Unfair Criticism of Activism Behind Kony 2012

03/14/2012 11:09 am ET Updated May 14, 2012

Within the past month millions of people have watched the activist video about the resolutely evil African warlord Joseph Kony, aimed at spurring a global movement to capture him this year. The video has galvanized youth worldwide to pay attention to a faraway conflict in Africa. The most remarkable aspect of this campaign is the age demographic it has targeted and motivated -- individuals under the age of 25. This is the age cohort that is often accused of being self-absorbed and only politically active at "fun" protest rallies.

Such an outpouring of interest from the young public on a campaign of this kind is unprecedented and as with any rapid rise to fame, has also brought an onslaught of criticism against the video producers. Common critiques are that the video perpetuates a neocolonial narrative of how the West can save Africa or that it takes artistic license with the facts about Kony's whereabouts and the impact of his actual capture. Still others have claimed that more effort is needed on campaigns against malaria which ruins the lives of far more children than any particular war criminal. Perhaps the most interesting criticism is that it perpetuates the phenomenon that sociologists are now referring to as "slacktivism" -- suggesting that wealthy slackers would rather send a check or share a video than do the tough work of field-based activism.

While physical service is likely more admirable than distant check-writing, the human resource distribution of the world is asymmetric and we need all kinds of pathways to assist those in need. I would much rather that my teenage son be sharing videos that make him think about helping children in distant lands than some random sitcom skit online.

I applaud Jason Russell and his colleagues at Invisible Children for opening the cognitive space among the youth of the world to consider such global problems. No doubt other issues such as infectious diseases should also be campaigned for with equal vigor, but one kind of need does not negate another. The charge that Western organizations are profiting from such enterprises is one which must be taken seriously but without cynicism. As we learned from the sorry conduct of the charity that rose to fame with "Three Cups of Tea," revenue transparency is important. However, Invisible Children has been very forthcoming about displaying all their finances with audits on their web site.

As for the criticism that much is already being done about the conflict, including the recent deployment of a 100 U.S. military professionals to help the Ugandan government in defeating Kony's organization -- The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the bottom line remains that he has not been captured. The history of civil conflicts in Africa, and indeed elsewhere, reveals that charismatic leaders such as Kony play a pivotal role in sustaining such vile movements, particularly those based on a religious cult such as the LRA. Recent examples of the role of charismatic leaders in perpetuating conflict is exemplified by individuals such as Jonas Savimbi in Angola, whose capture ultimately led to the end of brutal civil war in Angola that had raged for 27 years.

Some of my African friends contend that the video implies they can't solve their problems, and so makes them feel embarrassed. Well, we live in a world of structural inequality, partly as a result of colonial history and so we should think of such efforts as a means of correcting those past follies. Africans should not feel patronized if others try to help them -- specially if it is with an aim to correct past follies. Furthermore, as with any society, Africans must also be willing to accept their own limitations in terms of cultural taboos that need to be combated. The rise of the LRA was partly possible because of an incipient cultural inertia around notions such as "witchdoctors." Note that in the Central African Republic, where Kony is believed to be hiding, the national law still authorizes witch trials!

The rise of interest in helping those in need, and addressing cultural inertia in all lands, must be embraced rather than eschewed for us to work towards our common humanitarian goals. We can debate what strategies are best to assist Africa in terms of aid and trade or what level of service and cultural sensitivity is appropriate. But for much of the world, the conversation has not even started on how to help those in need.

Kudos to the film-makers of Kony 2012 for finding the chord in our youth that resonates with the impulse to care about others in a distant land, and to have a planetary vision to alleviate human suffering.