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The problem with Kony 2012

March 7, 2012

Invisible Children’s latest video, Kony 2012, has gone viral today. As of this writing, the video has garnered 9 million views on Vimeo and almost 10 million views on youtube. The interweb is buzzing with talk of the video and everyone and their mom is posting the link to it. My twitter feed has been inundated with tweets about it, however, almost all of those tweets were in opposition to the video. Why? Because most of the people I follow on twitter are Aid and Development professionals and they, along with many other people, including many Africans, see a problem with a bunch of white kids creating videos talking about how Africa needs their help to fix its problems.

I have written in the past about the dangers of stories and simple narratives (here, here, and here). This is no different. The problem with their advocacy is that it is too simplistic and focused more on them than on the Africans they say they are trying to help. It is easy to get caught up in the emotions and horrors that the video discusses, but you cannot just leave it at that. We must educate ourselves to know the fuller story and the complexities of the situation and not naively believe that passing a video around is going to fix the problems in another country. More to the point, we should not believe that they need us to come and fix their problems for them. Also, while I am ranting, no reputable organization would film traumatized, vulnerable children and broadcast it for all the world to see. I’m sorry, but there is something terribly wrong with that.

I would write a lot more on this, but as you will see, plenty of others have already done that.

Below are a list of articles dealing with this issue. Please take the time to read the full articles (and follow the link at the bottom to see many more) in order to fully understand the situation and problems with how Invisible Children is presenting this issue.

Visible Children via Chris Blattman “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

Worst Idea Ever via Wronging Rights – “First, organizations like Invisible Children not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used todevelop more intelligent advocacy. And yeah, this may seem like an absurdly academic point to raise when talking about a problem that is clearly crying out for pragmatic solutions, but, uh, the way we define problems is important. Really, really important. Second, treating their problems as one-dimensional issues that can be solved by a handful of plucky college students armed only with the strength of their convictions and a video camera doesn’t help anyone.”

We Got Trouble via Visible Children – “Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow.”

Bad guys, good guys, and the people in between via How Matters – “Watching the video really brought home this article recommended by @mindfulaidwork today, ‘The Importance of Sadness.’ It may help explain why Invisible Children remains so popular among the public. They conjure up a horrible situation, only to let us distance ourselves from the difficult emotions it inevitably brings forth by creating a shallow sense of empowerment, that is, enabling us to believe that we can change the course of another country’s history. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster, the ultimate gaming experience, and we’re the heroes.”

Let’s Talk About Kony via Securing Rights – “Colonialism’s historical baggage matters, and the competition for voice-representation is, for all intents and purposes, a zero-sum game. Ugandan civil society participants, particularly the ones engaged in the non-Invisible Children-affiliated reconstruction, reconciliation, and post-conflict development work, are noticeably absent from Jason Russell’s narrative.”

Kony 2012: The Invisible Children Advocacy Campaign to Catch Kony via Justice in Conflict – “The advocacy campaign to stop Kony is a step in the right direction, but it does not address the real problems on the ground and it does not offer the right solutions.”

The Problem With Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” via Michael Deibert – “By blindly supporting Uganda’s current government and its military adventures beyond its borders, as Invisible Children suggests that people do, Invisible Children is in fact guaranteeing that there will be more violence, not less, in Central Africa. I have seen the well-meaning foreigners do plenty of damage before, so that is why people understanding the context and the history of the region is important before they blunder blindly forward to “help” a people they don’t understand.”

For a much longer list of articles, compiled by WhyDev, click here

UPDATE (3/8/2012): I’ve heard from a number of people who have read this post and others and who really want to understand the problems, that the following post is the one that best articulates the issues:

Kony 2012: history, nuance, and advocacy’s Golden Rule by @dalgoso – “Whipping the American public into believing that we’re morally right to intervene militarily is always fraught with danger. Stripping away the nuance and complexity of the issue makes it worse. And make no mistake: while Kony is undoubtedly an evil man who should be stopped, the history of the LRA and the governance/military situation in the region make this whole thing more complicated than it seems.”

I also wanted to highlight a few other posts which I think add more to the debate:

On Complexity, Awareness, and Social Action via James McCarty – “It is one thing to ‘just do something’ when the issue is cleaning up the park down the street. It’s another thing when it involves a global effort to to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to hunt down a single person, especially when its likely that effort will harm many other persons. On that level telling people to ‘do good and shut up’ is morally irresponsible.”

A Peace of my mind: Respect my agency 2012! via TMS Ruge – “Let me be honest. Africa is not short of problems, epidemics and atrocities. But it is also true that it is not short of miracles, ingenuity, and a proclivity to surprise. We as Africans, especially the Diaspora, are waking to the idea that our agency has been hijacked for far too long by well-meaning Western do-gooders with a guilty conscious, sold on the idea that Africa’s ills are their responsibility.”

Unpacking Kony 2012 via Ethan Zuckerman – “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?”

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 7, 2012 11:25 pm

    Interesting & helpful thoughts, Jon. Thanks for encouraging your readers to dig deeper, to examine where the issues truly reside, and to take action appropriately.

    • March 8, 2012 4:55 pm

      Thanks. I’m glad you found it interesting and helpful.

  2. March 8, 2012 9:40 am

    Great article…I wonder what sparked the desire to help. As a christian, I have seen time and again well meaning people who want to help but do not have a directive from God on the matter. I mean God gave us a directive in the bible to help those who are in need but I believe God is a God of order and when we try to take on Goliath without God’s soveriegn protection & direction things go badly.

  3. Aaron Weaver permalink
    March 8, 2012 12:03 pm

    While I may have had some of the same doubts about the kony video, and also thought that this is just a way to make money, there is only criticism here for a campaign that is both in the public eye and has millions of supporters. Where are these authors suggestions on how to fix an unfixable problem? Nowhere. If people have a problem with kony 2012, why not go directly to the source, and work together to come up with a new plan to help right the situation in Uganda? The other problem I have is that it sounds an awful lot like you are saying that when people come together it is pointless. To be honest the fact that the message is now wide spread and people are willing to do something about inspires hope in me that there is still some heart left in the world. Like all critics all you do is blast the boat out of the water rather than saying “Let’s take all that energy and focus it in the right directions.” Shame on you.

    • March 8, 2012 5:14 pm

      It is not my right nor is there a necessity for me to be the one to come up with a solution to a problem that is on a continent half a world away, in a country that is not mine. That was a major point of what I and others were saying. Africans should be making these decisions and there are many Africans doing a lot for themselves, as evidenced by this post ( We need to stop thinking they can’t do anything without our help. Advocacy is great, if it is done correctly, but when it is done wrong, it leads to simple narratives that strip away the complexities of the situation and lead to ideas, policies, and programs that are focused on the wrong things.

      You say “people are [now] willing to do something” but what is that something? Having a heart and desire to help is one thing, but that needs to be backed up with knowledge and experience about the best ways to do it, otherwise you run the risk of hurting the very people you want to help. If that something is to mobilize the US govt to send our military to find and arrest kony and then there will be peace and happiness, the question becomes, is it really that simple and is it the right move?

      The US tried in the past and failed. So have the armies of the three countries the LRA has been in. How much money, resources, and troops did the US commit to finding Osama Bin Laden and how long did that take? It’s not that simple. The bigger question is, even if you do get him, will that change anything? The theory is, if you cut off the head the body dies, but again, with Bin Laden and other situations, we know that isn’t the case. His group, which incidentally only numbers about 200 these days will probably continue to function. Here is a quote from another article ( “Complicating matters, Kony continues to rely on child soliders. That means that a military assault – targeted to a satellite phone signal or some other method used to locate Kony – would likely result in the death of abducted children. This scenario means that many northern Ugandans don’t support military efforts to capture or kill Kony, but advocate for approaches that offer amnesty to the LRA ( in exchange for an end to violence and a return of kidnapped children.” He also says that they are continuing with the videos in an effort to make sure the US does not pull its troops out, but as others have stated, there is no indication that has ever been put on the table.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    March 8, 2012 1:17 pm

    I’m sure this would have been helpful for me to understand the situation better, however when you chose to say “see a problem with a bunch of white kids creating videos”, I stopped reading….

    You lost me right there… your credibility lost…. even IF you are 100% right!!!

    • L. Anderson permalink
      March 9, 2012 3:29 pm

      Sounds like ‘a bunch of white kids making videos’ is working somewhat : big controversy, lots of visibility, many people paying attention and dialoguing. Until reading these posts I didn’t even realize ANYTHING significant was going on in central Africa (no disrespect to local inhabitants intended).
      I agree with ‘Anonymous’ above a bit…. Aside from educating myself on the issue more when I’ve got some time, is there anything else the naysayers here suggest?

  5. March 8, 2012 2:30 pm

    I read that article from “respect my agency” and that was from someone on the front lines of rehabilitation. Very interesting perspective. A voice we should probably encourage.

  6. March 12, 2012 10:03 pm

    Thanks for linking to my post on @InnovateAfrica & I hosted a live chat today to reflect more the issues that came up from our posts on #StopKony. Read more at:


  1. Kony 2012: One thing we should all agree on « Communication Rhodes
  2. A reader's digest of KONY 2012 |
  3. Stopping Kony, or stopping video activism? « Dochasnetwork's Blog

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