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What’s not to like about Kony 2012?

March 13, 2012

The Kony 2012 campaign launched last week, brought worldwide attention to a 28-minute video starring Jason Russell, the director of a non-governmental organization called Invisible Children. The premise of the video is to make Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, as famous as celebrities like George Clooney and Justin Bieber. There are countless great responses to this video, from Mark Kersten of Justice in Conflict, Erin Baines of UBC to Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University. All are very critical.

Much of the criticism is about the substance of claims about what has happened in Uganda and what needs to be done. Invisible Children (IC) downplayed the agency of Africans, up-sold American military intervention, ignored the role of the Ugandan government in violence and instability, and so on.

Reflecting on the issue, I think many would recognize that the Kony 2012 phenomenon raises warning bells for our democratic intuitions. This happens to be central to my dissertation, so I’m going to take a few minutes to think this through.

Let’s say that democracy means that people should govern themselves, by acting together as equals or — more common in our bureaucratized world — by contributing to debate in various public spheres (polling, stakeholder consultations, contributing to mass media, etc.) and by holding officials to account through elections and court challenges.

For these processes to work, we need decision-makers to be responsive and accountable to those people who are affected by their decisions. We therefore need to see appropriate relations of representation between affected persons, those demanding action, and those who take action.

Now let’s look at Kony 2012. What do we see?

As many have commented, the directly affected group — people in Northern Uganda and in other areas terrorized by the Lords Resistance Army — are in short supply in the video. We get very short phrases from two Ugandan politicians, and we get the story and a few quotes Jason Rusesll’s friend Jacob. Jacob’s story is heartbreaking — his brother was killed, and he was himself left impoverished and hopeless by LRA attacks. But we don’t have any sense what Jacob thinks about the situation is now, or what he thinks the solution should be. He is used to leverage credibility and emotion — which are important — but not to contribute to the discussion.

So, we have a situation where people are speaking for Northern Ugandans. Who are these representatives? Hundreds of cheering North Americans — few of whom I suspect know much about conflict in Uganda, the LRA, or peace building in Acholi culture. Senator Inhofe, possibly the most contemptible living American politician (he continues to argue that climate change is a hoax, because Genesis states otherwise). Gavin Kelly, the filmmakers’ toddler. And Jason Russell himself.

Obviously, Russell is doing the real work as the ‘representative’ here. He runs the organization that works in Northern Uganda. He has a long-term involvement in the region. And he is directly presenting what he takes to be the interests and perspectives of Northern Ugandans to decision-makers. However, the video gives us as many reasons to distrust as to trust Russell’s representative claim (which happens to be the title of a great book on this stuff by democratic theorist Michael Saward). He doesn’t give an accurate account of the status of the LRA today, nor does he mention the contribution of the Ugandan military to long-standing violence. He doesn’t mention any of the important local and national processes toward reconciliation and justice. And the style of his representative claim is incredibly self-centred, seemingly designed for hero worship.

Oh, one more important representative in the Kony 2012 advertisement is the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. The prosecutor will get in front of almost any camera to do PR work for the ICC and the Office of the Prosecutor. I don’t blame him for doing so, as the Court’s legitimacy and effectiveness depends on buy-in. And the Court actually has more robust processes of consultation with Northern Ugandans than some might suspect. That said, Moreno-Ocampo’s claim for what is best for the Northern Ugandans should have been balanced by other positions. That a prosecutor tells us that prosecutions are the solution may bring to mind an interview with a hammer telling us that the world is made of nails.

We therefore have reason to be skeptical of the representatives of Northern Ugandans in Kony 2012. As a result, and as I said in a discussion with a friend this week, we cannot say that Northern Ugandans are being given a voice in the video. The profile of (one of) their predicaments is being raised by people speaking about them.

But there’s another key democratic problem to the Kony 2012 phenomenon — who are the decision-makers? Not only are Russell and Moreno-Ocampo portrayed as the principle representatives of Northern Ugandans, they are asking the United States government to make the final decisions on the matter. Where is the call for appropriate action from the Ugandan government? More importantly, where is the request for assistance to the community leaders in Northern Uganda who have done incredible work in the past, and who need support and resources to continue to do so?

In sum, here is the situation from a democratic lens: a self-appointed representative of Northern Ugandans, whose credibility as a representative is undermined by the substance and style of his presentations, is asking fellow Americans to amplify his call for the  United States government to take action. Local voices, local leaders, and local processes are ignored or excluded.

Now, this might not be a big problem if Kony 2012 was one representation among many in the global public sphere. The problem is that it receives orders of magnitude more attention than other claims.

But that is also the main virtue of the Kony 2012 phenomenon. It has created the space for other representatives and other claims to be made. Again, I would highly recommend reading Erin Baines article for an example of how affected persons voices are actually being consulted, heard, and responded to. That is the payoff.

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