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Kony 2012 -- Why the Backlash Matters

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A number of pundits have rushed to cast the firestorm around the Kony 2012 video as pointless squabbling, with Nick Kristof the latest to chime in. After all, they argue, how could anyone question an effort to raise awareness about the damage done by the warlord Joseph Kony and his militia, the Lord's Resistance Army?

This controversy should not be so casually dismissed. Criticism of the video reflects an important debate over how humanitarian advocates should responsibly and sensitively balance the priorities of accuracy and mass appeal -- and how that balance can affect the lives of those that advocates seek to help.

The fact that the most viral video in history is about a central African human rights issue, rather than a music debut or a laughing baby, is impressive. But advocacy messages that happen to resonate with the public do not lead inevitably to the right solutions. As Congo expert Séverine Autessere wrote in a recent journal article, advocacy narratives tend to frame the policy debates that ensue -- and overly simplistic narratives can cause real harm.

The stakes are high because policy mis-steps can have severe human costs. In December 2008, the U.S. supported a failed Ugandan military raid on Kony's camp, triggering horrific attacks by his militia that killed hundreds of civilians. More recently, a campaign to regulate "conflict minerals" inadvertently led to the collapse of the livelihoods of thousands of ordinary Congolese.

Does this mean advocates should do nothing, or stay silent? No. But it does mean they should approach their work with particular humility, care and precision. Invisible Children, the nonprofit group behind the now famous video, argues rightly that simplification is a necessary tool of public engagement. But there can be a fine line between simplification and distortion, and viral success does not excuse misleading one's audience.

The video's overarching message is that the LRA is able to terrorize central Africa due to a lack of global awareness. But in fact global institutions have been seized with this issue for years -- starting with the important advocacy efforts of the UN's top humanitarian official back in 2003. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government. The UN Security Council has issued multiple resolutions relating to the LRA. From 2006 to 2008 an internationally-backed peace process ended the conflict in Northern Uganda. And since 2008, UN peacekeepers and the Ugandan military have been hunting the LRA across central Africa.

There are times when a lack of global awareness actually is a core obstacle -- that was arguably the case with Kony when Invisible Children was founded in 2003. But given the wide array of diplomatic and security tools now working to bring Kony to justice, it is hard to conclude that awareness is still the main problem. The decision to nonetheless make that the video's core message is a disservice to the many people it has inspired.

Focusing attention on a single man also obscures the fact that the Joseph Konys of the world only arise in environments where weak governance, underdevelopment, conflict, and social injustice allow them to operate. These unsexy issues are the root problems, and Kony is their result. Focusing international political will on a manhunt detracts from engaging with the region's deeper development and security challenges.

The video's approach to activism is also problematic. It leads its viewers to believe that if enough people buy action kits, wear bracelets and sign a vague pledge, they will enable Kony's capture by the end of this year. This focus on advocacy merchandising has managed to offend broad swathes of people in Northern Uganda, who feel that it trivializes their suffering. An advocacy campaign should not viscerally offend so many of the very people it claims to help. The video glosses over how these actions would constitute a game-changer on the ground in Central Africa within the set time frame.

The choice facing advocates is not between doing something and doing nothing; the choice is how to do something, responsibly. Advocates have an ethical obligation to both the activists they speak to and the people they claim to speak for. This includes presenting their case without sacrificing accuracy, portraying affected people as more than just victims awaiting a savior and proposing realistic avenues for change. Is it possible to ignore these obligations, as Invisible Children has, and still have a net positive impact? Maybe, as LRA expert Chris Blattman argues. But after the inadvertent harm caused by other well-meaning but misguided advocacy, and the offense caused by turning this crisis into a marketing pitch, "maybe" is not good enough. Humanitarian advocates must hold themselves to a higher standard.

Looking ahead, let's hope that the current debate is a teachable moment for all sides. There is a valuable lesson here about the power of new media tools to engage overlooked constituencies of activists. But there is also a vital lesson about the importance of getting the message right, rather than just getting the message out.

Jeremy Konyndyk is the director of policy and advocacy at the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps www.mercycorps.org. The opinions stated in this piece are his own, not necessarily those of Mercy Corps.