I’ve intentionally restrained myself from participation in the whole #Kony2012 brouhaha for several reasons, one of which is simply that I was busy with other things. Another is that I wanted to sort of let things simmer down a bit so that I could speak, rather than holler over the din of said brouhaha. The by now famous video to which I cannot bring myself to direct even one single additional hit (so you’ll just have to Google it), leaves us in the humanitarian world with a number of interesting takeaways, in my opinion.
For me, the first and most important is:
Long, involved messaging works. Or at least it can. Whatever else you want to say about Kony 2012, the fact that the supposed “most viral video of all time” is but a few moments short of 30 minutes long has huge implication for how we can now think about marketing our work and educating the general public about what we do. After a decades-long career of being told that donor education and marketing messaging had to be condensed into mere seconds, 30 minutes to get a point across – thirty minutes! – feels like a dream come true.
There’s no excuse to fall back on oversimplification of humanitarian issues.
There’s also the point that…
Humanitarians have done a very poor job at helping their constituent audiences formulate linkages between activism and action. This is not a new problem, but Kony 2012 re-hits us over the head with it. Nearly 100 million viewers still have no concrete sense of what options there might be for dealing with Kony (the filmmakers’ own son obliquely suggests war, or maybe assassination?), or what the ramifications of the various options might be. Nor do they have any clear sense of what they can do individually, beyond wear a bracelet and send money to an organization that few had even heard of prior.
Even the mighty Kristof in defending Kony 2012 against criticism from the humanitarian world (“nobody fights more wickedly than humanitarians…”) cannot get more specific about what this film accomplishes than some nebulous statements about “galvanizing concern among mostly young Americans.” Oversimplification of the issues is a critical problem as others have repeatedly pointed out (so well that I don’t have to ), but in the end my strongest personal grievance with Kony 2012 is simply that it doesn’t tell us what needs to happen. Write a letter to my senator? Saying what, exactly? Join the army?
Joseph Kony is a bad man who needs to be ‘stopped.’ I agree. But how?
We need to be careful to not blur the distinction between raising awareness about a problem, and the capability of humanitarians to address it. Kony 2012 is only the latest shining example of awareness-raising about a problem that is utterly beyond the capability of the humanitarian community to address. We can work with former child soldiers (very specialized, by the way, and extremely difficult. Few NGOs or individuals have the ability to do this properly.), we can engage in different ways on the periphery, we can do “advocacy” in the Humanitarian Capitals… and that’s kind of it. As NGOs and as humanitarians, we cannot stop Kony. Or restore law and order and safety in Somalia. Or Darfur. Or Afghanistan.
In broad principle I completely agree that more awareness among the general population about issues such as the evil being inflicted by the LRA, the better. But as those who on a regular basis raise that awareness, we need to be conscientious to couple awareness-raising with sound messaging about what real solutions might look like. And also with clear statements about what role we as humanitarians might play in bringing about those solutions.
Beware the meteoric rise: When an organization or cause or movement is based on a single charismatic individual who rockets to fame overnight, it almost never ends well. Enough said.