Often, when I’ve criticized international relief efforts to friends and family, I’m asked “Well, what would you do?” It’s a valid question and it’s been asked of me so frequently that I now try to include some possible solutions after I’ve leveled a criticism. I should also note that these “solutions” sometimes aren’t really solutions, nor are they always good or better ideas than the one I’m being critical of.
A lot of rebuttals to the KONY2012 criticism that I’ve seen have an air of “What would you do, then?” There is only one simple answer to that question: there is no simple answer to that question. Nonetheless, there are resources out there to help would-be do-gooders understand what the issue is. It takes work to do the research because the strife in the Great Lakes region of Africa (DRC, CAR and Uganda) is complex.
The most helpful organization that I’ve come across is advocacy organization Africa Canada Accountability Coalition. They are a public-policy think-tank that has taken a different tact to their advocacy efforts than other organizations. In addition to their policy efforts, they have put together a wonderful presentation and document titled “So, You Want To ‘Save’ Africa”? This presentation lays out a progressive, empowerment-oriented strategy for people who want to assist with the ongoing strife in the African Great Lakes region.
In that presentation, they lay out four things that should be avoided or reconsidered when thinking about advocacy and relief activism:
- Oversimplification – We need to take care not to oversimplify the conflicts and present a “single solution” to the problems. Recognize and deal with the complexity of the situation and help based on that knowledge.
- Assuming the existence of the ‘Voiceless’ – People affected by violence and war in Africa do have voices and we shouldn’t assume that we are their spokespeople, no matter how well-meaning we are. This marginalizes and hurts those affected, rather than empowering them. It also leaves the impression that they are merely victims and we (foreigners) are their saviors.
- Celebrity Activism – Attaching celebrities to the cause can hurt “the cause” because said celebrities probably have not researched the situation. They are fed information by whatever organization they’ve attached themselves to, and there’s always danger in getting information from a single source about a multifaceted issue. There also is overlap on this point with the second point, too, as celebrities can be seen as spokespeople for “the Voiceless.”
- Knee-Jerk Reactions – It’s our tendency to become emotionally knee-jerk when we are confronted with sad, brutal issues and demand something immediate be done to solve the issue. It’s important for the sake of those affected by the conflict, to dispense with this reaction and work with the affected people to come to a solution. Most of the time this will not satiate our desire that something immediate needs to be done, but it will be potentially more helpful.
It’s interesting to note that on all four of these points, the KONY 2012 and Invisible Children campaign fail quite miserably. This isn’t to say that the IC campaign are bad people or malicious or that what they’re doing is wrong. It is to say how they’re going about it is wrong and potentially harmful.
There are two videos in the presentation that are worth posting here, I think. First, Ben Affleck has an advocacy organization he started for the Congo, the East Congo Initiative. It doesn’t have all the flare of IC’s effort for Uganda, but Affleck’s is a respectful organization that recognizes the empowerment of the Congolese people and their ability to rise above the circumstances. See the video below.
As quoted from the ACAC document:
Ben Affleck started the “Eastern Congo Initiative”, an organization promoting local, community-based approaches, which they describe to be “essential to creating a sustainable and successful society in eastern Congo.”
The focus is not on him as an actor, humanitarian, or philanthropist, nor is it on what average Americans can/should do; it’s on groups and individuals in the DRC who are working to solve their communities’ problems and ECI working to support those processes.
“How To Write About Africa” is a satirical essay written by journalist Binyavanga Wainaina. It lays out all the tropes writers use when covering Africa, or writing fiction about Africa. It’s important to avoid these tropes so as not to stereotype (and therefore marginalize) Africans.
Again, none of this is to question the motives of the IC or where their hearts are at. However, the tactics they used are time-tested and have been shown in past situations and conflicts to yield disastrous results. The best thing we can do is to not repeat history.