Over the last week, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video campaign has reached 100 million views on YouTube—and stirred up a storm of controversy with it. The video is a call to action against Ugandan guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony, with the goal of “making Kony a household name.”
But its launch has also fueled a social media firestorm that has polarized viewers and brought its creator, the NGO Invisible Children, under close scrutiny. While some have lauded the awareness it’s raised, others have criticized it as oversimplified and a militaristic piece of “slacktivism.” (To read some of the critiques, check out coverage in The Atlantic, National Geographic’s News Watch, Forbes, and the BBC.)
But whether you consider Kony 2012 a bold effort or misguided aid, the criticism Invisible Children faces is actually applicable to many organizations. No matter what the issue, delivering aid and guiding foreign policy are far more complex than the click of a mouse or the purchase of a wristband.
It’s easy for our smartphone generation to engage in such “disposable activism,” especially when the compelling social media of NGOs plays on our will to do good. But while we all want to do something to help, we must learn to read between the lines. We cannot simply buy an action kit to support every organization that comes along with an impactful message. So here’s how to decide whether to take out your wallet and take real action, or dig deeper into a social issue.
Know the History, Gain Full Context
When our friends and family share compelling photographs, videos, and stories, we’re quick to empathize and react. But, it’s important to fully understand the situation and its context before taking action. When something strikes or moves you (as Kony 2012 did many), take that as an incentive to do a little more research on the topic. Look at past news, scholarly articles, lectures, and media to gain other perspectives. To learn more about other countries, a good place to start is the CIA WorldFactbook or Gapminder. Be skeptical of overly fantastic stories, because many are exactly that: Nothing more than inflated or skewed tall tales.
Double Check Stats and Sound Bites
Keep in mind that while statistics can gauge the magnitude of a problem, they can also be misleading—random samples, skewed numbers, and conflicting data can create a range of stats that really depend on circumstances. The Kony video, for example, reports the total number of child soldiers at 30,000, without stating the period of time over which those numbers were counted. In reality, there are far fewer child soldiers in Uganda today. What’s more, Kony 2012 also barely mentions the ongoing reconciliation process in Uganda that began in 2005.
Now it’s also true that, in other situations, precise statistics and data can be a powerful tool for justice, as in the case of the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group, whose statistical analysis brought justice to war criminals in Guatemala. The bottom line is: Look at what you read or hear with a critical eye, and do your own research, too.
Understand The "Cause Du Jour" Factor
Trendy activism is particularly tricky. It’s unlikely Joseph Kony will be captured and brought to justice by April 20—so will the momentum and wristbands remain relevant once we’re confronted by the real challenges of transnational justice?
Wristbands, T-shirts, pins, and other marketing items get people talking and asking questions about the issues, but they can also be easily disposed of when the trend fades out (students graduate, T-shirts shrink, bracelets get lost). And though these trends have made some major impacts and caused policy shifts (for example, Amnesty International’s Prisoners of Conscience and the Genocide Intervention Network’s STAND), problems like HIV/AIDS, sweatshops, the crisis in Darfur, and human trafficking still persist, despite declarative campaigns to "end" them.
Check out Local Programs Already in Place
It’s tempting to want to sweep in to save the day when social problems are big and in a foreign place. But if there’s a cause you care about, first look into the local efforts that are already on the ground. If too many organizations, both international and local, are working to solve the same local problem, their market for resources, including overhead and operations costs, media, and staff, will tighten. Many times, it’s best to avoid encouraging redundancy and competition among organizations.
Invisible Children portrays itself as Uganda’s last hope, without taking into account other incredible movements already on the ground, including Text to Change, the Women of Uganda Network, and Mobile Monday Kampala. Right now, the people of Uganda are focusing on education, job creation, and healthcare for their post-conflict country—not just on Kony. And all those things will be important to Uganda’s future.
Whom is This Justice For?
Sometimes we get involved in aid efforts to clear our consciences—when confronted with the ills of the world, we may feel guilty to be more fortunate than many others. Or we may take part in a charity campaign because something has moved us in such a way that it can't be ignored.
When demanding justice in these cases, we have to ask “justice for whom?” Will proceedings benefit the Ugandan people, or simply ease our own guilt for having looked away all these years? If Kony faces trial in the international system, it will be a lengthy, expensive, and convoluted process, one that may lack cultural relativity and arrive too late when many Ugandan people just want to move on with their lives.
Be Realistic, But Don't Lose Your Idealism
Finally, if you want to contribute to a cause—after you’ve done your research—be realistic about the investment of time and energy you want (and can afford) to make. If the campaign is short-term or doesn't seem sustainable, set clear goals. You may not be able to "save the world," but you can still make a big impact—and it doesn’t necessarily take wristbands and snazzy media kits.
Whether it’s through your university, job, or personal interests, you do have many options for getting involved with the issue that most moves you. Startups with a social conscious twist, social apps, and strong forums for local and international voices are all building the foundation for fresh ways to address global issues. And in the future, these new models of social good will fill gaps unmet by the current NGO service industry model—and will also make us reconsider the costs and benefits of Western humanitarian aid.
Ultimately, you should approach Kony 2012 or any other moving media like other news: Do your research, take multiple sources into account, and make an effort to understand the real issues at hand. Kony 2012 may have started a firestorm, but the upside is, it’s also opened up debate and dialogue about the issues facing our world and how to look at them. And that’s a conversation that deserves to keep going.
For further reading about the issues facing Uganda and the organizations working to help, check out:
War Dance: For two decades, the children of the Acholi tribe in northern Uganda have been caught in the middle of a horrific war. But when the tribe’s primary school unexpectedly wins a regional music competition, the opportunity to compete nationally brings with it the forgotten chance to dream. This film follows three children as they transform from victims of war into triumphant young adults.
Shine Global: Shine Global is dedicated to ending the abuse and exploitation of children worldwide through films that raise awareness, promote action, and inspire change, including War Dance and it’s sequel, War Dance Returns.
Akallo Grace Grall: Abducted by Ugandan rebels at the age of 15, Akallo Grace Grall is now a spokesperson and activist for peace in northern Uganda. She is now the founder and executive director of United Africans for Women and Children Rights (UAWCR), an NGO dedicated to safeguarding the rights of vulnerable women and children.
Text to Change: Text to Change plays a vital role in improving lives, even in the most isolated areas of the world, by connecting people via their mobile phones.
Uganda Rural Fund: This fund aims to empower orphans, impoverished youth, and women to fight poverty in Uganda’s rural communities through the creation of educational and sustainable development opportunities.
Photo courtesy of Robert Raines.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author