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Kony 2012: Conspicuous Compassion & The Tradition of the Victim

Reaction to the Kony 2012 campaign

Heroes and villains

Back in the mid-eighties, prompted by this news report, multi-millionaire Bob Geldof organised a global musical event called Live Aid to raise money for the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa. An accompanying festive single was released entitled “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in aid of Muslim Ethiopia. The world was transfixed and the crusade raised £150m.

However, in 1991, famine scholar Alex de Waal argued that the “humanitarian effort prolonged the war, and with it, human suffering.” Aid was routed via the communist military junta (the Derg), led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who were also fighting a war in the north – a conflict that part caused the famine. The war was thereby extended by 6 years with Médecins Sans Frontières estimating that the aid may have led to as many deaths as there were lives saved.

During the years that followed, reforms changed how aid was distributed in crisis zones and there were also lasting changes in how such tragedies were covered by the news media. The BBC’s Adam Curtis noted how the complexity and grey areas surrounding the use of aid money was underreported. It was a story that did not conform to a simple, good vs. evil cold war narrative. After the equally complex Rwandan genocide in 1994, modern news effectively stopped analysing political struggles and instead reported only on their often bloody outcomes, without context.

The Invisible Children campaign is equally simplistic and actually mimics Live Aid’s approach and worse errors. It has worked with the Ugandan and Sudanese armies which both have a terrible human rights record of rape and violence. It advocates American military intervention, which will inevitably result in mission creep in a resource-rich region where China is competing. All in all, many fear that the Kony 2012 campaign may also end up doing more harm than good.

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