There is a rather amusing scene in the 2009 Sacha Baron Cohen movie Bruno in which the titular character satirises the common tendency of the Western world to fickly obsess itself with atrocities in far off lands, asking the question "Darfur is the big one now... what's the new one, what's Dar-Five?". Bruno's absurdity sums up effectively the susceptibility of the West to not only treat aid campaigns like fashion trends coming in and out of vogue with the seasons, but it demonstrates the propensity in this media obsessed age for the Western public to fall prey to movements asking for money and support purely because they are able to produce impressive Hollywood style productions to promote their cause.
Enter 'Kony 2012', the viral campaign which dominated facebook and twitter last week, aimed at highlighting the crimes of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda by "making him famous". The campaign calls for direct military action in Uganda to stop the LRA in its atrocities of murder, rape and most prominently, the kidnapping of children who are subsequently raised to become indoctrinated fighters for Kony and his movement. Such a campaign sounds all well and good, there is no doubt that such a man should be stopped and brought to justice for his crimes against humanity. However, like all seemingly lovely things, it's a bit too good to be true.
The problem with 'Kony 2012' is multifaceted and many have been talking about the campaign's finances in the last few days. The campaign is run by a shady group known as 'Invisible Children'. The group has released several films on Kony, but it is the latest one which has brought the group into the mainstream. The problem with Invisible Children and Kony 2012, is that the group has been repeatedly condemned by leading academics and observers. Last year, the group spent a total of $8,676,614, but a measly 32% of this money went to direct services in Africa with the remaining funds going on salaries, travel and transport expenses, and media. The groups financial accountability has a rating of 2/4 stars from Charity Navigator, who criticise the groups shady finances.
However, the ethical issues are much greater than the well publicized financial issue. The campaign is financially linked to the Ugandan military, which itself is responsible for wide scale looting, rape and war crimes in its efforts to fight against the LRA. One can only surmise that the massive amount of support that this group has received online symbolises the uninformed and/or fickle nature of the Western public (I am presuming most supporters of Kony 2012 are unaware that the group funds the Ugandan government, or have just plain forgotten that this is a regime deplored the world-over in recent years for its despicable treatment of LGBT people and other minorities). Furthermore, the success of this campaign illustrates the dawn of a new era of proxy war. Proxy war is a term most often attributed to the various peripheral conflicts of the cold war era, but this is very much a proxy war, except this time its Joe the plumber who is funding it, not the governments of the superpowers. It's a simple case of funding rapists and murderers to kill other rapists and murderers. The campaign supports this funding of the Ugandan military because it believes the Ugandan army is the best means of defeating Kony, a highly erroneous claim considering Kony hasn't been active in Uganda since 2006 (Invisible Children themselves admit this despite the sense of urgency surrounding their campaign).
The ethics of the group aside, the whole notion of raising awareness in the West is seemingly better than no action at all surely? Yes and no. The US and Europe are more than aware of Kony's crimes, the man and his militia have been active since 1987, this is not a new set of atrocities, these are crimes which have been perpetrated before I was even born, by a movement which has been driven underground for the past six years and is relatively dormant in comparison to its past activities, one questions why it has suddenly come to be 'in vogue'. Usually when we are told to spread the word about one dangerous man, it is an escaped felon or wanted criminal, I fail to see how keeping an eye out for Kony next time I pop off to the shops to get a pint of milk will help apprehend a criminal who has been eluding the authorities for 25 years. These videos may be creating awareness, but awareness of truth? Invisible Children are have been discredited by Foreign Affairs in their assertions that the group "manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasising the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony -- a brutal man, to be sure -- as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil".
Kony 2012 has demonstrated the danger of our media age in its ability to lure in the masses to support a movement with a fancy video but absolutely no ethical or legitimate underpinnings. Furthermore, it has shown the sickening tendency of the Western public to treat issues of charity and aid the same way it treats high street trends, as Bruno so aptly sums up for us. Kony 2012 is already a thing of yesterday, forgotten and unheard of this week, next week's fad will be completely different. The Kony 2012 phenomenon is a consequence not just of this ability of the developed world to pick and choose what campaign to support based on current trends, it symbolises that the white man's burden is very much alive and kicking, with the populace willing to save Africa (Africa needs saving apparently) and open their pockets to the tragedy they see on their screens, without even knowing what they are funding - proxy war
The icing on the cake is the selling of Kony 2012 merchandise, specifically the wristband which apparently sold like wildfire. Now I don't know about you but frankly the idea of wearing a wristband with the name of a war criminal on it is something I find somewhat grotesque, but what's more sickening is this permeation of charity into fashion, when is it cool or not to fund a cause. If it's not cool, we won't bother, when it is, we'll wear it as fashion.
Kony is undoubtedly a despicable and evil man and justice must be sought, but retweeting his name and sharing a video isn't going to do that, neither will justice be delivered by supporting a group which aids a military which itself is condemned for its war crimes. If people really want to make a difference, campaign to organisations like the ICC, the UN and the African Union to take action, don't donate money to a shady organization that nobody had even heard of until last week. Yes Kony should be stopped, but so should Invisible Children, until it's not cool anymore of course.