KONY 2012, Conflict Minerals, and the Problems with Simple Advocacy about Complex Issues

In something of a surreal twist for anyone who actually follows African politics, it seems the latest meme to take over the internet is KONY 2012, the NGO Invisible Children’s effort to bring greater attention to the horrible actions of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Suddenly millions of people who had never heard of Kony or the LRA are committed believers in the cause of bringing him to justice (well, at least judging by Facebook status updates, but more on that later…)

So what are we to make of this? It’s hard to say. On the one hand Kony truly is an awful force in Central Africa, and there could be benefits to having more people know and care about the atrocities he’s behind. But the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable for a number of reasons.

To start with, Invisible Children’s past record is, well, at best questionable. Yes, they’ve done a lot to bring attention to the issue, but they generally fall into the “rich white college kids out to save Africa” category, and it’s not clear if they’ve had any real positive impact beyond some fuzzy “building awareness”. They’re something like an advocacy organization, Hollywood production studio, and t-shirt conglomerate rolled into one. I won’t spend forever on it here, but read Chris Blattman and the Wronging Rights folks, both of whom really know what they’re talking about, on some of their past projects…

The bigger issue, though, is what is this all working towards? What exactly are all these newly-inspired Western college kids supposed to do to bring about positive change? The Invisible Children website asks visitors to sign an on-line petition reading “JOSEPH KONY IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S WORST WAR CRIMINALS AND I SUPPORT THE INTERNATIONAL EFFORT TO ARREST HIM, DISARM THE LRA AND BRING THE CHILD SOLDIERS HOME”, conveniently eliding the question of precisely what form this “international effort” should take or what “bring the child soldiers home” will really mean in practice. The reality is that the situation with the LRA is extremely complicated – this piece in Foreign Affairs from last November, when the Obama administration announced it was sending 100 armed “advisors” to assist the Ugandan army in capturing Kony, provides an excellent primer. Kony is one small piece in a long, protracted history of overlapping and intersecting conflicts spilling across Uganda, Sudan, DRC, and the Central African Republic, in which there’s plenty of guilt to be shared amongst all sides and very deep structural political challenges.

So while in some ways it’s great to have more attention on the issue, the fact is there just aren’t easy answers here, and we need to acknowledge the complexity of reality. The problem, of course, is that’s not a slogan which sells t-shirts or inspires viral media campaigns, which need a simple story-line (in this case “IF THE WORLD KNOWS WHO JOSEPH KONY IS, IT WILL UNITE TO STOP HIM” – you know, because if there’s one thing the history of international relations teaches us, it’s that “the world” never has any difficulting “uniting” to solve problems…).

What makes me feel most uncomfortable about the campaign is the fact that it strikes me as remarkably similar to the big advocacy push on conflict minerals a couple years ago, which recent analyses (see this excellent CGD article) suggest has had considerable net negative effects. In brief, the advocacy community took an extremely complicated issue – the ongoing conflict in the DRC – boiled it down to a simple problem – the exploitation of “conflict minerals” which were funding the violence, despite the fact that there was never much evidence for this – and came up with a simple solution – essentially try to stop foreign companies from buying these minerals from the DRC, a provision which made it into the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill passed in the US a little while back. The effect? Millions of artisanal miners are out of work, smuggling of the minerals is up, and the violence continues unabated. Meanwhile the attention of the Western advocacy community has moved on, apparently now settling on Joseph Kony…

Severine Autesserre had a fantastic article last month in African Affairs covering a lot of these issues (h/t Texas in Africa). The basic point is that simplistic narratives do a good job at raising public awareness, but the problem is they tend to lead to simplistic policy responses, which end up having negative unintended consequences.

What unintended consequences could come out of KONY 2012? Well, to begin with it wasn’t that long ago that peace negotiations with Kony seemed like they might actually lead somewhere; today this path doesn’t look fruitful, but given the long and twisting history of the conflict, who knows what the future will bring. If the KONY 2012 campaign is capable of achieving anything, it’s probably ensuring that there will never be US public support for any kind of negotiated end to the conflict; this could come back to bite us.

Moreover, Chris Blattman raises two critical worries about what a stronger effort to capture Kony could result in. First, there’s a very good chance it will lead to brutal retaliatory attacks, as occurred after the last serious (failed) attempt to capture him, in late 2008. Second, going after Kony means going through the abducted child soldiers he keeps as bodyguards, and who knows how many will die in the effort. Maybe this is worth it to save future children from abduction, but these are pretty serious moral issues to be weighing, which unfortunately again aren’t going to sell a lot of t-shirts…

Anyways, if you’ve made it this far into this post and really want to understand the issues behind the conflict(s) in Central Africa, I highly recommend following Wronging Rights, Texas in Africa, Chris Blattman, and Jason Stearns, all of whom will likely have some insightful things to say about KONY 2012.


4 Responses to “KONY 2012, Conflict Minerals, and the Problems with Simple Advocacy about Complex Issues”

  1. 1 Lara Ortiz March 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Yes many thanks for your post

  2. 2 ramadan calendar July 31, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    What’s up, for all time i used to check website posts here early in the dawn, since i love to learn more and more.

  1. 1 Kony 2012 and the White Savior Complex « Change From Within Trackback on March 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm
  2. 2 Foxconn Factories, Sweatshops, and the Revealed Preferences of Chinese Workers « Tomorrow's Economy Trackback on March 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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