Last week the Kony 2012 documentary exploded online, building tremendous awareness and support with over 70 million views. Along with its popularity, a debate emerged which has included a noticeable amount of criticism and backlash toward the Kony campaign creators, Invisible Children (so much so that it’s pushed co-founder Jason Russell to mental breakdown). But that was last week, so it's old news.
Maybe I’m a bit more fascinated with this Kony 2012 video because last month I returned from sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe it hits closer to home because I was there working for a non-profit group based in San Diego that also supports good causes in Africa (education, AIDs clinics, and orphanages in Nigeria). But my experience with this group has been mixed. I’ve had the opportunity to see my employer’s great charity work, along with their huge misunderstandings about daily realities in Nigeria. I’ve seen how they have affected some Nigerians positively, and how they have insulted others. I’ve seen both miraculous progress, and the unintended negative consequences of humanitarian intervention on foreign soil.
It’s hard to believe-- as a Westerner from a developed country-- that one could visit and leave sub-Saharan Africa without a sense that vast improvements in the quality of life need to be made; that the level of poverty in some places makes a mockery of the modern world’s concept of human rights. So I can understand how any compassionate human would be compelled to get involved at some level-- to create or contribute to an organization that affects change in Africa. In short, it makes sense that Invisible Children exists.
However, as I have recently witnessed, there seems to be a tendency within American humanitarian, non-profit groups to assume that-- because they are making the effort to fundraise, are educated, and have good intentions-- they: 1) know what’s best for Africans, with little or no research, 2) can impose their decisions on Africans from afar with little or no African consultation or representation, 3) expect Africans will be 100% grateful for all their awesome American efforts, and 4) will continue to push their cause in Africa because they are convinced that Africans could never do it on their own (i.e. the Savior complex). And in the process, as you can tell, “African” becomes one large, racialized, generalized, anonymous group of helpless victims.
Unfortunately, the Kony 2012 campaign and Invisible Children highlight all of the aforementioned problems with such organizations.
While striving to do something good in the world, it's a shame that so much of their fundraised money is being wasted. I’m not saying it’s wasted because Invisible Children’s accountants and CEO are horrible at their jobs (although that might be true too). It is wasted because of the great divide that exists when you impose your own solutions on issues that are 6,000 miles away. They are issues that foreigners don’t understand nearly as well as locals. This becomes apparent in the Kony 2012 video, which clearly embraces a victim-savior mentality; an Americans-can-save-the-world mindset. Such a perspective is ignorant and naïve. And during the inevitable learning curve involved in this kind of international work, precious funds are misspent.
I hope that this well-intentioned yet misguided Kony campaign at least leads to more urgent, practical questions: What are the most pressing problems currently facing the people of northern Uganda? What’s the water and electricity accessibility in the region? How about education and health care? If I was Ugandan, I’d be outraged that fundraised millions have been spent on a campaign “to make Kony famous,” yet my people have no health care or running water (and Kony moved to another country years ago)!
To clarify: the reason I criticize and scrutinize Invisible Children/ Kony 2012 is because resources are limited for non-profits, and such organizations should do the best they can with the contributions they are given. These organizations should do this first by completely understanding the prioritized needs of the communities they claim to serve (rather than make Americans think that-- first and foremost-- "we" should chase a warlord through central Africa while wearing Kony merchandise and listening to Mumford and Sons). If non-profits are disconnected from local needs, then irresponsibly intervening from afar will certainly waste money, and potentially cause more problems than existed there in the first place.