In a quest to combat “rampant immapancy,” Kal Krause developed the image below, which demonstrates how The United States, China, Europe, India, and Japan are collectively slightly smaller than the continent of Africa. (More on the map, here).


Why does this matter as part of the Invisible Children conversation? Kony left Uganda many years ago, and has been operating in a region roughly the size of France, comprised of parts of Sudan, The Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More on the logistical and other challenges relating to “catching Kony” to come.

Second, what do we know about development? I’m sharing Hans Rosling as an excellent resource for introductions to what’s happening and has happened as far as tracking development is concerned. A few things that I think are highly relevant about this video. Rosling begins by surveying his students and colleagues. Seeing a gap between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it, he insightfully states, “the problem for me was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas.”

Rosling is also very careful with data. He makes clear that he is making claims only when the differences in the data are compelling enough to get beyond the many important challenges that come with diverse forms of data gathering, different national cultures around research and reporting, etc. If Kony 2012 and Invisible Children have made you, your friends, or your students more concerned with life expectancy and basic freedoms around the world, wonderful. The Rosling video above and the several other Ted Talks he has done provide great overviews of development broadly speaking.

Third, how do we responsibly hear a story, learn about another place, and think about other places? Novelist Chimamanda Adiche’s incredibly compelling and extraordinarily relevant Ted Talk on that topic is a great starter for reflection about how to respond to Kony 2012. It should be abundantly clear that “if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”

Invisible Children has done some impressive work, but there are also real and important rationales behind the criticisms of Kony 2012. Don’t lose heart. Engage. This learning is part of ongoing progress toward achieving a more just and equitable world. I’ll continue to share resources here and welcome suggestions from others. Of course, many of the world’s leading news outlets (thanks to Invisible Children) are now giving quick overviews of the LRA and Kony in particular, and I appreciate seeing that. Keep learning; that is part of making the important, positive difference you can make. It’s not about cynicism; it’s about informed action.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts.

Post by: Eric Hartman. In addition to being a co-founder of this website, Hartman holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches at Temple and Drexel Universities. He visited Northern Uganda, and the Invisible Children offices there, in 2006. Since that time he has returned several times to East Africa, but has not revisited Gulu.

This entry was posted in Advocacy Campaigns, Africa, Development, Invisible Children, Smart Philanthropy, Teaching Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

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