Talbot: Exercise caution on Kony campaign frenzy

Enough already with the ‘stop Kony’ posts.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great millions now realize there are some awful things happening in this world – thanks to Invisible Children’s (IC) KONY 2012 video.



Garnering tens of millions of views in less than a day, IC’s video accomplished its goal – making Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), responsible for atrocities against civilians, famous. And for that, I give credit.

But after seeing the video, the evening before it spread like wildfire, I was hesitant to share it.

I knew who Kony was before the video went viral. I’m not saying that to tout myself – awareness is an occupational hazard. Still, I knew I was a minority, at least in my age group. And that’s partly why, after seeing IC’s video, I was impressed by the idea of engaging youth in a worthy cause by way of social media and what is, at best, a clever, targeted marketing campaign. At the same time, the video’s slick production value wasn’t enough to get me on board.

Even before the criticism came forward, I was bothered.

My first reaction to my Facebook news feed, suddenly riddled with posts about Kony, wasn’t the reflex I was seeing: I couldn’t believe how quick my friends were to support an agency they likely hadn’t heard of until that very moment. I couldn’t believe they, like many of us living sheltered and privileged lives, had become passionate, overnight advocates for children in Uganda when we weren’t doing enough at home.

I am not equating what is happening in Africa to what is happening at home. But, if you don’t know donations are down at the London Food Bank or the Women’s Community House could use some laundry detergent, I’m not convinced your desire to help children in Africa is sincere.

And even if your desire to raise awareness and help victims of the LRA is genuine, what have you actually done, beyond posting and tweeting? While the use of social media is great to raise awareness, I still think it promotes ‘slacktivism’ and at the end of the day, copying, pasting, clicking and talking doesn’t accomplish anything.

Some might say, “But, I did do something; I donated $30 and bought IC’s posters, bumper stickers and bracelets that will help spread the word.” To them, my response is the same. As well meaning as the gesture may be, it doesn’t accomplish much.

Here’s why. (And I thank Grant Oyston, a student at Acadia University for doing the legwork and sharing the following.)

Last year, IC spent less than a third of its funds on direct services in Uganda, using the bulk of its income to pay staff salaries, travel, transport and film production. IC isn’t externally audited. Their money supports the Ugandan military, also accused of rape and looting.

Their video inaccurately, almost deliberately, gives the impression that Kony is still in Uganda (he hasn’t been there since 2006), carrying with him an army of some 30,000 child soldiers. The LRA has been losing ground for years and its numbers are likely in the hundreds today.

But here’s the rub: IC oversimplifies a very complex issue to get your attention and money.

If Kony were arrested, what would change? The video presents him as the sole perpetrator of violence and the only ‘bad guy’ in this story. What long-term solutions are in place to ensure this doesn’t continue? What aid is in place for former LRA recruits, victims or families?

Ever read Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden? IC’s video perpetuates an image of developing African nations in need of saving by the West. Instead of acknowledging on-the-ground efforts in Uganda and other African countries, IC’s Jason Russell speaks on their behalf and props himself up as Africa’s saviour, a ‘White in Shining Armour.’

In a lot of ways, the video is ignorant, arrogant and offensive.

And I won’t get into Russell’s dialogue with his 3-year-old son, Gavin, but will say this: Watching the video, we run the risk of becoming the toddler, taking in a simplified lesson and seeing a complex issue as black and white (pun, intended).

IC proposes yet another resolution by way of military intervention. How successful has this approach been in other parts of the world, in recent past?

Yes, we need to ‘stop Kony.’ Yes, Uganda and other African countries need our attention. Yes, we need to actually do something about it.

But, instead of sending our money to IC, we could all do a better job of getting and staying informed and supporting a variety of NGOs working on the ground, not just in Uganda, but other African countries as well.

At the end of the day, I am glad to see the attention and criticism IC’s video is getting. Thankfully, the debate has opened up discussions about appropriate and feasible approaches to Western aid in Africa.