Archive | February, 2013

One Year Later, Analyzing Kony 2012’s Fatal Flaws

24 Feb

Since the original Kony 2012 video came out on March 5th, it became the most viral video of all time, received tremendous amounts of criticism, and then as quickly as it appeared, the movement faded into relative obscurity.  While the concrete effects of Invisible Children’s campaign on the LRA’s insurgency are fleeting, the video prompted both a public interest in central African conflict and a critical discussion on foreigners’ role in conflict prevention, the LRA’s place in a broader African context, and a history of human rights abuses by the Ugandan army.  While Kony 2012, at the very least, was terribly problematic, it did accomplish a very limited number of its goals.  However, considering the massive following it was able to initially achieve, the campaign was certainly a failure.  Joesph Kony continues to elude pursuing armies, and policy-wise, little has changed in the past year.

Beyond the campaign’s basic inability to successfully prompt the arrest or death of Joseph Kony, Invisible Children ultimately made little headway in producing an approach that was likely to achieve one of those two goals.  In a panel discussion I helped organized last semester, Swarthmore history professor Tim Burke argued that the United States’ past attempts to work with African strongmen had always failed, and would continue to do so.  IC’s campaign could not be a more perfect example.  Kony 2012 threw all of its eggs into the Ugandan military‘s basket, simply ignoring its long history of human rights violations and Musevini’s use of the LRA to justify a large military budget (which is then used to fund meddling in the DRC).  IC also failed to take into account Museveni’s propensity to use hunting the LRA as a bargaining chip with Western donors.  Ultimately, using a military force with foreign advisers to hunt down and eliminate the LRA is a tactic that has been tried over and over, and failed every time.

Invisible Children’s approach to ending the LRA conflict in the Kony 2012 video was essentially based in a flawed, simplistic understanding of the conflict.  Though, to its credit, IC does some really good work on the ground in Northern Uganda, its policy proposals, consisting of more American military advisers, were always destined to fall flat.  The LRA is a symptom, and not a cause, of poor governance, violence, and civilian suffering in the areas in which it exists.  Killing Joesph Kony is highly unlikely to seriously change regional dynamics in DRC, South Sudan, or the Central African Republic.  This analysis seems pretty basic, and so it’s hard to understand why Invisible Children chose to promote such nonsensical policy.

Though Kony 2012 did succeed in taking Invisible Children, and even human rights advocacy, to new heights, it seems that there were small changes IC could have made to promote better policy without damaging the video’s popularity.  In the end, the problem with Kony 2012 was not so much the template they used to draw viewers in, but rather with the solutions the campaign espoused.  Instead of a campaign focused on killing Kony, IC could have produced a similarly sappy video that focused on efforts to coax poor African children who have suffered at the hands of the monster Kony out of the LRA and back into their communities.  It could have even convinced viewers to direct some of their ire toward regional governments who have done little to help the plight of LRA victims.  This alternative video would still have catered to those with a white savior complex and totally simplified the conflict.  It could have portrayed the LRA’s child soldiers as poor souls trapped in between the spiritual delusion of Kony and the neglect of greedy and incompetent regional governments.  A stronger focus on LRA child soldiers as victims would have helped sort out the bizarre moral universe created by IC in the original Kony 2012 video in which child soldiers are victims, but also legitimate targets for a military mission aimed at killing Kony.  This alternative video would still have had many problems, and would have still been rightly subject to mounds of criticism, but at least it could have done some good.  

* For a more in-depth reflection on Kony 2012, check out Daniel Solomon’s in-progress five part series on the campaign. 


A Comparitive Analysis of Citizen Security: Bolivia and the United States

18 Feb

*As I did in my previous two posts about my experiences this summer, I will continue to use the pseudonym Joplin to describe the city in order to protect the identity of the people I mention.

I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia just over two weeks ago, and am enjoying getting myself acquainted with Bolivia.  Before departing, I read Rutgers anthropologist Daniel Goldstein’s book Outlawed, which looks at citizen security in Cochabamba southern neighborhoods.  These areas are made up of recent indigenous internal migrants.  This constant struggle to protect one’s family and possessions reminded me of my experiences working in Joplin last summer, a place where residents constantly fear for their safety because of gang violence.  Both Cochabamba and Joplin are places where race and class differences are strikingly obvious: Joplin has a murder rate almost twice Detroit’s, but is just two miles away from rich, white, leafy suburbs.  Cochabamba, and Bolivia as a whole, is incredibly unequal.  Recent indigenous migrants exist side-by-side with the city’s elite.  In both cities, citizens are forced to attempt to protect themselves without the prospect of significant state assistance, but continue to look toward the state for security.

The most striking similarity between Joplin and Cochabamba’s southern sections is the state’s inability or unwillingness to hold a monopoly on force.  While this is true on the surface, the state is not entirely absent in either case.  Instead, Goldstein uses the term “the phantom state” to describe that while the state doesn’t intervene directly, its laws and hypothetical presence shape the actions and expectations of residents.  If the state actually didn’t exist (as perhaps one could say about Mogadishu two years ago), residents would not have to think as hard about whether or not to take security into their own hands.  In Joplin at least, the state exists to a minimal degree, but residents still distrust the police to actually carry out their duties (for a city of between thirty and forty thousand, Joplin has only six officers on duty at a time).

Despite its constant negligence, it is still the state that residents appeal to for security.  In Cochabamba southern regions, residents are frustrated by laws that prevent police from holding criminals without sufficient evidence.  Many believe in a pact between the police and criminals where criminals, when caught, allow themselves to be taken in by the police, but are then released when they arrive at the station.  By the residents’ reckoning, it gives police officers something to do, it provides a steady stream of revenue to underpaid police officers, and it keeps criminals’ businesses alive.  In community meeting after community meeting in Joplin, I heard a desire for more police on the streets, more raids on suspected drug dens, and more powers to arrest suspected criminals.

The lack of a state to provide security for its citizens challenges our notion of what states are, and similarly, it problematizes human rights discourse.  For many residents of Cochabamba’s southern self-constructed neighborhoods, HR is a language spoken by foreigners that protects criminals rather than normal citizens.  While I never heard HR discourse directly challenged in Joplin, a disdain for suspects’ rights was commonplace.  In mainstream human rights discourse, there is a victim and a perpetrator, but when those lines are not clear cut, applying basic HR concepts becomes much more difficult.  In both Joplin and Bolivia, threats come from a mass of unorganized, faceless, and nameless young men.  Human rights discourse is supposed to protect such masses, but when they themselves are seen as the threat by a terrified populace, residents don’t want to listen to lectures on due process.  If human rights discourse is to succeed in places the like Joplin and Cochabamba, it needs to reinforce the right to receive security services from the state.

Lacking a state to protect them, how can citizens living in marginal spaces improve their communal security?  Organization, on three fronts, is crucial.  Firstly, residents must organize to press the state for the expansion of security services, and use their political power to punish officials that do not make the necessary changes.  Secondly, residents can establish neighborhood security organizations that promote greater cooperation and understanding among residents on efforts to improve citizen security.  Finally, neighborhoods must work across gender and age gaps to promote understanding.  Though in Joplin I repeatedly heard calls for expansive police powers, these statements were all coming from middle aged women.  Young men, for whatever reasons, were absent from the meetings, and had they been present, their demonization would have not provided a welcoming environment.  To tackle this problem, a series of workshops have been organized in Joplin that first talk about violence with separate groups of teenagers/twenty-somethings and middle aged residents, then bring them to together to continue the conversation.  Without a state to provide security, communities that are able to reach across internal divisions to promote a collective security effort will likely be safer.