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Kony 2012, or "The Distortion of Justice Through Marketing"

Posted by Moe Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Joseph Kony is a monster whose arrest is long overdue. He has committed horrific atrocities to thousands of people for two decades and it truly must come to an end.

That said, Invisible Children's recent campaign titled "Kony 2012"--an effort to "make Joseph Kony famous" in order to gain the attention that will lead to his arrest--is an unfortunate undermining of the African people and will likely become a failed attempt at accomplishing the campaign's goal.

Let's review. From my understanding of this 30-minute video (which, yes, I did actually watch), Invisible Children's plan to get Kony arrested is for thousands of teenagers and twenty-somethings to put posters up all over town (every town) one night next month. And not just posters, but super cool, color-blocked hipster posters (don't worry, you can pay for a bracelet or t-shirt too!). They say that if everyone in America knows about Kony, then that will result in the necessary pressure on the American government to lead to Kony's timely arrest within the year.

I'm going to make a few points now. Let me first say that when I first caught wind of Kony 2012, my good-intentions-gone-bad-red-flags instantly went up. Secondly, I will note that much of what I'm about to say is an opinion guided by well-renowned economists and aid-workers who I follow (that to say, these are not my original ideas, but they are ideas I line up with based on my own experience and education. Finally, by way of disclaimer, I should acknowledge that probably somewhere on this blog I have advocated for Invisible Children (considering I've been blogging here for six+ years) and other similar campaigns--campaigns that I now realize are simply good intentions, and in the aid and development world, not only are good intentions not enough, but often they can be damaging (for example, see this post.)

This short film, Kony 2012, is a marketing campaign. It's a super cool vid that is eye-catching, tells a story well, and obviously has caught the attention of millions. It was made by an NGO that is only six years old. It leads the viewer to assume that I, as a middle-class American woman who works as a part-time receptionist, can do something about it.

The harsh reality is that I cannot. I, and most of you reading this, cannot do anything about it. It is not up to me, it is not up to you.

Campaigns like this lead us to believe that yes, even me a part-time receptionist, even me a kindergarten teacher, even me a construction worker--we all have the power to change the world!

And of course that's not a bad message, but our power to change the world is in the way we live our lives every day, in relationship and in our own community, not in what we share on facebook and what petitions we sign.

Again, I believe that this issue of child soldiers and other atrocities is important. If you know anything about me, you know that I am constantly sharing about the situation in Sudan, because I have been there and I know people there and I care about them, so I want to share what I care about. But I know that I personally can not get Omar al-Bashir (also indicted by the ICC along with Kony) arrested no matter how much I personally spread the word. Because it's not up to me, it's not up to Obama, and believe it or not, it's not up to the USA. We may be the world's "great power", but that does not mean we can save it, or that it's our role to. In fact, it's important to recognize that when we think that way about the world, about Africa, we are undermining the African people in so many ways. Laura Seay noted today, "My basic premise [re: Kony 2012] is that the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa." We simply must not disrespect Africa and Africans' ability to intelligently and critically solve problems by assuming it's up to us to fix or save them.

Now....as people, and as for many of us as Christians, it is our role to care about people and it is our role to seek justice. We can all agree there. But when campaigns like this hype us up and tell us that we can save Africa, it is distorting true justice into a cheap marketing campaign, somehow allowing us to believe that we are being Good and doing the Right Thing and Making a Difference by donating ten dollars and hanging a poster or wearing a bracelet. But those things do not get warlords who are hiding in the African bush arrested. (Additionally, there are about a million implications to the International Criminal Court and all the international law wrapped up in it (including the fact that the U.S. is not signed on to the Rome Statute that instituted the court) that must be considered in this! But that's another blog post).

Some development professionals believe this campaign could actually be damaging to the situation in Central & East Africa. Personally, I would be surprised if it held enough weight over time to help or hinder. Even if Kony does end up arrested, or more likely dead, within the year it will likely have little to do with the U.S.'s role in the matter.

But even if I eat my own words come end of 2012 and good ol' Invisible does take credit for a potential future arrest, my opinion still stands: If you really want to help people in impoverished parts of the world, people experiencing undue violence or famine, then give your time and your money to organizations that have historically been aiding the developing world successfully and sustainably--don't just give in to a flashy marketing campaign. There are innumerable organizations that are doing good aid--because there is most certainly many versions of bad aid out there. If you truly long for justice in the world, then it's important to really think of the implications of what you're signing on to or giving your money to.

I'm ranting a little too much so in closing, a few links.

This article shares two good perspectives on the topic > Invisible Children: Saviors or Sensationalists?

If you want to see a slew of other opinions like mine, check out @texasinafrica's twitter feed (and beware of high levels of irony).

Finally, to be fair and honest, here's IC's recently posted response to many critiques like mine.


Maureen said...

Oh also I did not appreciate nor was I fooled by how they listed all of those big time celebrities in the film, making it look like they were already on board or that they had even personally interviewed them. That was poor documentation.

sara said...

I like yer sassafrass Maureen.

kimberly said...

Well said Maureen. I honestly was pretty confused by all the stuff I was seeing, and this is helpful in addressing my initial thoughts of "why does this seem totally non-helpful?" I admire your ability to put your thoughts into words in a way that doesn't seem like ranting.

Ali said...

Well said. Curious to continue watching how all of this plays out...

Mac said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Maureen said...

A friend shared this article with me, thought I'd share for those of you interested:
7 Worst International Aid Ideas


Amanda Loughlin said...

Thanks for this, Moe. Especially hearing that no matter what, we can't change anything. At first it sounds horribly depressing, but I think when it sinks in, it's freeing. We are constantly told that we can "change the course of human history," and then when we don't, we feel incredibly guilty. I'm sick of the guilt, even though I want so badly to make the evil stop.

Maureen said...

Amanda-you make a good point. It's a hard balance between living lives that seek justice and realizing that sometimes we have no power to change things. It's exhausting sometimes.

Bethany said...

Moe, I really appreciate everything said in this post. Before I even watched this video (I let it take over my newsfeed for a good 2 days) I knew I was going to have to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way, and how to explain that. This is perfect! Caleb and I had a long conversation about it yesterday and I wish I had read this post before that because I really felt like my explanation didn't cut it. Even though he agreed with me :)
Anyways. In a nutshell: Agreed, ditto, yes, thank you.

Anonymous said...

GREAT POST! Holy cow - Thank you. Well put together, clear thoughts and stellar points.