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.