The internet and twittersphere are abuzz with commentary on the documentary film Kony 2012 by Invisible Children calling for action against the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The documentary has garnered the attention of millions through social media, exposing new audiences to Kony, a brutal warlord of mythic proportions. The video had 52 million hits on youtube as of today.
However, as many have noted, the documentary is simplistic and misleading in its portrayal of conflict in Central Africa. For example, it glosses over important details like the fact that Kony is not in Uganda, that the much diminished LRA has most recently been wreaking havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, and that Ugandan soldiers pursuing Kony have themselves been accused of human rights abuses. The film embraces social media to send the message that anyone on Facebook can end a war and arrest a bad guy, by enlisting celebrities, writing to politicians and buying an action kit from Invisible Children containing Stop Kony 2012 bracelets. The press coverage of the Stop Kony 2012 campaign has surged – articles even refer to Kony as the latest internet star.
Many ‘experts’ who comment and write on issues about conflict and development – academics, aid workers, students and others – have berated the documentary in round two of ‘Konygate’ – the backlash. They’ve argued in blogs, online articles and tweets that Invisible Children’s campaign is at best misguided and manipulative, at worst damaging to the cause it seeks to promote. The Kony documentary is an easy target for such ire, because tactics used by Invisible Children have come under fire before, because of factual inaccuracies/omissions in the documentary and the blatant endorsement of military action against Kony (which is already occurring). Photos of the founders of Invisible Children holding guns haven’t helped. Stop Kony 2012 epitomises the idea of ‘bad-vocacy’ – while at the same time having enormous uptake.
What has been largely overlooked in the debate so far is considered discussion on advocacy and media messages about conflict and humanitarian needs – one that looks beyond the most extreme examples and reflects on the aid industry as a whole. It’s easy to point fingers at the Kony documentary but there are more nuanced examples about how war, conflict and suffering are portrayed in efforts to promote action and to get people to donate to charities. Kony 2012 risks taking over what could be an otherwise broader discussion on these issues.
A first question is how to influence policy and conduct advocacy in ways that don’t boil complex conflicts down to simple narratives. Here the DRC is a prime example. Séverine Autesserre explores how advocacy on the causes of the conflict and its consequences have been reduced to, respectively, conflict minerals and sexual violence. This has resulted in disproportionate international attention to these issues, while other important causes and consequences are ignored. There are also difficult questions about the roles aid actors should play in directly advocating for measures to address civilian insecurity and conflict resolution in places where they deliver assistance. Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, notes that there is no template for advocacy, and that humanitarian actors must weigh up different possible messages and tactics (such as quiet diplomacy, passing on the information to other actors, semi-public advocacy, dissemination to a limited number of targets or full public diffusion).
Another issue to discuss is how NGOs and charities generally communicate with the public about conflict and humanitarian needs. Fundraising is usually a central objective of these communications. The message, implicit or explicit, is that ‘your money will save someone’s life’ or ‘your money is all that stands between this woman/child/man and destitution’. There is truth to this as some aid does save lives, for example interventions that address severe malnutrition and treat and prevent disease.
However, people affected by crisis and disaster survive and recover mainly on their own. They sell goats, take children out of school, secure loans, change the crops they plant, share food with their neighbours, skip meals, get money from family members and migrate. Aid can be an important form of support, but it is never the only one. It is fundamentally important to understand people’s own strategies and the local institutional context, and tailor assistance accordingly. This includes supporting people’s capacities to deal with shocks and crises before they even happen, which is a very different message than ‘your money saves a life’.
The Kony documentary crossed a line. People who view it will make up their own minds about it. We should use the debate it’s generated as an opportunity to look more closely at how crises are portrayed by all those who seek to address their causes and aftermath. How to attract attention, funding and action on humanitarian causes while avoiding simple messages is not an easy question. But the answer goes well beyond criticism of a misleading documentary and an action kit with bracelets.