I honestly was not expecting this sort of response when I wrote my letter. It has only been a day and my letter seems to have, somehow, “gone viral”. Thank you to everyone who has read it. I am grateful and humbled that so many people took the time to read my letter. (For those of you who have asked, I have not received an official response from Jason Russell or even a confirmation that he has read it).
All of this activity has also entailed receiving many messages. I appreciate them all and I apologize that I have not addressed them. The past day has been so overwhelming that I needed some time before I could properly respond and react.
The biggest question that I have been asked is:
As my professor, Mahmood Mamdani, once said, “Certain assumptions drive research efforts, solutions and so much effort is expended in solving the problem as opposed to defining the problem. Once you have defined the problem, 90% of the solution is already there. Most of the time the solution is in the problem’s definition itself” (Columbia University, 10/20/10).
I believe this is important advice because I think often times there are actually more problems within the “solution”. Therefore, I suggest that the next step is to further explore the problems and continue to ask questions.
**I would like to clarify, I am not saying that we should “simply sit back and let people die”. I am saying that we should make sure that we fully understand the situation and the consequences of our actions, so it is not our very actions (no matter how good the intentions) that are actually responsible for more deaths. This way we can be sure we are responding to problems, not causing problems. However, for those of you who are still antsy, I will reassure you somewhat by saying that we are currently working on something…
For now, for those of you who are concerned and curious, I suggest that you begin by doing your own research. So, that you can make your own informed opinion based on your research and not merely on what Jason Russell, a journalist, or some random 22 year old college blogger has to say. I believe that the words of experts, scholars, and people with lived experiences are the best way to form these opinions. (I would like to clarify that I am not implying that these are three separate categories).
If you would like a starting point, I would recommend reading this piece written by Adam Branch.
Adam Branch is senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda, and assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University, USA. He is the author of “Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda” (Oxford, 2011).His work has focused primarily on the politics of human rights intervention in Uganda.
*I have also copied and pasted the text below (updated version):
March 11, 2012
From Kampala, the Kony 2012 hysteria was easy to miss. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t watch YouTube, and the Ugandan papers didn’t pick up the story for several days. But what I could not avoid were the hundreds of emails from friends, colleagues, and students in the US about the video by Invisible Children and the massive on-line response to it.
I have not watched the video. As someone who has worked in northern Uganda and done research on the war there for over a decade, much of it with a local human rights organization based in Gulu, the Invisible Children organization and their videos have often left me infuriated—I remember the sleepless night after I watched their “Rough Cut” film for the first time and then tried to explain to the audience of students what was wrong with the film while sitting on stage with one of the filmmakers.
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so convincingly by those on-line critics who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves. They have pointed out what is wrong with the group’s approach: the warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, their portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans. As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.
But, as I said, I wouldn’t have known about Kony 2012 if it hadn’t been for the flood of emails I received from the US. And that, I think, is telling. Kony 2012 and the debate around it are not about Uganda, but about America. Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the US today. Likewise, in my view, the Kony 2012 campaign itself is basically irrelevant here in Uganda, and perhaps the best approach might be to just ignore it. This is for a couple reasons.
First, Invisible Children’s campaign is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa. Invisible Children are “useful idiots,” being used by those in the US government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more weapons and military aid to the continent, and to build the power of states that are US allies. The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children—Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier. Therefore, it is the militarization we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.
Second, in northern Uganda, people’s lives will be left untouched by this campaign, even if it were to achieve its stated objectives. This is not because all the problems have been resolved in the years since open fighting ended, but because the most serious problems people face today have little to do with Kony. The most pressing are over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are grabbing the land of the Acholi people in northern Uganda, land that they were forced off of a decade ago when the government herded them into internment camps. Another serious problem for northern Uganda is so-called “nodding disease”—a deadly illness that has broken out among thousands of children who had the bad luck to be born and grow up in the camps, subsisting on relief aid. Indeed, the problems people face today are the legacy of the camps, where over a million Acholi were forced to live, and die, for years by their own government as part of a counterinsurgency that received essential support from the US and from international aid agencies.
Which brings up the question that I am constantly asked in the US: “What can we do?” where “we” tends to mean relatively privileged Americans. In response, and as a contribution to the debate going on in the US about Kony 2012, I have a few proposals. The first, perhaps not surprising from a professor, is to learn. The conflict in northern Uganda and central Africa is complicated, yes—but not impossible to understand. For several years, I have taught an undergraduate class on the conflict, and, although it takes some time and effort, the students end up informed enough to be able to come to their own opinions about what can be done. I am more than happy to share the syllabus with anyone interested! In terms of activism, I think the first step is to re-think the question: instead of asking how the US can intervene in order to solve Africa’s conflicts, we need to ask what we are already doing to cause those conflicts in the first place. How are we, as consumers, contributing to land grabbing and to the wars ravaging this region? How are we, as Americans, allowing our government to militarize Africa as part of its War on Terror and its effort to secure oil resources? These are the questions that those of us who represent Kony 2012’s target audience must ask ourselves, because we are indeed responsible for the conflict in northern Uganda—responsible for helping to cause and prolong it. It is not, however, our responsibility, as Invisible Children encourages us to believe, to try to end the conflict by sending in military force. In our desire to ameliorate suffering, we must not be complicit in making it worse.
The second biggest question I have been asked is my citations. I apologize that I did not provide them in the previous letter. Here is a list of my sources:
Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings : War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Branch, Adam. Displacing Human Rights : War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Nibbe, Ayesha Anne. “The Effects of a Narrative: Humanitarian Aid and Action in the Northern Uganda Conflict”. Diss. University of California, Davis, 2011. 3456852
My own research that I conducted in the summer of 2010 and 2011 in Northern Uganda that focused on the effectiveness and role of NGOs, especially Invisible Children (even though it is actually a corporation) in the area. I will provide the report upon its official completion.
Lastly, my mentors and close family and friends in Uganda.
Again, thank you again for your support. I really appreciate it. It has been exciting to be a part of this process of questioning, problematizing, debating, sharing, and learning. It really goes to prove that we are not only capable of, but also demand, a higher level of discourse than that of a toddler. (No matter how cute he is).