Why I find the Stop Kony 2012 campaign so offensive

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By Francis Moran

I first became aware of the Stop Kony 2012 campaign late on Wednesday evening and, from my very first viewing of the video, I had a sharp visceral objection to what I was watching.

The marketer in me objected to the video’s manipulative emotional hard sell whilst acknowledging with no small amount of awe the incredibly slick and effective manner in which it was done.

The informed citizen in me objected to the video’s simplistic reductionism of a complex, multi-dimensional and long-standing and intractable issue.

The journalist in me objected to the video’s factual misrepresentation and cheap sensationalism, and cried over the tragic African illiteracy of too many westerners that would allow this sort of intellectual pablum to be swallowed as truth.

The due diligence streak in me objected to the video’s expensive and lavish production values, and further investigation confirmed the charity behind the video has a superb track record at fund-raising and a less-than-superb track record of spending that money on front-line programming.

And, most viscerally, the Africaphile in me objected violently to the video’s deeply offensive subtextual narrative that Africans are helpless savages who must be rescued by some white man.

Like most of the tens of millions who have learned of this campaign, I was first made aware of it through posts in various social media streams. I tried to engage with the person whose post I first read, suggesting that his newfound desire to do something to rid central Africa of this vile and evil man was admirable, but that the organisation in question was dodgy and that there might be better and more effective mechanisms for his advocacy and for his dollars. I pointed him to some cogent and well-researched criticisms of the charity but he immediately dismissed them as “poorly written arguments by academic armchair critics.”

Here’s the really sad part. My Facebook friend who brought this campaign to my attention is a savvy and successful business person and marketer whose proficient use of the tools of persuasion has built two lovely, unique, multi-million dollar consumer product companies that are thriving. While I would not necessarily credit him with the most raised of political consciousness, I am both surprised and aggrieved that he, of all people, has been unable to recognise this campaign for what it is — a slick, manipulative exercise in self-aggrandisement that offensively and wrongly mischaracterises a complex issue in the promotion not of an effective solution but in the merchandising of bracelets and t-shirts.

This isn’t activism; it’s consumerism.

It’s easy to laugh at the celebrities who have glommed on to this campaign and filled their Twitter streams with hopelessly naive pronouncements. It’s a lot more painful to contemplate that otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people, like my Facebook friend, are naive enough to have been sucked in by this.

Most of those who join the campaign will be empty-headed, attention-challenged band-wagon jumpers who will turn their limited attention span to the very next bright shiny object just as soon as it shows up and, you might say, no harm done. Except, too many of these people will be persuaded to donate to a cause that is far more about selling t-shirts than finding solutions. The harm lies in the diversion of millions of well-intentioned dollars into an organisation whose on-the-ground effectiveness is suspect, at best. Those are scarce and much-needed dollars that now will not flow to the far more proven, sensitive and successful efforts by countless other organisations that have been working effectively on this issue for decades. And the harm, perhaps even more profoundly, also lies in the perpetuation of an old, tired and paternalistic narrative about Africa, a narrative that says Africans kill Africans and that we in the west must step in to save them from themselves.

The silver lining I see in this is that the campaign will succeed in bringing the issue of Kony and the LRA¬†to the attention of millions of otherwise ill-informed people. If even some of those people are moved to a more expansive, nuanced and sensitive exploration of the complex social, economic, resource-extraction and political challenges that embroil the countries of central and eastern Africa, then this will be a good thing. If you are one such person, some simple searches will bring you to well-considered articles dissecting what’s wrong with the Stop Kony campaign, educating you on the more complex issues at play, and pointing you towards alternative organisations far more deserving of your support.

Finally, let me point you to the story of William KamKwamba. It’s a story I first heard several years ago, but, coincidentally, someone brought it to my attention again this week and it stands in sharp contrast to the Stop Kony campaign as an alternative narrative of what’s happening across Africa. It’s a story of a dreamer, a story of ingenuity, a story of desire, tenacity and accomplishment. Political turmoil, corruption, exploitation, conflict, poverty and famine are a still-too-common part of today’s African reality. They’re the part that gets the headline treatment and it’s important that we know about them. But stories like William’s and countless others like him tell us there is another narrative, a far more hopeful one that sees Africans themselves harness the same human desires and capabilities we all share in pursuit of the same dreams and ambitions. Kony is Africa’s yesterday, and he must be put to bed. KamKwamba is Africa’s tomorrow, and he must be celebrated.

Image via Ricochet

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