Invisible Children, “Kony 2012″ & The Problem With Paternalism

Yesterday I posted a video from non-profit Invisible Children aimed at bringing Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice. Titled “KONY 2012,” the 30-minute spot has become an unstoppable viral sensation this week. Seemingly out of nowhere, the video’s popped up everywhere, on tons of friends Facebook pages, on Twitter and on countless blogs. That’s the stated goal of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who made the film as a way to bring attention to the actions of Joseph Kony and hopefully help arrest and bring him to justice.

Admittedly, I posted the video yesterday without knowing much about Uganda, Kony or Invisible Children — and though I watched the video in its entirety, I can’t say I was a huge fan of it. Still, I thought, this is probably worth sharing. It’s 30 minutes out of people’s lives, and it’s worth it to spread the word about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda and the unjust, unnecessary war of terror Kony has been waging there.

But that was yesterday.

And since then, I’ve had time to reflect a bit more on just what rubbed me the wrong way about Invisible Children’s approach. A Tumblr’s been started challenging the organization, and Jezebel and The Guardian both have scathing takedowns charging the seven-year-old non-profit with everything from misusing and inefficiently appropriating funds,  to simply being run by a bunch of douchebags (really).

But what it comes down to for me — and for countless African journalists and activists who have also viewed the video — is paternalism. Invisible Children — an organization whose stated mission is to stop Lord’s Resistance Army violence and support the war-affected communities in East and Central Africa — uses an approach that has a distinctly paternalistic, almost colonialist pallor.

What does paternalism even mean? In the context of international conflict, it implies that that one region (Africa, and in this case, Uganda) lack the infrastructure, resources and ability to self-govern, police and develop themselves, and thus require an outside hand. In relationship to Africa, paternalistic attitudes took over during decolonization efforts during the 1950s and ’60s as relationships between colonizers and colonized countries evolved. In watching “Kony 2012,” you get the impression that nothing’s been done to help the children of Uganda — when actually there’ve been many African-led interventions happening all along.

As the name implies, think of it much as you would a parent-child relationship. Or, as Ethiopian writer and activist Solome Lemma writes, it’s almost as if the video is saying, “Daddy will work on making sure [Joseph Kony] is caught.” It paints Africans as disempowered victims and Westerners as freedom fighting liberators. “[Invisible Children] calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering” she continues. “Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of child and youth advocates who have been fighting to address the very issues at the heart of IC’s work.”

For Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire the video oversimplifies the situation for millions of Ugandans. “It simplifies the story of millions of people in Northern Uganda and makes a generality that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict, about how only people of [the U.S.] can help. … The war is much more complex than just one man called Joseph Kony. This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero, rescuing African children.”

But that’s the nature of so much Western-oriented NGO work, which is aimed at relieving the problems of the poor, the downtrodden and the abused, without actually ever, you know, creating a dialog about what’s actually needed or wanted. That’s the same criticism that TMS Ruge, founder of Project Diaspora, an organization that works with victims of war crimes, has of Invisible Children’s work. Writes Ruge, “It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence. To be properly heard, we must ride the coattails of self-righteous idiocy train. Even then, we have to fight for our voices to be respected.”

As Ruge notes, Invisible Children may have good intentions, but by failing to include Africans in the conversation, they’ve reproduced a dichotomy in which Western NGOs are the actors and Africans are the acted upon. And, as Ruge further explains, when organizations like Invisible Children succeed in telling the story, other parts of that story get buried. “I would love nothing more than to be telling you the small victories we experience working with the very scarred survivors of Kony’s atrocities.  … But I can’t tell you their story. Why? Someone else has taken over their part in this complex saga, simplified it, branded it, packaged it and is reselling it as an Action Kit.”

And that reminds me of another rather horrible narrative: that of colonizer and colonized. It’s a narrative that Africans know all too well.

This doesn’t mean that what Invisible Children is doing doesn’t matter. Or that Joseph Kony shouldn’t be stopped and tried by the International Criminal Courts. It just means that the work that IC does comes from a particular place – and that place isn’t a self-determined African place. And we are doing Ugandans, and Ugandan children a disservice by assuming that a top-down, outside-in approach is the only one that exists, or is the only one that’s valid.

For More Information
Joseph Kony Is Not In Uganda and (Other Complicated Things)