March 13, 2012

The World Scoffs at Simple Solutions

I may be the one person on the Web who hasn’t watched the “Kony 2012” video, probably because I already knew who Jospeh Kony is and what his brutal (Christian – that gets left out a lot) militia has been up to over the decades. I’m not surprised that the video’s basic message – that Kony is a bad dude and something needs to be done with him – is resonating around the Web, given the horrible things he has done.

I’m also interested in the slowly building voices that are taking aim at the Kony 2012 project and the group that produced it, Invisible Children. A main critique is that the video distills what is a long-raging conflict with a complex history and distills it into a simple “good versus evil” narrative, complete with the heartstring plucking use of IC’s 5-year old son as a prop, which suggests a simple solution to the problem. Mark Kersten, writing in Salon, explains:
Many have said it is manipulative and patronizing. But the most problematic and potentially dangerous aspect of the film is what it doesn’t do, which is give an adequate understanding of the dilemmas and situation facing those who live in LRA-affected areas. Invisible Children’s smooth message brutally obfuscates key realities about the conflict and other real and less costly solutions, in both human life and monetary terms.

* * *

As many critics have pointed out, the crisis facing LRA-affected areas, which include northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, is far more complex than the ‘KONY2012’ filmmakers portray. It is a conflict that reaches as far back as 1986, and one in which atrocities have been committed not only by the LRA but by the government of Uganda.
Or, as Alex Dewaal of the World Peace Foundation puts it:
In elevating Kony to a global celebrity, the embodiment of evil, and advocating a military solution, the campaign isn’t just simplifying, it is irresponsibly naive. ‘Big man’ style rulers – of which [Ugandan] President Yoweri Museveni [who is no saint himself] is one – prefer to dismiss their opponents as disturbed individuals, and like to short-cut civil politics by military action. The ‘let’s get the bad guy’ script is a problem, not a solution.
That’s important, given that the main action urged by IC is some kind of military intervention. But that’s been tried before, with bad results:
In 2002, following the U.S. declaration that the LRA was a terrorist organization, the Ugandan People’s Defence Force won the reluctant cooperation of Sudan and launched ‘Operation Iron Fist’ on both sides of the Uganda-Sudan border. It didn’t succeed. In 2008, after the LRA had relocated to north-eastern Congo and the adjoining areas of southern Sudan, a joint offensive by the armies of Uganda, Congo and South Sudan also failed. Another episode was a 2006 operation by special forces attached to the UN mission in Congo. Experts in jungle warfare, Guatemalan commandos were dispatched to the Garamba national park with the objective of executing the recently-unveiled ICC arrest warrant against Joseph Kony and senior commanders. The operation ended in disaster with the UN soldiers fatally shooting each other.
I’m very sympathetic to those criticisms. The world seldom breaks down into simple Manichean struggles of good guys versus bad guys. Simpleminded solutions often tend to make things worse, not better, or at least prolong the suffering. But I’m also sympathetic to IC and its desire to make Kony public enemy number one. He’s a religious nutcase who kills and enslaves people. There is no good there. That doesn’t make the situation in which he exists simple, however, nor does it point to a simple solution.

I’m less sympathetic to criticism like these (again, from Kersten’s Salon article):
While much of the criticism has taken a vitriolic character, some have tapped into larger debates about human rights activism in Africa and ‘[t]he White Man’s Burden.’ The Nigerian-American novelist and photographer Teju Cole, for example, argues that ‘[f]rom Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the U.S. is the White Savior Industrial Complex.’ Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Semha Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network, noted that Invisible Children ‘must be willing to use their media to amplify African voices, not simply their own. This isn’t about them.’
Don’t get me wrong – I’m hip to the problems of culture imperialism. It’s just that I seem to remember decades of pleas for the West to do something in response to various crises in Africa, from Ethiopia to Rwanda to Sudan. Often the pleas are literally that – do something, anything – without any real specifics attached. So which is it – hands off and let the locals hash things out? Or swoop in and provide some assistance?

There must be a happy medium. I think Araia is perfectly right that, in the end, problems like Kony “isn’t about” the would-be saviors who come in from the outside. They’re about the locals who have lived (and died) with the problem for decades and will be there long after the spotlight shifts to a juicier atrocity. There’s a world of difference between providing valuable assistance to the locals that empowers them to find long-term solutions and just sending Steven Segal in to jump out of a C-130 and kill Kony with his bare hands while grateful locals grovel in thanks, after all.

Which, when it comes right down to it, is just another reason why simplicity really shouldn’t be the guide star for solving problems like this. History is messy. Local rivalries are complex and long standing. Viable solutions have to take all of that into account. They don’t always make for such compelling viewing or the most effective sound bites, unfortunately.

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