Kony 2012: Why all the anger?

By Babak Moussavi

I didn’t watch the Joseph Kony video until today, which makes me about two weeks behind the curve. My being abroad is my excuse, though not a very good one. Over 100 million people had watched it before me.

But having watched it ‘late’ I also missed the controversy about it. Apparently, people seem to be up-in-arms about it for a variety of different reasons. I wasn’t quite sure why.

Is it really an issue that "we can all agree on"?

Perhaps the most frequent claim is that it over-simplifies by focusing on one bad man, and misses many others, as well as the entire context and history of the conflict. Indeed, the film does say that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army is fighting for power alone, as though they are descendants of Machiavelli. That is difficult to believe, and somewhat simplistic. Conflicts don’t just arise spontaneously, as a result of one man wanting power alone, but are to do with a plethora of historical and environmental factors. It does not help that the Great Lakes region of central Africa is brutally affected by the ‘resource curse’, or that it is an area rife with tribal conflict, as was demonstrated by the Rwandan genocide. Uganda is not Rwanda of course, and the former (as well as the latter) may now be entering a phase of development and hope, but that does not mean Kony is absolved. Whether or not he is still active in Uganda (and while the Ugandan government claims he is not, they also say that with American assistance his threat can be “altogether eliminated”) is slightly beside the point.

Although capturing Kony won’t solve a host of other (larger?) problems, it does not make that single (but not simple) goal wrong. For this is still a man wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is accused of perpetrating a host of heinous acts, including – as the film emphasises – abducting children to use as child soldiers. The ICC ruling earlier this week that Joseph Markus and Sam Bright both wrote in detail about, declared Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of the war crime of “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities”. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict highlighted the importance of this judgement for dealing with the problem of child soldiers: “The Lubanga judgment makes it very clear that this is a war crime. Sometimes when we go into the bush and meet rebel leaders, they don’t even know it’s a war crime. This will act as a deterrent.”

Conscripting child soldiers is precisely what Joseph Kony is suspected of doing. If so, does he not deserve a similar fate?

The idea of military intervention is mooted by the film, in the form of sending advisers to Uganda to assist with Kony’s capture. I have heard both the view that the film shows that US foreign policy is ultimately “selfish”, as it requires a huge amount of popular pressure to creak into a different, more normative position, and that military intervention must by its very nature be wrong. In response to the first point, every country’s foreign policy is based on what that country perceives to be in its interests: this is self-interest, a natural phenomenon, not selfishness, a moral position. And given the bad name that liberal interventionism currently has, it seems inconsistent to deplore the lack of US intervention as ‘selfishness’ even on occasions when it has “no dog in this fight” (as James Baker, a former US Secretary of State, once remarked), unless one really does want it to be the world’s policeman. Meanwhile, the cases of Sierra Leone and Kosovo would seem to provide a suitable response to the claim that military intervention is self-evidently wrong, even if it is not appropriate here.

While bringing Kony to justice will not end the conflicts in the central Africa region by itself, let alone make it a flourishing hotbed of development, it would be a good start. This does not imply that Kony is the only problem, nor its source. It is true that the film itself does little to inform viewers of the other conflicts and problems in the region. But this must lead us to consider what the point of the film is. I took it to be an advert and rallying cry for justice, not a lecture on the politics and history of the region. The film itself contains very few factual assertions, beyond the claim that 30,000 children have been recruited by Joseph Kony since the LRA’s formation in 1987. It simplifies by necessity. It attempts to touch a moral nerve, and to remind us that although children in places like North America and Western Europe are safe from becoming forced child soldiers, in some parts of the world they are not, and in many – indeed, thousands of – instances it is because of this man, Joseph Kony.

With a bit of luck, people who watch this film won’t stop their ‘research’ there, but will go on to read up a little more on who Joseph Kony is, what the context is about, and where these conflicts are taking place (and, if need be, they will hopefully look up Uganda on a map…). I would hope that the simplicities of the film are not the extent of the information absorbed, but that they are used to build a framework for understanding the problem of child soldiers, and the shamefully under-reported conflicts in central Africa.

If a portion of the 100 million-plus viewers actually does this, and subsequently become better informed about a long, bloody conflict in a forgotten part of the world, then please tell me what the problem is again?

  1. I’m in broad agreement (I think).

    While I can see the grounds on which criticisms have been made, I’m in no sense convinced by them.

    Maybe the criticism could be made that our approach to these far-away problems is infantilising: we presume that those affected cannot help themselves. As a result the benevolent and omniscient West is forced to step in to correct what, in its eyes, are abuses. But that is a criticism—linked to neocolonialism, something that some guy on the Today programme was talking ill-informedly about—which, if it could be made, is probably overblown.

    Perhaps you could raise the issue of selectivity and this might be linked to the previous point. This is the idea that these campaigns are always targeted at African or ‘southern’ countries and never at the West. Again, a potentially fair point, but it can’t go as far as people who make it say it does. Extrajudicial and arbitrary killings overwhelmingly take place in the global south. As for the West’s house – certainly it should be put it order, but that is no condition precedent to trying to put other places in order as well (particularly when it comes to an issue which must fall within a sphere of almost universal agreement – that using child soldiers and dismembering men/women/children is bad).

    And maybe the criticism could be made that further Western intervention is not the way to solve this – something the film does allude to, as you point out. But that it not necessarily what all those additional people who now know about the issue are likely to do. And, following the extensive debate it has generated, consensus probably opposes just “sending in the troops”.

    One thing I don’t like is the attitude of human-rights/development professionals when they say things like: “you don’t understand the complexity of the factors in play, and the history and character of the region’. Fair enough. But it’s effectively the same as saying, ‘leave it to the professionals – you don’t know enough about this to be able to have a view”. It can come across as sickeningly elitist. You’re right when you say the core point is visceral rather than cerebral – that’s how policy changes come about.

  2. It seems inherently ideological to say “they can help themselves and intervention (or help) must be wrong” – similar to the baseless claim made by Milton Friedman’s ilk in a different context. This region has never fully known peace in the modern era. And this is in part because of the history of rapacious (Belgian) colonialism in the region, which DRC is still suffering from. Does that mean the ‘West’ should not interfere as it will do more damage, or that it has a responsibility to do so? Neither argument is based on an evidence-based assessment of which would produce the materially beneficial outcome. The charge of neo-colonialism, as you say, is used frequently, but usually ill-defined, and for that reason, pretty redundant.

    In relation to the second possible criticism that you suggest – namely, of selectivity – the abuse highlighted here is about the use of child soldiers! That’s not a problem that occurs too frequently in North America or Western Europe… but it is an abuse that certainly should be stopped, let alone highlighted. And it’s simply not true at all to say critical campaigns are always aimed at African states or countries of the global South. Look at John Pilger’s documentaries that blast America, or Clive Stafford-Smith’s long-running campaign to highlight the abuses in Guantanamo for just a couple of examples.

    Good point about the experts telling people they don’t understand the context. Perhaps they don’t, but now they are interested. Which is a first (and probably necessary) step to understanding…

  3. Wmorton said:

    Hey Babbak! It’s been a long time man. Been enjoying reading your blog. I think one of the points that is causing a lot of controversy that you’ve missed is to do with the actual charity, invisible children, or whatever their called. They have raised an awful lot of money but are accused of spending a large proportion of it on PR rather than actually using it to put things into effect in Africa. I’m not sure how true this is and to be honest I’m not entirely in disagreement with that strategy as works well for big brands so why not for campaigns. Furthermore, our nations being ‘democratic’ and the politicians who theoretically have actual power to affect change are more inclined to answer to lots of people shouting loudly. As you said, that means what isn’t shouted about gets ignored, but Kony is responsible for a lot of bad things so if it does work it can’t be all bad. It does grossly over simplify though, and I’m not sure removing Kony will prevent someone stepping into his shoes. What gets me is that there are people who’ve caused just as much, if not more, pain who are never going to be touched by this kind of thing because they have succeeded in what they set out to do and reached a position of legitimised power. I’m thinking specifically of, again not sure this is his exact name, Senator Prince Johnson in Liberia, who is now sitting pretty after 14 years of civil war, hiring countless child soldiers, torturing and executing the previous president on camera, and is now denying that he did any of those things. People like him are too hard to touch so activists, and politicians, are inclined to ignore him. What you said about the campaigns to raise awareness about Guantanamo and such I disagree with. They might raise awareness but they will not cause anything to actually be done. Kony is an easy target. People were already acting to get him, it’s just that now they might be better equipped to do so. That’s the issue I have with this whole thing. It’s not really aimed at the activists but more at the state of the world I guess. The success of this video is based entirely on the fact that they have chosen an easy target, a lone wolf who will probably not leave a gaping hole in some newly established government if he is removed and who the Western powers do not care about.

    P.S. The guy who made the video is INCREDIBLY annoying and made me seriously want to have nothing to do with the campaign.
    Also, watch THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED if you haven’t already. It’s a documentary about one of the lesser generals in the liberian civil war. It’s really interesting from the point of view of the guy’s character and also makes a lot more of an attempt to look at the whole situation, from the arrival of freed american slaves onwards. Disturbing, interesting and very powerful.

    • Hi Will, thanks for commenting – and glad to hear you’ve been enjoying SJF. I’ll try to answer all the points in your intimidatingly large chunk of text!

      Yes, you’re right, I didn’t really comment on the charity itself. I also don’t know the figures for the accounts of the charity – as I said, I’d totally missed the video and the controversy, and so just wondered where all the anger was coming from. As I said before – and in response to the other large comment placed by the person after you – if the charity is meant to do ‘on the ground’ work, then yes, it seems misplaced, but if it is to raise awareness of a neglected yet horrific issue, then publicity is really the purpose. But even if the money is misallocated, it still seems odd that people would be more angry about the charity, rather than Joseph Kony, given the magnitude of each one’s alleged crimes…

      Yes, it simplifies, but as I said in the post, that seems to be by necessity. What is the purpose of the video after all? It seems to be an emotive advert for a forgotten cause – not a detailed analysis of the region’s problems. Stopping Kony isn’t a solution alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right. It would indeed be justified to campaign against any mass murderer, of child abductor. And the point is not so much to stop Kony, but to stop child abduction and forced conscription – clearly stopping men like Kony is a means to that end.

      As for the point that Kony is a lone wolf who ‘the West’ anyway does not have an interest in protecting, and that he is neither a leader of a sovereign state, I must agree with you – it does make him a conveniently easy target. But again, so what? Does that mean people should not want him stopped? If anything, it means that stopping Kony is just the start. I don’t think the film says anything to contradict this, so I don’t see how it would inflame such passionate feelings!

      I’m surprised you disagree about the Guantanamo point. Yes, Guantanamo is still open – but I chose a controversial, contemporary and still-running example, which is also a permanent anchor on American soft power. In any case, I was merely pointing out that critical campaigns aimed at Western-states’ actions do occur. Are you suggesting that popular pressure does not work in the West?

      Thanks for the tip about the Liberian film – will certainly check it out.

      • Wmorton said:

        The thing is I don’t disagree with any of the aims of the film. It’s more that it just highlights a sad state of the world, and one that I personally believe has always been the case and is not just of our time, that people in general do not know about these things and only react when they are told about them in ways that remind me of the X Factor, i.e. there has to be a sob story behind a contestant for them to have a chance of winning. With the Guantanamo example, I’m still not disagreeing with the good intent of the films but rather the fact that when these films are aimed at the people who truly rule the world I don’t see them having much effect at all. It is a very cynical way to look at these things, and I’m certainly not trying to claim that I’ve done anything better to change the world, but I’m always quite dubious when people hold up ‘people power’ as a way of making a change. As for that video I sent you of the guy, who I think is probably a crack head, I think the point he makes that stoods out to me most was that people will buy their Kony 2012 starter pack and then feel good about themselves but not do anything more. In the same way I think a lot of charity giving and such like involves people who don’t really know what is happening thinking that money is the solution when a lot of the time it just perpetuates the problem. Then when celebrities get on board the whole world comes with them and money is thrown at a situation when all it really needs (now it’s me oversimplifying) is careful management. Kony is clearly a bad man and something should be done about him. The problem I have is more to do with our reaction to him, and he is just one example among many, in that most people who react to this video will not know the myriad other problems that need to be addressed and will think that when Kony is killed/captured they have been part of something great. That may be the case, but the bad thing is that most of them will think that the job is done when in fact it is only the start. In short (bit late for that but forgive me) I think the problem is with our culture rather than this video specifically.
        Also did you hear that the man who made the video has just been sectioned by the police in California after wandering down the highway half naked masturbating? I don’t really know what to make of that…

  4. Wmorton said:

    Just noticed some spelling mistakes. Damn.

    • Will, in reply to your point on the thread above, I think you’re right that the main criticisms that we need to take on board from the Kony2012 controversy are the ones that reflect a problem with our culture, but not necessarily those that are directed at the film/campaign itself. For I think those have been shown to be somewhat misguided – though I’m still open to hearing more – and more coherent – points about what’s so awfully wrong with the campaign specifically.

      Ideally, if everyone were slightly more educated about the world and we didn’t need such emotive, simplistic advertising campaigns about things that really everyone should already know about (!), then perhaps the distribution of charitable resources would be more efficiently allocated, and proper, sustainable solutions could be advocated and backed. But we don’t live in that ideal world (yet? ever?), so we have to make do with appeals to emotion, as an attempt to get people to know about an issue, and then (maybe) contribute towards rectifying it. It’s not perfect. But it’s better than doing nothing at all.

  5. Ally Johns said:

    While I do think your points are sound, and many critics of the video are focused on these issues, I took core problem to be less about *what* the video was for, but rather, how that goal was achieved and the practises of the

    1) While it’s good to drive home your point with emotional impact, it should never be done at the expense of accuracy. I take it the core point here is that Kony isn’t even in Uganda, which is implied by the video. A core failure if it’s meant to be providing information! Moreover, you might think that

    2) Money. Money money money. It wouldn’t be a proper controversy if money wasn’t involved! I see three causes of concern here.

    (i) The source of funding: coming from unpalatable Christian Groups
    (ii) The charity’s closed accounts and apparently dodgy spending practises (how much was *actually* spent in Africa again?)
    (iii) The expense of producing such a video: which could have been achieved at less cost with greater impact.

    (3) Self aggrandisement. Significant or not, awareness of the charity and key figures within the chairty seem to take as prominent a role in the video as Kony (see point 1).

    I don’t endorse these criticisms, I merely want to see your views on them!

    I would say, though, that concerning your original point: you do assume a black-and-whiteness to the criticisms (which is in part the critics fault). If we take the question here to be whether the campaign caused direct harm to the people of Africa, you rightly indicate, it didn’t. Therefore, you conclude, “what’s the problem?”. But if we treat the question instead as: could the goals of the campaign have been achieved far more effectively? Then your point that raising awareness becomes secondary – it might raise awareness, but given the expense, given the methods, could the campaign have been managed in such a way as to achieve the aims without the risks of undermining international efforts and without such expense, with the money instead going to ‘on the ground’ charities supporting those harmed by Kony? This question really gets to the heart of the issue. The debate should not, therefore, be dismissed so readily – and the debates presented are certainly relevant – and are relevant to the other, more general question of whether we really need this kind of ‘middle man’ charity.

    Thanks for your aritcle, Bobby. Really interesting insights!

    • To take the numbered criticisms in turn:

      1) Were there that many facts in the video? And if so, were they clearly false? They do (albeit briefly) say that Kony’s gang has moved into neighbouring countries, and that the borders are porous, but I took their focus on Uganda to be a result of the fact that Kony’s efforts have – it seems – mostly been in that country, though not there alone. Since the video was largely about the problem of child soldiers, and those that Kony has abducted, then if Uganda is the country that has suffered most from this, then it doesn’t seem too wrong that it is the country they focus on. And part of the problem is people aren’t actually sure where he is!

      2) i) the source of the funding should only be a real problem if it actually influences the campaign – and perhaps alters its goals and strategies, in line with the donors’ interests (as is the case with arch-conservative-funded thinktanks in the US). I haven’t seen evidence that it has done either, but I know very little on this front.
      ii) Is the charity’s aim to spend that money in Africa, or to push the US government to do more to end the problem of child soldiers? Again, I don’t know the figures, and you say the accounts are closed… but their strategy does seem to be to get the superpower to do the job, rather than make the NGO a ground operation (as opposed to a pressure campaign).
      iii) How much did the video cost? Would a poor job have generated so many hits – and so much publicity? We will never know.

      3) Well is self-publicity actually self-aggrandisement or a necessary part of the campaign? They need to display their goals and strategies – and need to raise money to keep up the pressure. Again, people might find the campaigners annoying, but that seems to completely miss the point – who is more ‘annoying’, Joseph Kony or a few hyperactive campaigners?

      With regards to your point, if the criticisms are indeed that this campaign is not effective, and may actually hamper international efforts, I’d like to see a proper explanation, or some evidence, as to how this is the case. The idea that the money raised could have gone directly to charities working on the ground in Africa seems to assume that this money could be raised without the publicity factor – if so, how? Kony was far from well-known, and child soldiers aren’t a problem that appear in the news too frequently (apart from when films like Blood Diamond come out) so who exactly would be donating this extra money to these charities? Awareness of a problem within a population must surely come first, before any action can be taken (or money can be donated) by that otherwise oblivious group.

      Incidentally, I wasn’t intending to dismiss debate, I was just merely wondering whether the criticisms that I had heard were that coherent. It strikes me that assessing effectiveness is not a criticism in the same league, but something that all campaigns and projects should do anyway. And if the goal is merely to get people to know, then they seem to have done pretty well…

  6. I’m going to have to reply to both these enormous (and excellent) comments tomorrow, as I just got access to internet and it’s nearly midnight so my brain is switched off. I shall sleep on them and get back to you. Thanks Will! And thanks Ally Johns (I think I know your real name!).

  7. What an interesting discussion – well done to Babak and SJF for carving out a niche at the forefront of the day’s most sizzling debate.

    I am a little late to this thread, and not finding an appropriate place to comment, have placed myself where I chronologically belong, at the bottom.

    The criticism of the Kony video lathered across the Internet has come in from all manner of confusing angles and in all guises – clear, moralising, stealthy, masquerading, snide, clearly false – and I think we could benefit from some good old-fashioned categorisation. I have collected a few pieces, put them all together and boiled them down to the following conclusions, adhering, I hope, to Einstein’s epigram: Simplify as much as possible; but no further.

    1. The film raising awareness about Kony and the LRA should not have been made in the first place. This is because:

    1.1 The facts are wrong or the video is irrelevant. Examples:
    a) Relevance: “Kony is no longer in Uganda and so the campaign is rendered void.”
    b) Unverifiable claims such as: “Kony is dead.”

    1.2 The value of the film is rendered null by the fact that the charity or personalities involved do not reach the moral or social standards expected by the critic. Targets of criticism include:
    a) The way the charity is run: “The charity does not spend a large enough proportion of its money on the project on the ground.”
    b) The charity’s religious or social background: “The charity has a covert religious agenda.”
    c) Personalities: “The lead character is irritating.”

    2. The film should have been made, as raising awareness about Kony and the LRA is inherently a good thing. However, the way in which it was made could be considered to be counter-productive. Criticism includes:

    2.1 The content was, at best, unclear; at worst, misleading.

    2.2 It reinforces the false discourse of a helpless Africa needing foreign intervention.

    2.3 It is insensitive: It doesn’t show the plight of Ugandans but the story of a westerner with a hero complex. It also accidentally glorifies Kony by virtue of its Action Pack (e.g. with t-shirts showing his face) which adds insult to injury to the Ugandans implicated in the violence.

    2.4 The ideology of the producers shines through too brightly.


    I don’t think that any of the arguments that the film is inherently bad and should not have been made in the first place (1) hold water.
    The LRA is still active – even if this is outside Uganda – and raising awareness in principle about this issue can only be a good thing. Amnesty International has been attempting to raise awareness about Kony and the LRA for a decade.
    Concerning (1.2), criticising the organisation and the personalities involved (even legitimately) should not really affect whether or not raising awareness about the issue is important in principle.

    The way in which the film was made can, however, be quite legitimately criticised. I personally find the propagation of the image of the Western hero saving Africa to be particularly unhelpful. As Rosebell Kagumire, Ugandan journalist and blogger explains in her Youtube clip “My response to KONY2012,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLVY5jBnD-E), the film:

    “makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in terms of conflict, and that only people of this continent can help, yet this is not entirely true. (…) He plays so much on the idea that this war has been going on because millions of Americans or people in the western world have been ignorant about it.”

    I think it’s useful and indeed important to criticise the campaign – but it should be done constructively, which is certainly not what has been happening on the wicked web. From the things you read or hear on the Internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film had been fished out through a damp hole from the gates of hell. As you pointed out in the main article, millions of people who might never have heard of child soldiers, Kony and the LRA have been made aware of it, and this is fantastic. We should give the producers – irritating as they might be – some credit for making a viral video which is actually about something important, rather than (as alluded to by Charlie Brooker) about putting cats in bins.

    • Hi Sophie, thanks for clearly and helpfully summarising the main criticisms. I agree with you that the numbered criticisms aren’t very strong. But as for the response by Rosebell Kagumire, to be honest, I didn’t really see her video as a proper criticism, but as a complement. I think she misses the point by talking about its simplicity (I think Katherine’s post today is perfectly apt, in that it highlights that many in the ‘West’ aren’t very well-informed about the world), in that Kony2012 is a publicity campaign, not a lecture. But those who then go and watch Ms Kagumire’s video will then learn a lot more details about the conflict – and that’s over half a million people, so a fair few.

      I’m not sure the ‘Western hero’ idea was intended anyway – rather, it was a “we must do something” line, but it happens to come from people who are American. And I can’t stand the blanket charge on neo-imperialism that, although Ms Kagumire doesn’t explicitly speak about, many have derived it from this ‘Western hero’ critique. Any seemingly internationalist – let alone humanitarian – foreign policy can be described as ‘neo-imperialist’, but that doesn’t mean it’s the case. It’s one of those theories that can explain everything, and everything can be used as evidence of it, and therefore it explains nothing at all. And I highly doubt that the appearance of neo-imperialism is what the children at risk of being abducted (ie, the real focus of the campaign), or the families of Kony’s victims, would complain about anyway…

      Sorry, that last part is just me ranting.

  8. Rudge said:

    How will they measure the outcomes of this video do you reckon? Are there effective ways in the short, intermediate or long-term that we will know from any given perspective whether or not this video was “good or bad”. (Yes, I see the world in black and white).

    • Well you would need to do some sort of longitudinal study, beginning at the start of the conflict and measuring variables such as newspaper/tv coverage, funding contributions to charities that work in this area, or general awareness of the issues (probably by surveying people’s knowledge to basic, relevant questions – though this would ideally have to have been done before and after the video).

      If the release of the Kony2012 video – which would be an ‘independent variable’ (ie one that we would hypothesise would influence all those things mentioned above) – is seen to have measurably increased (in a statistically significant way) all of them, then one could say for sure that it’s had an effect. Whether an effect is “good” or “bad” is not for the social scientist to say, but if the numbers of each variables I mentioned have improved, then the campaigner – or anyone who wants Kony stopped and child soldiers rehabilitated – could plausibly say it’s had a good effect.

      Although it would have to culminate in those goals (Kony’s capture, child soldier rehabilitation) for its “good effect” to be ultimately successful.

      I don’t know if that’s clear. But in brief, yes, there are ways of measuring. And hopefully some people will carry them out.

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