When have I known all there is to know about a policy question? Probably never. I don’t imagine I’ll ever known all there is to know about the effects of action or inaction by states, armies, corporations, or people populating large regions of the world. As a PhD-holder, I’ve spent probably too many years reading about the effects of policies across various cultural contexts, the statistical models used to track them, and the decisional models used to predict them. Aside from that – and I think more importantly – I’ve worked in community development in ten different countries and dozens of communities. Yet, as I’ve written before, the lesson I take away from these (some would say excessive) studies and travels is simply this: we ought to better embrace humility.
Our intentions may be noble, but our analytical and predictive capacities are always limited. This applies as much to the Invisible Children bandwagon as it does to its bandwagon of critics. One of the most bothersome things about the Invisible Children backlash is the certainty with which some writers are asserting their cynicism. If Invisible Children did a poor job with several representations contained within their film – fine, criticize them for that. But that does not inevitably lead to a conclusion that is logically consistent with discouraging young people’s civic engagement, concern for others, or efforts to build a better world. What Invisible Children has given us is an invitation to learn more deeply, consider implications more concretely, and evaluate our relations with the rest of the world more honestly.
In the months and years to come, one of the focusing questions for this site will be – what kind of knowledge and skills are necessary to engage responsibly on a global level? But Kony 2012 has made the particulars of that question more pressing, for students and for citizens around the world.
Where are the resources to support educators – particularly when presented with something like this that is immediately relevant and incredibly complex? I have been working to pull some guest bloggers together to comment on their areas of expertise, and I’m waiting to hear back from a few, but for the moment let me just offer the following resources for deeper learning and informative discussion around responsible advocacy. (Note: The New York Times has developed and shared a Kony 2012 teaching resources page, but it’s primarily a decent framing of a few of the important questions. I’m going to work to get beyond that by pointing to some of the most interesting essays, resources or videos relating to the topics involved during the next few weeks).
Part 1: Simplify, but don’t distort.
An excellent starting point for reflective consideration of this question is Dave Algoso’s Kony 2012: History, Nuance, and Advocacy’s Golden Rule. Algoso is a development blogger based in Kenya. He has also worked in Uganda, Kosovo, Egypt, and the U.S. He brings a valuable perspective because he has spent his career in advocacy. He writes, “While academics cringe at the narratives used by advocacy groups, I’ve made my peace with their need for simplification. If a given problem requires government action, and we think about the politics and strategy required to make the government move, we can’t help but conclude that our messages must be simple. Otherwise our cause gets lost in the noise of Capitol Hill…”
Writing as a former nonprofit director, I couldn’t agree more. Simplification can be incredibly useful. But it should lead toward better understanding and/or actions justified by a deep understanding of the issues at stake. Algoso’s Golden Rule is: simplify, but don’t distort. He clarifies:
Unlike a distortion, a simplification is actually backed by and derived from a more considered analysis. A simplification is tied by a clear (if unstated) chain to a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the problem. Some advocates would claim that it’s okay to use a distorted narrative, as long as it leads to the right policies. This thinking is dangerous because it detaches your policy agenda from reality. You start believing your own distortions and lose any assurance that you really are pursuing the right policies. Even worse, other people start believing your distortions.
Concerns around misrepresentation are pretty well summarized in Michael Wilkerson’s contribution to Foreign Policy, Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things). Kony is not in Uganda and has not been for many years; Northern Uganda is rebuilding and faced with severe challenges (that currently take more lives than Kony) that can be addressed through targeted development assistance and support for community initiatives; the US and other countries have tried to ‘get’ Kony before, only to fail and have Kony respond with a kind of brutality he had not exhibited for many years.
Algoso’s emphasis on the utility of simplification (rather than distortion) might lead us to marvel at how effective Invisible Children has been in fomenting an online movement, and how or whether they could have done so without wandering into misrepresentation. As I said in a previous post, I am amazed by their abilities:
working with a young public, raised on cynical detachment, with relatively little historic and geographic knowledge – Invisible Children has been wildly successful. For their ability to do that they deserve some measure of respect; yet if they (1) keep their public (and they clearly have a mighty public) in positions of relative ignorance and (2) emphasize themselves over the populations they purport to serve, then they are – at best – under-capitalizing on their truly profound capacity to make positive change with their narratives.
Algoso’s Golden Rule helps us systematically think about my first point above. My second point, the importance of the voice of community organizations and community members in any advocacy or development work, is a must for development or advocacy done well, and that point has also showed up in many of the criticisms.
Part 2: Respect and Amplify Community Voice and Agency
Ugandan Social Media Strategist TMS Ruge wrote a thoughtful op-ed for CNN, Why Kony 2012 Created the Wrong Buzz. In the CNN piece Ruge raised many of the points, perhaps with a bit more diplomacy, that he asserted in an earlier response to Kony 2012, Respect my Agency. His original title says it all in a sense, but from the CNN piece:
More children die of malaria, diarrhea, and nodding disease in northern Uganda on a daily basis than the monthly average of Kony’s 25 years of killing. Where’s the slick viral video for those children?
The advent of social media brought so many unheard voices to the fore, and with that voice came self-actualization. Many communities realized that they have inherent agency to be their own saviors. Kony 2012 missed a grand opportunity to empower these voices to realize the power within themselves to change their situation and surroundings.
Instead, it trotted out the same tired line about Africa. Torture, rape, conscription; tent poles for the single, sad story on Africa that Western society has come to accept. But by God we are so much more than the sum of our failures.
Ruge’s CNN piece is certainly worth reading in full. Journalist and novelist Dinaw Mengestu, who is in a particularly interesting position to reflect on this controversy because his life has spanned US and African experiences, concludes a particularly eloquent analysis of the situation with this:
The doctrine of simplicity is always at war with reality. Our best, most human instincts of compassion and generosity, if they are to be meaningful, can’t come from a marketing campaign as simple, as base, as an advertisement for a soft drink that promises you the world for a single sip. If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.
In the UK Independent, Ugandan Musa Okwonga writes simply, Stop Kony, yes. But don’t stop asking questions. These and many other important links are assembled under Stopping Kony, or Stopping Video Activism? at Dochasnetwork, the network of Irish NGOs working for global justice. There’s a stable, strong, growing, and powerful reality in Africa that, as I’ve written before, is entirely under-represented in so many of our assumptions and narratives about the place. Reading the texts above in concert with review of relevant Ted talks such as Rosling and Adichie can help students understand the importance of local agency in addressing any development issue or social concern.
Evaluating the legitimacy of social activist campaigns could proceed by asking the questions: Does it only simplify, or actually misrepresent? And does it respect, hear, and channel the voices of the people most clearly affected by the campaign? These are questions to discuss with students as they respond to Kony 2012.
Part 3: Advocate without reckless oversimplification.
A looming question remains, and it is addressed at great length and with serious thoughtfulness by founder of the civic media community of global voices Ethan Zuckerman. I’ll quote a relevant section here, but it too is worth reading in full:
Can we advocate without oversimplifying?
I am now almost three thousand words into this blogpost, and I am aware that I am oversimplifying the situation in northern Uganda… and also aware that I haven’t simplified it enough. It makes perfect sense that a campaign to create widespread awareness of conflict in northern Uganda would want to simply this picture down to a narrative of good versus evil, and a call towards action. While I resent the emotionally manipulative video Invisible Children have produced, I admire the craft of it. They begin with a vision of a changing global world, where social media empowers individuals as never before. They craft a narrative around a passionate, driven advocate – Jason Russell – and show us the reasons for his advocacy – his friendship with a Ugandan victim of Kony. The video has a profound “story of self” that makes it possible for individuals to connect with and relate to. And Invisible Children constructs a narrative where we can help, and where we’re shirking our responsibility as fellow human beings if we don’t help.
The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.
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?
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience?
These questions interest me deeply – and give me hope. These are the right question to ask – and people are discussing them. As Zuckerman alludes, the original criticism of Kony 2012 was posted by a college student in Canada, which is to say that a representative of the precise young population that so many critics deride as slacktivist and clicktivist was the original writer to ask us all to take a closer look. The tenor of some of the criticism seems to lead toward throwing up one’s hands and holing up at home, dutifully digesting the message that one shouldn’t meddle in others’ affairs. And yet we already meddle. We get resources, we ensure passage for products in trade. Our economic system requires security interventions, literally, worldwide.
We meddle so constantly that most of us are not the slightest bit surprised to learn that our computer and smart phone components may begin their journeys as rare metals in Central Africa, be shipped to East and Southeast Asia for assembly, and again make their way around the world to our local markets. We live in an economically globalized reality, yet we have yet to understand what that means for ethical actions and ethical living. The impulse to post and re-post the Kony 2012 video, along with the short tweets and messages (“Stop Kony.”), is at the end of the day an impulse born of the notion that every child deserves a basic experience of human dignity. I’m sure the effort is overly simplistic, but I think it leads us to a profound opportunity to better consider what responsible activism should look like. It also gives us the chance to think more deeply about the notion of military interventions and what we know about Central Africa, topics to be addressed in the days that come.
Thank you for reading (a couple additional resources appear below). If you enjoyed the post, please share it. If you have comments or criticisms, please post a reply. You may choose to ‘follow’ by putting your email address in the box on the right. You can also follow us on Twitter @BuildingBetterW.
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.
Those interested in the importance of humility and the centrality of community agency in international development may enjoy The Post-Development Reader, while those interested in extended and thorough analysis of the role of global activism in Darfur may appreciate Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide. I hope to offer a post on Fighting for Darfur’s relevance to Invisible Children in the weeks to come.