It’s been roughly two weeks since Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign and video went viral. The video has sparked a flurry of status updates, tweets, articles, and video responses. (see see here, here, and here).
Although I believe the Kony 2012 campaign is problematic through a lens of both policy and culture, I am grateful for the space that has opened up for frank conversation about the motivations and objectives of international aid and activism. This Atlantic article by novelist Teju Cole urges readers to think critically about the motivations of philanthropy. Writes Cole, “… there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference’…There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Cole urges his readers to consider the full complexity of a problem when considering how to most effectively work for justice. If Americans want to “make a difference” in Africa, Cole encourages them to begin with a critical examination of their position of privilege in a globalized world.
Cole’s writing and other responses have caused me to reflect on my own motivations in my travels, studies, and professional life. In 2008, I participated in a youth exchange between American and Sierra Leonean students. I was one of thirteen Americans traveling to Freetown for a two week discussion about post-conflict reconstruction, human rights, and development. The trip as also my first excursion outside of the United States.
Just about everything on the trip was a shock – from the plane ride, to the food, to the immensity of the landscape. But nothing shocked me more than the Sierra Leonean students I met. I had expected my Sierra Leonean peers to be grateful I was there, that I had taken the time out of my life to travel halfway across the world and take interest in their country. I expected them to be impressed with my bravery (because wasn’t that what I was being, wasn’t Africa a scary place, wasn’t Sierra Leone full of amputees and large men with machetes?).
Instead, during a discussion about the scarcity of funds for education, several of my Sierra Leonean peers asked us how much money we had spent on our plane tickets. They said if we really wanted to help, we should have just given a local organization that money so they could channel it toward any one of the projects we were learning about. In a meeting with a youth organization, one of the American students turned on her video camera to document the events. The leader told her to turn it off, telling her he did not know her and did not know what she was going to do with the footage back in America. On a tour of the city, we stopped in one of the poorest neighborhoods. For most of us, it was our first exposure to poverty of that magnitude. My Sierra Leonean peers told us that we could not cry – it wasn’t our right, this was not a display for our emotional gratification. My peers asked me what my impressions were of Sierra Leone prior to arrival. I told them about Kanye West and Leonardo DiCaprio, and they shook their heads in frustration.
Far from being impressed with me, my Sierra Leonean peers were fed up with Westerners coming into their communities for a few days, using their lives as a learning tool, and parachuting back home with cameras full of photos to show back at home. If we wanted to help, we needed to take the time to learn, and we needed to prove that our interest extended beyond a study trip.
I left Sierra Leone feeling humbled and enraged. My conversations with my Sierra Leonean peers made me reconsider the value of awareness versus working toward understanding of the complexity of a problem and your own relationship to it.
Since that trip to Sierra Leone, I studied abroad in Yaoundé, Cameroon and interned in Côte d’Ivoire. During my travels, in talking and writing about my experiences, I sometimes catch myself perpetuating those same problematic tendencies as I did when I was 19 and boarding my first international flight. It’s easy to get caught up in telling adventure stories, to feel that you’ve made some type of difference through volunteer experiences or internships. It’s easy to distort your own experiences, to confuse what is an appropriate role in a given situation. Our culture privileges these mentalities. It encourages the voices of people like me (young, white, and Western). There is an appetite for stories about ‘that one time I was in Africa.’ Good intentions are too rarely questioned.
I am coming to believe that being a responsible person in a globalized world means constantly taking a step back and evaluating how you fit in global hierarchies of privilege. Most often, when wondering how to make a difference, the first step is listening.
Social media and advances in information-sharing technology makes it easier than ever before to inform, educate, connect, and work together for shared goals. The individual has more power of expression than at any time in human history. Through the post-Kony 2012 fallout, I have had the benefit of learning about local initiatives in Uganda and the broader Great Lakes region. I have had the chance to learn from my peers halfway around the world about the complex array of problems which enabled the rise and continuation of the LRA.
My main take-away from the last two weeks is that these conversations about privilege, activism, and our responsibilities to each other generation desperately need to continue. Let’s not have it stop with Kony2012.