In 2005 most people I knew owned a white wristband embossed with the words ‘make poverty history’.
They were, in theory, a political campaign aimed at pressuring the G8 summit in Scotland to take three steps which would, according, at least, to Bob Geldof, Make Poverty History.
In reality they were a shallow fashion statement, mass produced by sweatshop workers in China. The politicians in Scotland paid lip service to the campaign, then the campaigners paid lip service to the lip service.
A few months later, the wristbands went out of fashion and the world moved on. Poverty was still the present and the future.
What was wrong with the campaign is that it actively encouraged people to buy into an illusion. Fundamentally, while the G8 leaders could act to drastically reduce poverty, they could never end it. The problem of poverty was and always has been much harder than that; it’s woven into the very nature of our economy.
By encouraging people to believe there were easy solutions, the Make Poverty History campaign actually stopped people from properly thinking about the issues – it was more about fashion, the ‘look’ of believing in something, than politics, or a desire to find real solutions.
Fast forward seven years. A charity with an immense talent for PR launched a video through the internet, and as the video spread virally across millions of computers, their donations rocketed, as did purchases of their ‘action kits’ of stickers, t-shirts and, of course, wristbands.
The video calls for the capture of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, head of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), infamous for horrific acts of violence and brutality during the last decade – in particular, the prolific use of child soldiers.
It is a seductive message; it sets out a terrible problem, convinces you that you are the solution and then lets you know that all you have to do is pass along the video.
But does it help? Is it a good thing that charitable donations are being driven into PR filmmaking and ‘action kits’ instead of frontline action? And is it good that so many people accept the message the film is pushing?
The International Criminal Court has had an arrest warrant out for Kony and several other LRA leaders since 2005, but bringing him in has proved predictably difficult. Being a warlord, Kony won’t go quietly. Any arrest would have to be a serious military operation.
In essence, the video calls on the US to launch a military campaign to capture or kill Kony, it calls for violence. And it does this in the full knowledge that the violence would very likely involve the deaths of some of the soldiers who support and protect Kony – the child soldiers.
Any aggression against Kony would undoubtedly have knock on effects. There would be violent reprisals from the LRA, who have no qualms about targeting innocents, and this would come at a time when the conflict in Northern Uganda is, reportedly, dying out.
So the video is asking the US to engage and kill child soldiers, and asking for an escalation of the war in Uganda. Suddenly it seems a lot less like a simple, beautiful solution.
There are other points of controversy. When the ICC launched its arrest warrants, it destabilised what had been called the most promising ever peace talks in Northern Uganda. Kony walked away from the talks, fearing arrest, and the war went on. Important as it is to secure justice, particularly against someone guilty of the crimes Kony has committed, most people would probably agree that peace is more valuable.
There is also an overbearing sense of missionary that runs through the campaign. It follows the centuries old fallacy that Africans are helpless victims who need Western intervention to save them from themselves. At best it is patronising, at worst it is imperialistic, employing the colonial idea of the white man’s burden. As the Nigerian poet Teju Cole tweeted, it portrays the idea that “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah. [The campaign] is not about justice, it is about a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Almost as bad, the video simplifies its message by failing to turn the glass on the Ugandan government, accused of many of the same crimes as Kony, or the US. Questioning the sanctity of the US army, or the Ugandan government would have made the problem seem more complex and meant the film got far fewer shares. But if we don’t know about it, the story is only half told and the message is wrong.
It should at least be noted that the US reject the authority of the International Criminal Court, who are seeking to arrest Kony, and they do so to stop members of their government and military, past and present, facing trial for the war crimes they have committed down the years.
The driving force behind the Arab spring, and many other young generations who have changed the world, is a rejection of conventional ways of thinking and the development of counter culture and revolutionary new ideas.
All the KONY 2012 campaign demonstrates is an exceptional susceptibility to PR, and a fondness for politics that are neatly wrapped and require no difficult thought, no questioning of the way we organise society and no real action.
That so many have bought into it is not a triumph, it is a shame.