Kony 2012 and Policy Prescription. More Teaching Resources to Step into the Bigger Picture

The viral video phenomenon does contain a policy prescription: capture Kony. While much of the debate and criticism relates to concern with misrepresentation or lack of agency for Ugandans in the video, focusing analysis on the action suggested for governments involved is also important. General speaking, policy is deliberate action or inaction by a government to achieve a goal. And in broad terms, policy analysis often takes the form of:

In respect to a specific population (X), does an intervention (Y), achieve the desired results (Z)? 

The field of international development has been notoriously free of policy evaluation that tightly follows the formula above. That is until the relatively recent popularity of Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty that chronicles many of the insights gained under their direction of the MIT Poverty Action Lab. The insights are also shared in Duflo’s Ted Talk.

One of the confusing things about Invisible Children as an organization, the backlash against it, and the case made in Kony 2012 is identifying precisely what the purpose is. By that I mean Invisible Children as an organization was founded to raise awareness about Joseph Kony in the United States, based on the theory that the US has military capabilities to stop Kony that other countries lack. Yet IC has also dabbled in development work: supporting schools, students, and small business initiatives. A great deal of the criticism (once one separates critiques based on misrepresentation or lack of agency for Ugandans in the film) of Invisible Children seems to relate to what else it could do with its time, talent, and money.

Here’s one example from The Guardian:  

A few people have called the malaria eradication numbers into question. That’s a question for another time. What I want to call attention to here is that this infographic, while interesting, is completely unfair if you are listening to the Kony 2012 stated concern and policy proscription, which goes like this: Indicted war criminals are so horrific that the whole world should care, and once that happens the world’s strongest military forces should be employed to capture those war criminals, and the world will be better for it.

Students are now aware of Uganda’s location because of Invisible Children. If they are most interested in supporting each child’s opportunity for human dignity and growth, there are many resources on our human rights page that point to opportunities to be involved in effective campaigns to improve child health, promote gender equality, and – just as the IC founders hope – build a better world. But Invisible Children in its founding mission and certainly in Kony 2012 isn’t about development. It’s about retributive justice. They want strong military forces to pursue and – they say – capture Kony. Implicit is that Kony might be killed in the pursuit. I suspect Invisible Children and most of its supporters are comfortable with that possibility, but proposing military intervention in the heart of Africa does beg some questions specific to that precise prescription.

Lisa Schirch, Director of the peace-building organization 3P Human Security, argues in the Huffington post:

in Libya, Syria, Uganda, not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia, firepower solutions have already or will bring even more suffering for civilians. You don’t have to be a pacifist to understand the failed strategic logic of killing civilians to save them.

Schirch is a Professor of Peace and Justice Studies, so she of course has her biases consistent with those commitments, but it’s important for students advocating for military intervention to understand that ‘costs’ are euphemisms for accidental deaths, omnipresent abuses of power, and untold other horrific impacts on individuals and communities. Schirch shares the details from recent interventions:

Libya is hailed as a success story for international military intervention. There were thousands of casualties in the Libyan conflict by all sides. Gadafi’s forces killed many civilians in Libya. But the New York Times’ account details the untold numbers of civilian casualties from NATO forces. We’ll never know how many civilians died resulting from NATO’s 7,700 bombs or missiles dropped on Libya. We also won’t know how many civilians Libyan rebels killed. We do know weapons sold to the rebels were handed out to 7 year old boys. We also know that some rebels carried out horrific massacres against anyone of African decent, accusing every African of being a mercenary.

 Still focusing on efforts to evaluate the particular policy prescription proposed in Kony 2012, I think David Rieff takes too simplistic of a rhetorical position in The Road to Hell is Paved with Viral Videos in Foreign Policy, but he does raise important points for anyone endorsing military strikes. Specifically:

What might be the risks to Uganda’s civilian population if the U.S. government were to give aid and more advanced military equipment to the Ugandan military to track Kony, thus strengthening a regime in Kampala whose hands are anything but clean — as anyone who was in eastern Congo during the Ugandan intervention there in the late-1990s can attest? And as they say in the military, in war, the enemy gets a vote. At present — though one would never know this from Russell’s film — Kony and the LRA are a largely spent force. But if a new campaign against them were launched, what would their response be; what crimes would they commit? Russell can talk all he likes about “arresting” Kony, but what Invisible Children is actually calling for is “war” — without acknowledging that in war there are invariably unintended consequences. The lesson of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which is that hoping for the best is not a plan — does not seem to resonate with Russell at all.

As many writers have pointed out, capturing Kony is inevitably about going to battle with a rebel army populated in large part by soldiers who were originally kidnapped as children. Are we naive enough to expect them to simply lay down their arms, if they have been with Kony for many years, perhaps even two decades? If they do not immediately lay down their arms, and they were kidnapped originally, are they sufficiently at fault to die for their (Kony’s) sins?

From CODOC, a documentary organization dedicated to promoting critical thought in the media:

The LRA is reported to be 90% made up of abducted children – military defeat would mean engaging in combat and targeting of the very victims of this war; these children are the LRA.

CODOC’s post about the missing narrative in the Kony 2012 campaign relates strongly to yesterday’s post on responsible advocacy, but importantly also includes voices from Ugandan communities articulating interest in restorative justice with their abducted children. The video clips there are worth a few moments.

The positive view of this policy prescription is taken up and defended by Nicholas Kristof in Viral Video, Vicious Warlord, and his case appears as compelling as Rieff’s damning critique. There’s the opportunity to teach this controversy: they’re both clearly skilled rhetoricians worth investigating. Supporting Invisible Children’s policy prescription involves an implicit endorsement of the International Criminal Court (ICC), international institutions, and international rights regimes. Ironically, the ICC just this week convicted Thomas Lubanga of conscripting and enlisting children in war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That development shows some of the strengths and weakness of the ICC and gives us all a chance – young and older – to respond as citizens to the international agreements and institutions that we are (by extension) party to.

I’m going to stop here for today. But to be explicit and recap, there’s an opportunity to evaluate Invisible Children according to whether it engaged in responsible advocacy. I posted about that yesterday. There’s also the opportunity to consider with students whether the policy prescription is reasonable. To do that, it’s first helpful to isolate just precisely what the prescription is, then consider whether doing Y will achieve Z for population X. It’s worth pointing out that while so much of the rhetoric and buzz around Kony 2012 seems to be justice for Ugandan Children (population X), the policy prescription (Y) is more about retributive justice for a clearly horrific war criminal. Maybe that is an important part of building a world that recognizes basic global norms (is this Invisible Children’s ‘Z’?). But let’s be clear about what the prescription suggests and what its inevitable costs are.

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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, Development, Evaluation, Invisible Children, Smart Philanthropy, Teaching Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Kony 2012 and Policy Prescription. More Teaching Resources to Step into the Bigger Picture

  1. Pingback: Stopping Kony, or stopping video activism? « Dochasnetwork's Blog

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