Is there anything to learn from Kony 2012?

Is there anything to learn from Kony 2012?

In March 2012 we witnessed a piece of online campaigning from a little known US charity, 'Invisible Children'. The group published an evocative online video with what it seems were three distinct aims; to draw attention to the plight of African child soldiers; to bring to justice a man alleged to be one of Africa's most prominent human rights abusers, and to raise funds for the charity's work in Africa. Worthy enough goals it seems but the Kony 2012 event raises serious questions about charities; what they do, how they are funded and how they campaign.


The online campaign, named after the infamous African warlord Joseph Kony, quickly went viral, scoring up to 9 million hits within a week. By the end of the campaign it had reached over 100 million.[1] Yet despite this popularity, both the campaign and the issue of child soldiers have quickly faded from public view. The street initiative threatening to flood cities around the globe with 'Wanted' posters of Kony did not eventuate.


The campaign's primary concern appeared fair enough. Joseph Kony leads the 'Lord's Resistance Army'. Dating from the 1980s, the LRA was originally an ethnic based militia outfit formed to protect the rights of Uganda's oppressed Acholi people. Kony, a former altar boy, is reportedly obsessed with the spirit world and declared the Ten Commandments guided his movement.  Whatever its founding principle, the LRA in 2012 is little more than an armed gang focused purely on its own self-interest and survival. It roams areas of central Africa where government authority is at its weakest; described by one western journalist as "without any pretense or ideological excuse for their violence, they have no cause and no plans to build a political organisation of any sort. They operate in an atmosphere of near-complete breakdown of state power, driven by raw greed and brutality."[2]


Ishmael Beah, author ofA Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,himself abducted by a group similar to that led by Kony, confirms the chaos and lawlessness central to outfits like the LRA: "There might have been a little rhetoric at the beginning but very quickly the ideology gets lost. And then it just becomes a bloodbath, a way for the commanders to plunder, a war of madness."


Kony is no post-colonial era freedom fighter or rebel with a just cause. Recently, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon submitted a report to the Security Council outlining the LRA's activities. Since 2009 the group has kidnapped close to 600 children, boys and girls. Girls are held in sexual servitude and the boys as child soldiers. Children are used as combatants, human shields, and on occasion, to kill other children as a means of maintaining discipline. Despite some recent success in combating the LRA, the New York based Human Rights Watch estimates that it remains a serious threat to civilians, particularly within the Central African Republic.[3]


The failure of the Kony 2012 campaign to maintain its momentum can be blamed on a few factors. Not least, human rights advocates, journalists and political commentators armed with a broader knowledge and experience of Africa, quickly pointed out its errors and inaccuracies.  The charity misrepresented the numbers of child soldiers recruited to the LRA and seemed not to know that Joseph Kony had long ago left Uganda.[4] Having been run out of that country, Kony, his child brides and boy soldiers, drifted up to the borderlands of three of the continent's worst-off countries - Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The campaign's failure to appreciate that Uganda was no longer the epicentre of the issue did not inspire confidence in the organisation's local knowledge or connections.


Ugandans themselves rejected what they regarded as a caricature of their country and saw echoes of neo-colonialism in 'Invisible Children's' posturing. They argued they were given no credit for their success in pushing the LRA beyond their borders, nor for the critical work of reconstruction that has taken place within Uganda over the past six years. 


Perhaps the most serious criticisms came from an alliance of established charities, civil society organisations and NGOs with long term African experience. These agencies universally deplored the over simplification of a complex issue. They saw the Kony 2012 campaign as a distraction from the serious business of long-term community development and rehabilitation. Quite possibly they were also concerned at the threat to their own finances if emotive campaigns by 'Invisible Children' continued.


African civil groups were particularly wary of producer Jason Russell's solution. He was essentially campaigning for a ramping up of the military pursuit of Kony. Experienced local and international groups were keen to point out that military measures in the past have led to more children being placed in harm's way. Kony's soldiers, mostly children and teenagers, would be on the front line in any confrontation.


Of additional concern are the retaliations that warlords mount against local populations when the military caravan inevitably moves on. Oxfam warned that military interventions in the past have been followed by the massacres of hundreds of villagers. Over a period of three weeks in December 2008, following a failed military push in the region supported by US forces, 865 men, women and children were killed and hundreds more abducted.[5] If the war on terror has taught us anything, it is that military power is a blunt instrument for dealing with human rights abuses. Kony 2012 knew none of this.


Further embarrassment for the charity was to follow. Within a short space of time Russell had a personal and public fall from grace. Late on the night of 16 March, San Diego Police arrested Russell. Dressed only in his underwear, he was discovered damaging vehicles and performing lewd acts in public.[6] Whatever the nature of Russell's personal collapse, the event drew further attention to his own credentials and those of 'Invisible Children', the charity he co-founded.


More concerns about the charity were inevitably raised; issues such as the group's financial transparency, whether it delivered the range of services in Africa it publicly claimed and finally its links with anti-gay, fundamentalist Christians in the US. Such groups are active in the region and have been blamed for a rise in homophobic violence in Uganda and elsewhere.[7]  


It would be a great pity if a discredited Kony 2012 campaign takes the plight of Central Africa and child soldiers with it into oblivion.


These questions persist. What was the group going to do with all the money raised through the campaign? Would it be something of substance or merely more self-promotion? Even given the benefit of the doubt, does 'Invisible Children' have the cultural understanding, local knowledge and political acumen to deliver on such a complex issue?


The Kony 2012 campaign raises some thorny issues for Australians wanting to do good in the world. Poverty alleviation and human rights advocacy is not an easy beat. It's no place for amateur outfits spouting one dimensional solutions and a quick fix. While a little emotional engagement with an issue is a good thing, it takes as much head as it does heart to get things right. If anyone tells you otherwise, don't fall for it.

[1] Curtis, PollyThe Guardian, Thursday April 19, 2012.

[2] Gettleman, Jeffrey, 'Africa's Dirty Wars'New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012 p 33.

[3] Smith, David,The Guardian, Thursday June 7, 2012.

[5] Curtis, Polly,The Guardian, 19 April, 2012.

[7] Smith, David,The Guardian, 15 March, 2012.

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