Something perplexing happened over the past week: my Facebook feed took a strong, rights-based stance on a global political issue, not seen since that time about a month ago when suddenly everyone was an intellectual property expert and free speech advocate who despised SOPA.
By now, I’m sure most people reading this have already viewed, or have heard of, the Kony 2012 video, a 30 minute production by an American NGO called Invisible Children. In the video, the creators propose making Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and an all-around asshole and terrible person, a household name in order to bolster support in the United States, Canada and at the United Nations to bring him to justice. The basis of the campaign is that Kony and other warlords in Central African countries have operated with more or less impunity for decades, neglected by much of the international community, and with few people in places like Canada being aware of who they are or what they’re doing.
Regrettably, there are some problems with this approach, many of which have been highlighted by authors much more well-versed in the current political realities of Uganda and central Africa than I am. Their criticisms generally address 3 central themes:
- The complexities of the Ugandan and LRA situation are underplayed by the video
- The video portrays Ugandans as helpless, whose only hope is the mobilization of (misinformed) North Americans to rescue them
- It is unclear what Invisible Children’s goals actually are, and the notion of bringing ‘justice’ to those affected by the LRA and the Ugandan army is intensely more complex than arresting Joseph Kony (also check out this post)
Add to this some concerns about the organization’s finances and the fact that Joseph Kony is unlikely to actually be in Uganda, and it seems that the blogosphere has had quite a time pointing out some inconsistencies and some major concerns within the campaign and generally being pretty skeptical about the whole thing. There’s a precedent for this, given that a lot of mushroom campaigns (those that appear overnight) have appeared after major disasters or as part of other longer-term development campaigns, only to raise a lot of capital and achieve essentially nothing. It’s important to point out, however, that Invisible Children have responded to these critiques in a fairly detailed post on their website, something that should not be overlooked.
Fundamentally, I have a problem with the critiques that appear overnight on these global issues and campaigns, poking holes in their arguments and criticizing the fact that they breeze over some intricate and complex socio-political or economic arguments and facts. I’m a scientist and an academic – I live and breathe complexity and have a deep affinity and love for data and facts; it’s one of the things that lends us, in academia, credibility. I simply can’t and won’t argue that we should do away with facts, or suggest that the end justifies the means. That can have disastrous consequences.
But, these campaigns highlight a fatal flaw in what so many of us do, and that is that we rarely make the results of what we do accessible to the general public, and too few of us do actual, operational research in partnership with credible on-the-ground organizations to make sure that our research findings are translated into action. We invest years of our life into detailed study of complex subjects, but spend far too little time working on making these accessible to people outside of our own worlds. Let’s be real, a handful of people read your (and my) Master’s thesis, and I can be sure that most of the people who have latched onto the Kony 2012 campaign don’t receive or read American Political Science Review or Forced Migration Review.
Is it the Ivory Tower argument? Yep. Are we getting better at entering into public discourse around critical global issues? Yep. Are many of us as effective at going viral as Kony 2012? Nope.
I don’t disagree with many of the critiques put forward by prominent bloggers and academics around the Kony 2012 campaign – they offer a valid, critical analysis of what this campaign consists of, and provides an experiential account of the complexities of foreign policy, international development, and life in Uganda, in general. But to be clear, 4 days ago a lot of people had no idea who Joseph Kony was, despite the fact that a number of scholars, journalists and other professionals have spent their lives studying the LRA and its presence in Central Africa and its effects on the population, and I think it’s fairly safe to assume that despite the fact that we research the realities and circumstances of these deplorable settings, it’s rarely the academic community that galvanizes support for these causes.
Does this mean that we should discount the complexity of the situation as long as we achieve some morally-backed goal, or reduce our work to a few simplistic catch phrases to bring some (any) media attention to our work? Of course not. What it means is that as we in academia continue to push for high-level discourse and evidence-based policy and action on the part of governments, NGOs, and civil society, we need to be better at engaging in plain language discourse that is accessible, factually accurate, and actionable to people outside of academia. This is where Kony 2012 has succeeded, and where many of us have not. The results and effects of our work, our time, and our dedication to subjects of importance to us and the world need to be disseminated much more broadly and in a much more accessible way than they currently are.
We need to be offering visible, actionable discourse and recommendations to the public and to policymakers on how to take steps to right the wrongs we uncover. Many of us are trying – and that’s commendable – but this needs to become the norm within academia, whereby our work is conducted systematically using sound methods to generate accurate findings and recommendations of importance to our field of study, that are accessible and usable by those outside of it. As so many of us have raised concerns about the practicality and veracity of the Kony 2012 campaign, we need to lead the charge in setting an example of what these kinds of campaigns ought to be. There are innumerable injustices and inequities taking place around that world that many of us are trying to understand and correct; let’s make sure our work plays prominently in the public discourse of how to do this.
Some other valuable reads: