Jason Russell, an American filmmaker and activist, has been publicizing Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army since 2003. For decades, the LRA wreaked havoc through central Africa, kidnapping tens of thousands of child soldiers and sex slaves. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Kony and other LRA officers in 2005.
Russell's viral video, Kony 2012, where he tells his three-year-old about the "bad guy," sparked a deluge of criticism. The most interesting was from Teju Cole, who called the video part of the White Saviour Industrial Complex---enthusiastic westerners "saving" poor people for the sake of emotional experiences, unleashing unintended, damaging revenge effects.
The problem with the WSIC isn't the desire of middle- to upper-class people in rich countries to do good. It's the ignorance and arrogance of their approach.
The arrogance is displayed in aid workers' near-mansions at the centres of hard-up cities, their servants, Landcruisers and lingering belief that western privilege gives us a better understanding of poor people's problems than they themselves have.
The ignorance, besides the willful forgetting of the link between poverty and wealth, is unintentionally satirized in campaigns like 1MillionShirts, in which a dude who makes money wearing logos promised a million t-shirts to Africa. Because toplessness is holding Africa back.
Locally, a Dalhousie student collected 40,000 pairs of shoes for Haiti and Africa to slow the spread of HIV. He recruited 200 volunteers to sort them and got local businesses to donate storage space and shipping. The campaign has received little criticism or scrutiny.
Maybe the shoes will prove useful. But imagine 200 people and local businesses sending money---to be spent on what recipients choose for themselves instead of what foreigners think they need. Or if they lobbied Canada to cancel the unjust and phony financial debts of poor countries to neo-colonial powers.
But I don't lump Russell's Kony 2012 into the same WSIC category. The criticism focuses heavily on the video's oversimplification of a complex situation stemming from thousands of years of conflict and laden with colonial divisions, missionaries and pan-African politics. The video is simple, but not as naive as believing shirts dent poverty.
You can argue the tactics, and the proof will be in Kony's capture or lack thereof, now that he is Ameri-famous. The wisdom and morality of helping Uganda's military, itself guilty of atrocities, has rightly been questioned.
But some argue the video funnels too much attention on one man---who has either been forced out of action or remains dangerous and feared, depending on who you believe---and away from other ongoing conflicts like those in Sudan, Rwanda or the aftermath of America's post-9/11 invasions.
Yet the news has long been saturated with those stories---horribly oversimplified versions of them. When do journalists, editors and producers feel the backlash for their oversimplifications? Regardless, those conflicts are already infamous and we know who the "bad guy" is. You won't see Bush on any ICC warrant.
That's Cole's critique of Kony 2012: It fails to point its lens at the warlord tactics of its creator's own government. But would that movie get 80 million views? It'd make an excellent documentary, but it would lack Kony 2012's reach.
We must consider the skewed power structures that are the true source of global poverty and much conflict. But this video wasn't about that. It was about a single, specific target, and a pragmatic assessment of how change happens. Russell was right that someone who is world infamous can have resources mobilized against him.
What Russell failed to anticipate was that he'd become as famous as his target. He set off a social media bomb, not expecting it to detonate in his face. He's suffered the immense anxiety of being microscoped, the way he'd hoped Kony would be.
Kony's still in hiding. But, he's being discussed like never before, as are all of the above, difficult, issues. That is a bigger achievement than I've heard discussed at any development industry shindig.
Chris Benjamin is the author of Drive-by Saviours, a novel, and Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada.