The Kony2012 phenomenon has less to do with African misery than the freely-floating moral outrage of Westerners.
When I lived in Brazil and would return home for holidays, there was nothing more likely to get people going than talking about poverty in Rio’s infamous favelas.
Appalled by the tales of violence and lack of sanitation and outraged by the lack of action on behalf of the Brazilian Government, people opened their hearts in commiseration.
Activists I knew in Brazil used to call it “poverty porn” – the morbid fascination of the West with the living conditions of the extremely poor as manifested in the popular shanty tours of Soweto in South Africa, Dharavi in India or Rocinha in Brazil (similar but not to be confused with “slumbook journalism” in which a journalist from New York/London/Sydney goes and lives in a slum for a year and makes a literary career out of it).
A similar conversation about, say, living standards within aboriginal communities in Australia, might have been met with a stony silence, at most a mumble about it not being for lack of money.
Because rule number one of poverty porn is that you yourself cannot be responsible for the situation – it must be the result of some other dastardly villain – otherwise one might be unable to reach the moment in which feelings of moral righteousness, dread and sheer gratitude come together in one climactic explosion of altruism.
In the name and blame game of the world wide web, responsibility is a passion killer.
Since its upload on 5 March 2012, the viral campaign of NGO Invisible Children, titled Kony2012 has received more than 71 million views, befuddling a media and NGO community who struggle to get their messages heard every day and setting off a twitter stream that the world’s celebrities could only dream of.
Their objective: Get Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who once roamed the north of Uganda abducting children to serve as soldiers in a ghastly army that became famous for mutilating its victims.
The CEO of Invisible Children, American Ben Keesey, whose son plays a starring role in the video, announced on the weekend that Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein had made an offer to buy it.
Even their voiceover had the feeling of a teenage action flick:
“We know what to do. Here it is, ready? In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That’s where the American advisers come in. But in order for the American advisers to be there, the American government has to deploy them. They’ve done that, but if the government doesn’t believe the people care about Kony, the mission will be cancelled. In order for the people to care, they have to know. And they will only know if Kony’s name is everywhere”
The script is set in Uganda, although even Invisible Children has now conceded that Kony has already skipped the country, most likely for the Congo and his band of child soldiers has probably shrunk to less than 300.
Of course the problems of Uganda are not going to be solved by Kony appearing in front of an international criminal court, although this would no doubt provide justice to some of his many victims.
‘If there are 70 million people out there who care about this?’ my niece asked my brother on the weekend. ‘How come they can’t get one guy?’
In many ways, Kony2012 shows the lack of power of the web, rather than its power.
The problems of Uganda are far more intricate (and in some cases not nearly as bad) as the case of Kony would suggest.
My father, who recently lived and worked in Uganda for the Finance Ministry, came back brimming with stories of hope. A little known fact, for example, is that the Ugandan growth rate is 6.5% and the economy has enjoyed relative political stability since the cessation of hostilities with the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2006.
Or that the greatest set-backs to its advancement of late has in fact been floods and droughts in Gulu in north-east Uganda and Kidepo in north-west Uganda, along with the trade barriers the country faces in dealing with the European Union and US.
Joseph Kony emerged as a power player in the mid-80s, not long after the end of the reign of terror by the butcher Idi Amin, amidst a coup lead by the current President Museveni.
No stranger to tribal violence, the Northern Ugandans initially supported his band of urban guerrillas as a way of redressing the discrimination they felt they suffered at the hand of Southern Ugandan tribes.
Of course there have been dozens of activists and journalists around the world, many based in Uganda, who have pointed out exactly these complexities in the past few days.
With a zealousness equivalent to (the proponents) fans of Kony2012, some have spent valuable energy pointing out the shallowness of the Kony2012 campaign and how it draws attention from real social issues.
But since the typical ‘bien pensant’ of Kony 2012 would have probably just been watching Kardashian reruns and writing Justin Bieber blogs, it’s fair to say that those leading the outburst against Kony2012 are being a little disingenuous.
The real reason for their outrage is that the supporters of Kony2012 have waded into the highly contested battleground of modern morality.
Over the past 50 years, the vacuum left behind by the collapse of missionaries has been roundly filled by a sprawling network of NGOs.
It’s now almost a right of passage for the children of developed countries, particularly those of well educated and wealthy people, to travel to poor and undeveloped countries to alleviate poverty.
Some of them do great work but many are on pointless crusades that are more about their own guilt than helping the recipient country – most of them in fact, if you agree with African economists like Dambisa Moyo.
In her 2009 book Dead Aid, Moyo argued that the presence of NGOs in Africa have actually perpetuated the cycle of poverty, encouraged dependence and entrenched corruption by offering corrupt leaders blank cheques and diverting local energies into the business of charity rather than their own economic development.
If there is one accusation that cannot be levelled at Kony2012, it’s that it is distracting African energies.
Due to incredibly slow internet times, it would seem that most Africans are not even aware of the campaign.
It’s a story that exists in a vacuum – created by people who don’t know anything about Africa for people who don’t know anything about Africa – a bubble of outrage which will disintegrate into the ether as quickly as it formed.
Get The Rival’s fresh look at at the news delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe to The Rival’s Australian newsletter now