COHEN: Activism should go beyond Facebook

Over break, a new topic dominated Facebook and Twitter: #KONY2012. The nonprofit Invisible Children launched this mass activism campaign with a viral video protesting the horrific actions of Joseph Kony, the leader of a rebel group in central Africa called the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The LRA is a brutal and destructive force. It abducts children and rapes and kills women and men, often forcing children to kill their own parents. And it’s been doing so for 26 years. Invisible Children is right to publicize Kony’s crimes — there’s no doubt about that. But the group and its “Kony 2012” campaign are not helping the situation in Africa.

I give Invisible Children credit for trying to raise awareness about the LRA and its atrocities. It is no easy task to get thousands of college students sharing photos and videos. And raising awareness is good — if people know about an atrocity, they are more likely to try to do something, whether it is contacting their government or raising money for charities.

But my biggest qualm with Invisible Children — besides its directors who pose for pictures holding enormous guns and get arrested for public masturbation — is that it seems to be raising awareness for awareness’s sake.

While the group claims it spends 80 percent of its money on program expenditures, less than a third of that goes to actual programs on the ground in Africa. The rest goes to travel, salaries and video production.

In fact, Invisible Children’s director of ideology (director of what?) proudly states that “we are an advocacy and awareness organization,” not an aid organization. But Invisible Children doesn’t go on to direct viewers to an aid organization in its video — it asks for donations.

For about a week, my newsfeed was flooded with Kony statuses. As I write this, however, there is not a single Kony-related post on my newsfeed. Not one. By using a viral video, Invisible Children’s campaign went the way of all viral videos: massive interest followed by only occasional mention.

The “Kony 2012” campaign allowed me to feel like I had made a contribution by clicking a button or posting a link, when in reality I did nothing to hasten Kony’s downfall.

Kony is no longer the hot topic. But that’s okay, because all the rich, white kids in America got to feel good for a few days about our kinship with African children, right? That doesn’t exactly seem like lasting awareness.

Invisible Children offers only one solution to the problem: U.S. troops. There are a lot of evil people in the world — and many other warlords in central Africa — but should we send in troops to kill all of them? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but the group doesn’t even address the implications of its suggestions, and forgive me if I think a cute five-year-old shouldn’t set U.S. policy.

What’s more, the LRA hasn’t actually been in Uganda for about five years, and not because it has expanded to other countries as Invisible Children’s video implies. It has limped to other countries in its weakest state in 26 years. The LRA is still a destabilizing force in central Africa, but the real picture is very different from the one the video paints.

There is also not a single African on Invisible Children’s board of directors. It strikes me as a sort of modern “White Man’s Burden” — those poor, poor Africans obviously need the help of white Americans! The video does not promote African agency in solving an African problem. Most “Kony 2012” fans have watched one video and maybe read some articles; that does not make us experts on Africa.

With any luck, Joseph Kony and the LRA will be captured or killed soon, before more lives are destroyed. My problem with Invisible Children lies not in its finances or board of directors; it lies in its definition of activism.

Activism for any cause cannot just be a fad, a bracelet you wear or a status update you post. It needs to be a sustained effort by people who actually care. I hope I’m wrong, and the awareness Invisible Children raised changes more than a few Facebook statuses. But either way, if you actually want to affect the situation in central Africa, look to charities that actually do work on the ground — unsexy, un-videoed, unceasing work that causes real change, not just passing fads.

Sam Cohen is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at samson.cohen@yale.edu.

Comments