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The KONY2012 Dilemma

March 19, 2012

If you still haven’t watched the KONY2012 video, you must have been living under a rock. Since its publication on 5th March, 2012 the video has become “the most viral video in history”. At the time of writing this article just 10 days later, it has received nearly 80 million views, and by the time you read this it may well be a few million more. To put into perspective, that’s the size of the population of Egypt; or four times the population of Australia!

KONY2012 has been produced by an American organisation called Invisible Children to make Joseph Kony ‘famous’. The assumption is that by knowing about the atrocities committed by Kony and his Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda (and more widely in Central Africa), people would work to ‘stop Kony’: to capture and bring him to justice.

When I finally managed to watch the video this week, I was really moved by it. The film has slick cinematography and a powerful storytelling style. It pulls on your heartstrings from the outset by making you see the world from the perspective of a parent. The child soldier being abducted in Uganda and being forced to kill his own parents, could be your child.

However, having worked on issues regarding the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I had concerns about the film: the oversimplification of a complex situation and especially the final action proposed by the campaign. Asking for a 100 American military advisors to stay on in Uganda to advise Central African states to capture Kony, does not seem enough. It seems like a bit of a shame that a video which had reached so many people would propose an action with potentially such little impact. But I was willing to overlook it thinking that the simplicity of the narrative and the ask was probably also its strength as it made people feel that they could do something, rather than a complex set of proposals that would overwhelm them. I reasoned, at least something is better than nothing.

What I wasn’t expecting was the kind of backlash that has hit the video, both in the mainstream, as well as social media. From people in northern Uganda to school children in the UK, everyone has something to say about it. And a lot of it has been negative. People have criticised it on the grounds of being misleading about the situation on the ground, perpetuating negative stereotypes about Africans and denying them their agency to concerns about Invisible Children as an organisation and the transparency of their financials. This storm of controversy led Invisible Children to publish an official response clarifying some of the allegations.

While a lot of these are very legitimate concerns, this ‘KONY2012 bashing’ to me still seems a little harsh. As someone who works in international development, I can relate to the criticisms on a personal level. As campaigners, we are faced everyday with the challenge of translating complex and difficult issues into ‘user-friendly’ and accessible campaign actions and ‘advocacy products’- anything that would get people and policy makers to take action. Tons of such (and worse) campaign videos are produced by NGOs every day. But they don’t have to face such harsh criticisms because, to be honest, their work never reaches the same impact and isn’t as ‘successful’ as KONY2012.

As campaigners our goal is to do good in the world, but at the very least we aspire not to do any harm. Thus for me, the crucial dilemma raised by the video is this: Does it do any good at all or does it do more harm than good? In other words, is it worse to have 80 million misinformed people than, say, a million well-informed ones?

The dilemma, I would argue can be answered in two ways:

First, let’s suppose, as a result of getting involved in this campaign even if two million people (a very tiny percentage of those who have viewed the video) then go on to get more informed and take more nuanced actions to bring about change, we've ended up in a better place than we were previously.

On the other hand, the above approach just looks at the ‘tangibles’ of the issue, as a matter of efficiency and getting things done. As a friend of mine pointed out, the bigger danger here is of perpetuating a disempowering narrative and what harm that can do in the long term. As some activists from Uganda and other countries have noted, by suggesting that Africans need the help of the West (read: Americans) and not highlighting their agency (Jacob appears more as a symbolic victim than as a symbolic agent in the video, although there are parts that allude to the latter), the video unintentionally perpetuates a disempowering and even damaging narrative about “those Africans” who must be saved by “us”.

Those of us from Pakistan know how damaging a negative narrative and discourse can be. Labels such as “the most dangerous country in the world” and being a “frontline state” for the war on terror have been just as, if not more, harmful to Pakistan’s image and thus its economy and tourism, as the actual incidents of terrorist attacks.

While I would leave it to the individual reader to decide their answer to the dilemma posed above, I would say perhaps the best thing that has happened as a result of this video is that it has got people talking and engaging in debate. Some will go on to acquire ‘better’ information. Some will take action. Some campaigners who have been working on the issue for years can now use this as a springboard to launch their own more ‘nuanced’ campaigns. Some will draw attention to existing projects on the ground that support local initiatives, and strengthen not just local agency but synergies across the world to make a difference. And that, I would argue, is a good thing.


The writer is a freelance international development consultant. A graduate of McGill and Oxford University, she has worked for organisations such as Oxfam and the UN.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.