Kony2012: the dilemma of mobilising for aid

Focused on the challenges of declining funds and public skepticism at home, development organisations tend to pay more attention to ´what works´ to convince donors and journalists, rather than finding out first what resonates with the people they mean to help. What kind of success is a film which its intended ´beneficiaries´ would rather do without? asks Ute Seela

Ute Seela
23 March 2012

The American internet-film Kony2012 about the leader of the Lord´s Resistance Army (LRA) has been watched more than 100 million times in a week, presumably mainly in the Western world.  Millions responded to the call last week to share the video, upload a personal response, or buy an ´action kit´. A clear marketing success. At the same time, a Kony2012 screening in Lira in northern Uganda provoked outrage among thousands of spectators.  The victims of Kony in Northern Uganda dismiss the project as humiliating and incorrect -  a campaign at the expense of the people it claims to help. What could have happened if the organisation  Invisible Children had made the film together with the Ugandans?

Two weeks after the Kony2012 internet launch, the two sides of the debate are clearly visible. The supporters of the campaign point out that ´at least something is done´, that even a simplistic film is a means to an end, and the end is capturing a war crimes suspect and getting justice. As the Invisible Children film producers put it:  “The  campaign aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

This view is also strongly advocated by development communicators who are enthusiastic about the  innovative form of the campaign. On the other side there are a range of critics  - from the stone throwing spectators of the Lira-screening, to numerous  researchers, investigative journalists and development programme staff.  They argue that because of its simplification, ignorance about the effects of its proposed ´solution´, and a  lack of respect towards the victims, it does more harm than good.

Women's Civil Society Groups in Uganda have launched the "Kony2012 campaign, Blurring Realities", and issued a statement :

" We have watched the campaign video and we believe that at the present time, it is out of context regarding the real issues of the conflict in Uganda. We therefore want to draw the world’s attention to the issues that we believe are of importance to the sufferers and survivors of this conflict.

For the last twenty six years, a lot has been done by different stakeholders in Uganda including the women’s movement, human rights organisations, academics, international development partners and bilateral agencies, in response to the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The government of Uganda made an effort to end this war through the Juba peace process. Even when Kony failed to sign this agreement, the government put in place a recovery framework that has been collectively implemented by the stakeholders. It is therefore not correct to say that nothing has been done in the last 26 years.

Some of the work by the civil society movement includes supporting the reconstruction efforts for the victims, and advocating to hold the government of Uganda accountable while working towards ending the conflict. Women Civil Society groups in Uganda have been pushing for gender sensitive programs in the affected areas in order put women at the centre of all reconstruction and recovery efforts.

While the idea of this campaign against the LRA leader Joseph Kony is welcome, the steam it has created overshadows the real concerns of the sufferers and survivors of this conflict in Uganda. Many former child soldiers and former abductees, women and girls, are now struggling with so many challenges such as reproductive health problems, post traumatic stress disorders, food insecurity and livelihood support among others. Due to war, there are many infrastructural challenges facing the entire population, and health problems like the nodding disease now affecting children in North and North Eastern Uganda. Capturing or killing Kony however does not put an end to the suffering of these survivors immediately.

We do realise that a lot of money has been/may be raised through this campaign dubbed Kony 2012. As the women’s movement, we believe that the biggest percentage of this fundraising should be used to support the various recovery efforts mentioned above.

In addition, we urge the people behind this campaign to focus on the countries where Kony is operating at the moment. Young children, women and men in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic are facing similar atrocities suffered when Kony was still active in Uganda. It is important for this campaign to emphasise the need to help the affected population where Kony is presently active.

Kony no longer abducts children on the soil of Uganda".

What kind of success is a film which its intended ´beneficiaries´ would rather do without?

The debate is heated, and goes as far as doubting the good intentions of both sides. It has made the film go even more viral. ´Of course. Because we like to watch when other people fight´ - one could argue. But the incredible success of Kony2012 goes beyond clicktivism. The enormous rate of sharing and responding to the video and buying ´action kits´ indicates that people are genuinely moved, feel injustice and want to do something. A good sign in these days of crumbling public support for development cooperation.

Therefore, development communicators argue that we should learn from it in order to be able to strike that chord next time, too, and work with the people who we intend to help.  There are examples of successful online campaigns, on platforms such as avaaz. However, they don't reach anywhere near the popularity of Kony2012, and their effect in generating donations is rather limited. There is a clear dilemma here: for a campaign to mobilise such numbers it has to be emotional and simple. But involving victims, conflict management specialists and researchers does not produce a simple story. Marketing means compromising on nuance – you cannot have both.

People give to charity because they have been personally touched by a story. The maker of Kony2012 brought his 3-year old son into the picture. Journalists covering natural disasters hunt for a story featuring a fellow national as victim of that earthquake far away – it brings the suffering even more directly in our lives. It may mean ´thickening´ the story a bit to reach its objective: fund raising. The other necessary ingredient is urgency and the perceived gain of personal action. Focusing on the audience´s role to make something visible is a powerful one.  ´I can pressure decision makers´ is another. ´Because as voters we can force our government to send the army to get that criminal´ - is a compelling and simple line of argument.

A more layered narrative about the causes of the war, the current problems and possible solutions, weakens that clear message. A co-creation of Invisible Children – by marketing professionals working in collaboration with Kony-victims -  would have been better, but not reached millions.

How to get out of this dilemma? First of all, what development organisations least want is discover one day that they have lost their integrity. The Invisible Children organisation has been accused of operating out of self-interest – its own survival being the main driver, not contributing to a solution in Northern Uganda. While I cannot make any judgments in this particular case, I would argue that in general development organisations work with the best intentions, but are often caught in their own ´little bubbles´. Focused on the challenges of declining funds and public skepticism at home, we tend to pay more attention to ´what works´ to convince donors and journalists, rather than to go and find out first how it resonates with the people we intend to help. What would have happened to the film's producer Jason Russell  if he had shown the film to the people in Lira, before releasing it on YouTube? Obviously, Ugandans do not all share one opinion on it, including the team that made the film – yet how much effort do we make to research until we have a real sense of what is going on, beyond what we would like to hear?

Secondly, if the dilemma means compromising on something, let´s be very clear about the effects. Choosing mobilisation in the West as a goal may mean pressure on Western (and in turn Ugandan/Central African) politicians to send their forces to capture Kony.  From a ´justice´-point of view that may be good news (provided that it doesn´t kill more innocent civilians as "collateral damage"). It should be carefully weighed against a possible preference for traditional means of justice and reconciliation on the side of the concerned Acholi people. Sidelining their views and agency, the ´mobilisation strategy´ may cement the current growing resentment of Western paternalism in Uganda.  Choosing, on the other hand, the path of laborious engagement with a myriad of voices to produce a detailed and  nuanced view, may produce a complicated story which doesn´t earn any quick internet (and fund raising) success, or the arrest of Kony. It may, however, contribute to the array of slow reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in which the people themselves are the main agents.

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