(Update: Since originally writing this, I have also come across this: Ugandans are suspicious of the video as well. If you took the time to watch the 30 minute Kony 2012 video, you need to also watch this 6 minute response, which is a brilliant critique that makes many of the same points I attempted to make, but more eloquently and better informed.)
If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you probably have seen someone post the “Stop Kony 2012” video by now. At the time of writing this, the official video has almost 39 million views on YouTube, and #StopKony has been trending on Twitter for the past couple days. If you bothered to watch the video, you will see a well directed 30 minute video by a not-for-profit organization called Invisible Children demanding the arrest of a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, who is accused of using children as soldiers and raping women. The directors requested everyone share the video on social media sites, in particular targeting celebrities and policy makers, and as a result the video has gone viral. While Joseph Kony deserves to be arrested, this organization and its method also deserves to be scrutinized.
Several other blogs have raised criticism of the Invisible Children organization, and I encourage you to read them (1, 2, 3, 4). Many point out the poor financial record of Invisible Children, which only provides 32% of its donations to the active cause. Certainly there are better not-for-profit organizations that one could donate to if they want to make a difference in central Africa. The video and its directors deserve further criticism though. I am not an expert on Uganda, Joseph Kony, or central Africa, but the fact that I felt just as comfortable talking about the situation before watching the video than I did after watching it raises serious concerns about its educational value. True, the video raised my awareness of Kony, and as an interested person, I will research it for myself, but the majority of viewers will not do the same, and therefore will learn little from the increased awareness of Kony.
What exactly does wearing “Kony 2012” bracelets and hanging up posters do to solve the conflict in central Africa? There is a difference between bringing awareness to the serious issues in Africa and making it a trendy movement that will fade away as soon as 2012 ends or Kony is captured. The film does not explore the roots of the problem or how large the problems are in Africa. Kony is not the only African warlord, and if he is captured the problem is not solved as another one will simply replace him. Yet the video presents it as a single issue that Kony needs to be stopped, and that is the solution to the problems in central Africa. It simplifies the problem to such an extent that the viewer learns little from it, and hence there is no educational value to it. Nothing is mentioned about the diversity of Uganda, which contains many different ethnic groups without any one being the majority. Nor is anything mentioned about Uganda’s colonial past, which continues to shape the country which only gained its independence fifty years ago. When a country consisting of such a diverse population gains its independence, wars between different ethnic groups are not uncommon. Invisible Children seems to ally itself with the Ugandan government against Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but the Ugandan government is not free from human rights abuses itself. The Ugandan government has considered passing an Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would punish those convicted of homosexual acts with the death penalty. Is this the government that an organization for peace should be allying itself with? Arresting Kony certainly will not improve the government’s human rights record. To understand the problems in Uganda or central Africa, one has to know at least a little about the background of the country or the region. In fact, the viewer learns more about the director and narrator’s five year old son, who is vital to the video, than anyone else, including Kony.
The fact that the narrator and his son play such a major role in the video romanticizes their role in an uncomfortable way reminiscent of the White Man’s Burden. I do not believe the narrator had bad intentions while making the video, and I believe he thinks his organization is truly helping, but the fact that he can create a video with his five year old son pointing to a picture of Kony as saying he’s “the bad guy” that needs to be stopped without recognizing the inherent cultural imperialism behind it demonstrates how clueless the organization is. The idea of the White Man’s Burden is that it is whites noble mission to uplift other “uncivilized” races. It makes me very uncomfortable to watch a video where a white narrator talks to and about his son and how he wants to raise him in a world where (black) children in other countries are not forced to serve in a military. His plan to make sure his son does not grow up in such a world is simply to make videos such as this one, have people share them, spread “Kony 2012” posters and bracelets, and press lawmakers to make sure Kony is arrested. White Americans need to realize that the best way to help solve a conflict in Africa is not to make it into movement using social media. If people want to become true activists and raise awareness of complex issues, they need to first fully understand them themselves (which I do not, nor do I claim to) and second they need to educate others so they understand the problems at hand.
Instead of a video about “Kony 2012” that ignores the complexities of the problem and focuses on his (white) five year old son, the narrator would be better suited to make a video about the war torn region and poverty in it that educates the viewer instead of telling the viewer it is our duty to rescue them.