Learning from Kony 2012 (Part 1 of 4)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please check out our four contributions to In the News, following on the controversy surrounding Kony 2012. They include practical suggestions for Westerners involved in aid work to move forward, and continue to explore the nuances of the “white savior” complex that we believe needs to be overcome.

Part 1: “After Kony 2012: Three Ways NGOs can work with Africans as equals”
by Cecelia Lynch

It’s hard know whether to be dismayed by all the attention given to the Kony 2012 campaign and YouTube video, or pleased that some of the issues that I and others have worked on for years are finally coming to light.

Humanitarianism in Africa gets oversimplified in myriad ways, in the process making Africans themselves one-dimensional and raising up the white (most frequently, although not always) Westerner as savior.

For real progress, Americans need to be committed to a deeper understanding of the causes of poverty both in the US and abroad. Donors and NGOs need an approach that acknowledges the humanity and agency of everyone. And they need creative ways to break through conventional wisdom about “development” to promote justice and equality.

In the wake of Kony 2012, here are three points of advice for how nongovernmental organizations, and the donors who push them, can work with African citizens as equals.

1. Avoid silver bullets
Run from anything advertised as a silver bullet for solving conflict, poverty, or disease in Africa or anywhere else. Those silver bullets include Invisible Children and Jason Russell’s Kony 2012 campaign, microcredit, and mosquito nets, among other things. Don’t be afraid to explain to the public and donors the structural causes of poverty, conflict, and disease in Western countries and around the world. Publicize who (elites, corporations, financial institutions, etc.) controls resources, land, and water in order to expose the complex of targets for change. Helping people understand complex, interconnected causes is key to engaging them in and executing an effective, sustainable campaign.

2. Refuse to portray people as victims
In the 1990s, a consortium of NGOs developed and signed the Code of Conduct for humanitarian relief. They pledged themselves to fight against exploitative “aid pornography.” Kony 2012 threatens to erode these attempts. Its narcissism promotes the false and dangerous belief that Westerners are heroes rather than the equals of Africans, resulting in new forms of paternalism and external control.

3. Reject the idea that entire societies are underdeveloped or backward
NGO representatives and donors working in Africa should read the literature of the greats (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, as well as many others.) They should understand that African universities are producing their own experts on history, development, public health, social sciences, and numerous other fields.

Westerners need to appreciate African experts’ insights on religion, culture, politics, and social issues. Many have been criticizing and satirizing not only their own elites and transnational financial institutions, but also the more naïve NGOs and external “saviors” for some time.The Kony 2012 campaign exemplifies some of the more lamentable aspects of aid work. But many working in the NGO world are much more reflective, less narcissistic, and more appreciative of the complexities involved in their attempts to make the world a better place. They are not the ones receiving thousands of hits or millions of tweets, but they are the ones who should be emulated.  –> Continue to Part 2

Cecelia Lynch is a professor of political science and director of International Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is also the editor of the CIHA Blog.

This article first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

3 Comments on Learning from Kony 2012 (Part 1 of 4)

  1. Just wanted to say a couple of things in relation to points 1&2. It might be more productive in linking two and three to recognize that there is a long historical trajectory – that includes varied and established epistemological frameworks in African studies, black studies, and African and black history that have long addressed some of the critical issues that arise out of the KONY 2012 debate in relation to the “White Western savior complex.” Is there a danger that the view of Africa being constructed here is a limited and narrow one, that potentially excludes narratives and discourses that address “roots and routes” in relation to African Diaspora, and the connectivity between these different discourses to the “black Atlantic” experience and the overarching ‘grand narrative’ of the African Continent? If the aim is to develop a more complex and nuanced understanding amongst the humanitarian community, it seems to me that these epistemologies and the political struggles that shaped them, would be central to formulating a deeper understanding of the work NGOs do in Africa. I would further envisage that references to key text on development studies and International development reading lists, would be crucial in creating a shift away form the ‘color blind’ (or one size fits all) approaches, all too prevalent within the Humanitarian aid community’s approach to Africa. If one of the aims here pertaining to (2) is to also develop a deeper understanding of the machinations of oppression, I would suggest a strong emphasis on cross-cultural training for aid workers that might include Critically Reflective Practice and the theory of anti-oppressive practice, which seeks to understand, challenge and transform the dynamics and underlying causes of oppression in developing countries. Finally, given the questionable methods employed by the charity Invisible Children in working with Ugandans, there is an urgent need for the development of an ethical framework [code of conduct] that regulates, approves and monitors the way in which NGOs are working in these settings. The bottom line, is accountability! accountability! Empowerment, Participation and inclusion of indigenous knowledge, articulated by local voices must start with an acknowledgement, that this information/knowledge already exists. African narratives, African histories, epistemologies and experiences are in the main consigned to the status of subjugated knowledge, that exist on the periphery, within the academy and mainstream development. What has emerged from the KONY 2012 debate is a paradigm shift, de-centering the dominant discourses of Western aid and development, in favor of local voices from the margins to the center. The question is: How are we going to sustain this?

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