The problem of awareness-raising do-gooding that does no good.
The Kony 2012 campaign once again highlights the problem of awareness-raising do-gooding that ultimately does no good.
On March 7, a video called Kony 2012, made by the US humanitarian group, Invisible Children, went viral. It sought to raise awareness about the Central African militia leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which rose to notoriety in the 1990s due to its use of child soldiers in conflicts around Uganda, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
When the dust settled from all of the collective ‘caring’ that exploded across social networks and people went back to posting Instagram pictures of what they were eating for lunch, the only true difference that this video made was be a massive jump in the levels of smugthat have long obscured Africa in the global development discourse.
Smug, you may recall, is the term invented by satirists Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the tenth season of their series, South Park, to describe the harm that is done by well-meaning, progressive types who become too self-satisfied with their own supposed altruism. In the South Park episode, smug rising off the owners of hybrid cars and coalesces into a hurricane that wipes San Francisco from the map.
In the case of humanitarian and development issues, smug is the main result of sharing humanitarian causes on Facebook and clicking buttons that ‘pledge your support’ for a certain cause. Such campaigns – if they can be called that – cost you nothing and let you feel like you are doing something positive without actually having much a grasp of what, if anything, you are really doing.
Recent large-scale sources of smug contamination include the online campaigns to donate to Haitian earthquake relief in 2010 and the online support for the Arab Spring. Despite nearly $11billion being donated to Haiti by donor countries and institutions, much of the money remains tied up in NGOs and government programmes. In case you hadn’t heard, Haiti isn’t doing so well either. Egypt, though currently not battling cholera, unlike Haiti, is rapidly losing sight of any democratic reforms that the originators of it’s revolution had initially hoped to install.
And so we come to our cause du jour: child soldiers in Africa. Grant Oyston, a Political Science student at the University of Acadia was on the ball when he pointed out, shortly after Kony 2012 went viral, that Invisible Children is an aid group with a questionable past, having been criticised repeatedly by monitoring agencies both for exaggerating the human rights abuses of their targets and for running a pretty serious accountability deficit. Oyston also notes that only 32% of the over $8million they spent last year went to direct services. Some of that other 68% money went to supporting the Ugandan army. They even have a photo of themselves posing – machine gun preacher-style – with the army. Check it out, they are holding assault rifles because they care.
But the Invisible Children campaign has chosen to ignore that the Ugandan army is also guilty of a myriad of human rights abuses, including putting refugees from the civil war in Northern Uganda into concentration camps resulting in around 1,000 excess deaths a week. This is a serious issue, but it doesn’t play as well in the media or YouTube videos as child soldiers do.
The reason they choose to gloss over these not unsubstantial issues is because their aid work, while well-intentioned, is based not on altruism but on the self-satisfaction that comes from feeling altruistic. They are professional creators of smug. Their bombastic, white-saviour media campaigns prey on the stunted and misplaced sympathies of a generation of young, upperly-mobile first worlders whose only experiences with conflict and exploitation come from watching Hollywood movies and playing video games. In video games evil is not thwarted by careful diplomacy and foreign policy which considers the entire panorama of history, society and economy before making a difficult decision that will, in turn, have far reaching implications in all of these areas; evil is thwarted with a AR-15 and a full clip.
We live in a world where it is easier than ever to be informed but extremely difficult to affect change. This whole notion of fixing Africa, Haiti or anywhere by making an overly sentimental video then passing it on through a thick cloud of smug is the shared delusion of an entire generation of media-permeated youth. They are sympathetic to suffering, but their sympathy lasts only as long as the latest soundbite or three minute video clip. Then they are bombarded by the next plea for sympathy, call to arms or campaign for help. In trying to create a type of activism that is effective in the information age, politicians, NGOs and the media have simplified the issues behind it to the point of farce.
‘But at least they are doing something!’ type the commentators on the blogs of Oyston and Yale University’s Chris Blattman. The reasoning goes like this: poor people have nothing so anything that we do for them will naturally increase their well-being. This is the fallacy upon which all smug contamination is predicated. The only thing worse than doing nothing is doing the wrong thing without taking into account how difficult and complex it is to affect real change in other countries. Haiti is the prime example of a place that has gone to hell by being dragged down the road of good intentions by foreign governments and the aid industry.
These two groups, along with the Western media, have singled out Joseph Kony because he’s low hanging fruit. In an atrocious conflict he is arguably the vilest of the bunch and therefore the easiest to take pot shots at from behind a thin veil of schmaltzy, do-gooder ‘caring’. Chances are nothing will come of it. Remember that Obama sent American troops in order to try to catch or kill Kony last year to no avail. But if Kony 2012 does motivate a policy change and they ‘get’em’ (a dangerous precendent in itself) the direct outcome will be…nothing.
The reason for this was explained in a November 2011 article inForeign Affairs magazine written by Marieke Schomerus, Tim Allen and Koen Vlassenroot: “The violence in Uganda, Congo and South Sudan has been the most devastating – anywhere in the world – since the mid-1990s. Even conservative estimates place the death toll in the millions. And the LRA is, in fact, a relatively small player in all of this – as much a symptom as a cause of the endemic violence. If Kony is removed, LRA fighters will join other groups or act independently.”
This kind of conflict is not solved by Facebook campaigns, viral videos or silly young men mean-mugging with assault rifles like something out of the worst type of Hollywood fantasy. It’s not solved by killing one militia leader or even all the military strongmen in the region. It is solved by peeling away the tangled strands of history, economy and politics, both regional and global, that have brought central Africa to its knees then trying to construct some sort of good from it.
Academia is on point with this mission in trying to start a deep and meaningful dialogue around these issues. But until the NGOs and politicians are willing to take note and base their programmes on lasting change instead of PR gains and the media is willing to examine the complicated facts behind these atrocities and report on them in a responsible and non-sensational way, it will be business as usual in Central Africa. The children will keep dying behind our suffocating cloud of smug.