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Kony 2012 and the Danger of a Single Story

March 11, 2012 – 3:28 pm11 Comments

By Ittay Flescher
In the last week, over 60 million people have watched this video which seeks to make Joseph Kony famous.

Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that has forced thousands of children to fight in a murderous armed conflict lasting more than two decades. He has avoided capture for over 20 years. 10,000 children have been abducted by the LRA to form the army of “prophet” Kony, whose aim is to take over Uganda and run it according to his vision of Christianity. The boys are turned into soldiers and the girls into sex slaves.

Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his crimes. According to the Invisible Children organisation, the reason Kony has been allowed to wreak havoc for so long, is because not enough people are aware of his crimes.

However, many NGOs and academics have noted the Kony 2012 campaign does not address the real problems on the ground, nor does not offer the right solutions.

In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam explains how there are eight levels of tzedaka, including lower forms that are shaming, and higher forms that are empowering. Rambam explains that the highest level of tzedakah should aim to “strengthen the hand of the poor by giving him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or entering into a business partnership with the poor person. By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him until he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse.”

I wonder how donating to the Invisible Children organisation by purchasing the Kony 2012 kit for $30 would fit into Rambam’s criteria. Does it strengthen the people most affected by his crimes in Uganda? Will his capture end their suffering?

Whilst I agree with the director Jason Russell that the LRA should be disarmed and Joseph Kony should be brought to justice, there are still many questions to be asked about what is the best way to achieve these two goals. The author of DRC: Between Hope and Despair, Michael Diebert, has noted that “the campaign to get the US government to provide military support of the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ostensibly to facilitate the arrest of Joseph Kony, appears to be a road fraught with peril. The Museveni government has been undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy since at least 2001, when the Supreme Court of Uganda, while upholding the vote in presidential elections that year, also found that “the principle of free and fair election was compromised.” Through reckless military adventurism and a hunger to retain power, Museveni has routinely trampled on the values of human rights that Invisible Children claims to champion.”

Other critics of the video have also claimed it to be just another case of stuff white people like or the whites in shining armour phenomenon where stories about international development only generate interest if centred around a neat narrative of – cause – intervention – outcome – with the hero of the day being a young white foreigner.

Other criticisms of the film note that it ignores the role that local communities need to play in making decisions about international aid and that there are some far better strategies worth advocating other than those offered by Jason Russel if one is really concerned about the wellbeing of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda.

On the other hand, Jacob Acaye, the Ugandan former child abductee at the heart of the film who is but one of thousands of victims of the LRA, has responded (in this interview in the Guardian) to Russel’s critics who highlight that the LRA has largely stopped operating in Uganda since 2006. Acaye states “It is not too late, because all this fighting and suffering is still going on elsewhere.  Until now, the war that was going on had been a silent war. People did not really know about it. Now what was happening in Gulu is still going on elsewhere in the Central African Republic and in Congo. What about the people who are suffering over there? They are going through what we were going through.” Invisible Children has also responded to many of the other critiques against them which are both strategic and financial in nature here.

Whilst I still feel that we should all do far more research before deciding which charity and which approach to support, I think there are a number of broader questions raised by this campaign which are relevant to both educators who are looking for meaningful ways to engage their students in issues overseas, and to us as a Jewish community.

Ethan Zuckerman notes that “the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?”

I think the same can be said of the many simplistic right wing and left wing advocacy campaigns that we often share about the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.  Do they help or hinder our understanding of the conflict?

If there is one thing that Kony 2012 has affirmed for me, it is the danger of only hearing a single story and believing that there is a simplistic solution to a complicated conflict. In the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Ittay Flescher is a Jewish Educator in Melbourne.

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  • AkivaQ says:

    A very good article by Ittay Flescher, well done. Having spent quite a bit of time exploring criticisms of Kony 2012 and responses, I feel this discussion and the campaign to “get Kony” are helpful for educative and political reasons. As I noted on my Facebook wall recently, this is about changing the conversation… As Jews or others concerned with the lot of humanity we should be informed about human rights issues and then act based on the details gathered.

    If people choose to donate to political action campaigns like this, or to contribute their skills and time to help others in our community or beyond, or simply take the so-called ‘slacktivist’ option of sharing, liking or commenting on issues online, I’d say these all amount to social engagement based on concern for others and form part of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Akiva,

    It’s hard to know how to act when even people from Uganda don’t have one clear view on this issue. For example Ugandan journalist Rosebell Idaltu Kagumire has spoken
    persuasively against the campaign saying ‎”You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t think I have the power to change what is going on.”  In
    response, Solomon W Jawge who is the creative director
    for Ugandan Diaspora has commended the campaign, noting “These young men and women have chosen to act where most of the world has chosen to simply be

  • TheSadducee says:


    I disagree – its not that hard to decide what to do if people are dying (and especially in the particularly awful ways that the LRA are notorious for).

    The UN should mandate an armed intervention force and track down Kony and either kill him or bring him to the ICC for trial.

    As to Uganda etc – the UN should request that they hold democratic elections to resolve the problems with Museveni. If he doesn’t comply suspend their membership and proceed from there.

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    The reality is that a lot of the people buying the $30 kit would not have otherwise given any money.

    Better to give $30 to an organisation trying to do something then $0 to an organisation that has the solution.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Sadducee,
    Military action is not as simple as we think, and not without unintended consequences.
    The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict recently made this statement:

    “National armies of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan are on a regular basis conducting military operations against the LRA and have been partly effective in weakening the rebels. However, attacking the LRA is a very tricky proposition because there are many children in the ranks of the LRA and repercussions on the civilian populations have to be carefully calibrated. The United States should in their support to Ugandan Armed Forces and others ensure that Operations conform to international humanitarian law protection standards. Moreover, military operations will not be enough to address the threat of LRA.”

  • TheSadducee says:


    Unintended consequences should not be an impediment to decisive action to save lives otherwise arguments could be made against doing anything significant, especially in terms of humanitarian intervention.

    The rest of the statement is typical UN boilerplate stuff – looks good on paper, but is cold comfort to those getting tortured, killed, gang raped, robbed, having their kids press-ganged into militia service and/or being victimised by a religious fanatic with no moral/ethical scruples – all stuff the LRA are well-known for.

    The fact is that the LRA are less than 1000 strong and have no international and/or local support (not since that paradigm state of human rights Sudan abandoned them) – they effectively operate by looting local areas and press-ganging kids into service. A serious, professional and sustained military campaign by a US/UK/EU team could wipe them out completely – military efforts to date have been conducted by a range of 2nd-3rd world African powers who can barely maintain civil order in their own countries let alone suppress these scumbags.

    Time for proper western military intervention on a serious scale to stop the killings – how many people have to die before we abandon these ridiculous paradigms of state rights etc being of greater value than individual life?

    And incidentally, the $30 campaign is just crass IMHO – they offer a nice colourful armband don’t they? – just the thing you need to show that you care while you’re sipping a latte at your inner-city cafe…

  • Andrew Harris says:

    @Ittay — Well-expressed, well-thought-out piece. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to know that I felt the same way about this campaign. I am uneasy about the simplicity and lack of subtlety.

    @TheSadducee — I agree with your contention that a colourful armband is a hipster manifestation of the crassness of donating $30 to track down Joseph Kony. I don’t agree with your assertion that a “professional and sustained military campaign” is necessarily the answer. Apart from the fact that none of the nations you mention have a sufficiently enticing ulterior motive to want to engage in messy, remote-area conflicts in central Africa, a professional and sustained military campaign has been going on for years to track down Kony.

    In fact, a team of African Union (AU) specialist soldiers, who spend months at a time shadowing him through the jungle, are currently working on capturing or killing him. These guys, from nations you deride as “African powers who can barely maintain civil order in their own countries let alone supress these scumbags”, are equipped with the tracking skills, cultural and linguistic knowhow, not to mention an intimate understanding of how Kony operates, needed to bring about the end of his heading the LRA. I have tried to find a link to an article about this, but I can’t. So you can take my word for it, or not.

    Dealing with horrors such as the LRA requires sustained diplomatic, cultural efforts, with limited, targeted military operations — military solutions to rid the world of various scourges aren’t often successful; Al Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the two most obvious current examples. If Kony were to be killed or captured, the LRA may continue without him. It may not.

    Anyhow, military efforts are kind of beside the point. If the issue is about protecting civilians, then this kind of system is more useful, while the AU does its work: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15173291

    It’s one thing to raise awareness, it’s another thing to effect change. In this case, it’s not open to debate whether or not Kony is evil, or whether or not what Invisible Children is doing is right. It’s more about whether or not social-media activism is a First World folly, and a white man’s conscience cleanser.

  • Andrew Harris says:

    P.S. Invisible Children does support that early warning radio system I linked to in that news story, which is a good thing.

    I suppose what gets be about the campaign is the ‘Stop at Nothing’ and ‘Make Kony Famous’ sloganeering and all the hipster iconography. And the image of him as ‘The Worst’ in front of Bin Laden and Hitler is the ultimate in simplicity. If people are so stupid that they have to be told Kony is ‘worse’ than any other mass murderer in order to care about what he’s done and doing, then they are beyond hope…

  • TheSadducee says:


    Completely agree with you that the US/UK/EU don’t really have any direct motivation to intervene – this is typical of the wrong headed thinking of people today whereby human life is measured in terms of how it impacts you (or your state) directly rather than for the value of the life itself.

    And I agree that military intervention alone wont work – serious reform and infrastructure/society building needs to occur in these 2nd/3rd world states. I derided them because frankly they are bastions of poor or malignant governance and corruption and tribalism and social violence.

    How can change be achieved? This can be done can only occur through a major paradigm shift in the west – we need to assist them to progress and develop to our standards of governance, infrastructure, accountability and cultural values (eg. UN Human Rights Charter seems pretty fair for a benchmark – I’m not talking about religion etc) and acknowledge that it is going to cost us to do it.

    Controversial? Sure – but necessary if things are ever going to improve – after 25+ years of self-governance many of these countries have not improved markedly except for a tiny minority who have essentially looted their people’s wealth and opportunities – and many of whom sit with western leaders as representatives of their people despite being and being known as the lowest kind of scum.

    Without being too cynical – its good to talk about the AU spec ops and their cultural/linguistic qualities – but the fact is that they haven’t succeeded despite of this – its time to incorporate them into a more sustained and intensive operation to wipe out the militias and then assist in the rehabilitation and development.

    Do I think this is realistic? No – the average western citizen is generally too concerned about their own luxurious lifestyle to give a real damn about what is happening in the middle of Africa. Even the tacking on of celebrities is a crass and deplorable reality – people who live in gated communities in a quality of lifestyle dreamed of by the dictators of the world, let alone their oppressed citizenry.

    As to your examples about Iraq and Afghanistan etc – the LRA doesn’t have the international and domestic backing that AQ in Iraq or the Taliban groups have so the comparison is not really a good one.

  • Seraphya says:

    Another possible problem with the campaign.

    It may be a way of winning support for a law in Uganda to make homosexual acts punishable by death:

  • Ittay says:

    Invisible Children have now released a sequel to the first film, that seems to have taken on board a great deal of the criticism form the first film. It doesn’t simplify the conflict to a level that a five year old can understand, and contains far more voices from Uganda and the DRC.

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