Africa is not a Country – Kony 2012

March 14, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Before I launch into my post about Kony 2012, I want to relate a quick story about where the title for my project “Unintended Consequences” originated. In 2006, I began filming a documentary about an elementary school in Calgary that formed a connection with a children’s home/orphanage in Litein, Kenya. One of my partners on the project was the Tildund Foundation. ( I met Mary Tidlund through a mutual friend and was impressed by her vision and approach to development work.

Late in 2008 or 2009, Mary and I were chatting about the film, and she talked about the “unintended consequences” of “helping”. My film, “Letters From Litein”, illustrates the results of this dynamic on both sides of the issue. In Mary’s opinion, “helping” sets up an unequal relationship. In her approach, development work, communities are engaged to develop the solutions to their issues, and those from the outside, bring resources and skills that are shared in order to build capacity within the community. When the community owns the solution, long term viability is much greater.

Anyway, I loved Mary’s use of “unintended consequences” and my limited experiences in Kenya and Tanzania gave the concept truth for me. It was after my conversation with Mary, that my epiphany occurred with regards to the story I was thinking about on global energy. People often think of “unintended consequences” as being negative, but there are positive ones as well. In terms of energy, understanding the unintended consequences of various energy/fuel sources will help us determine how to structure the energy system for the future.

When the Kony 2012 video came out last week, I was at first hesitant to watch it. I became aware of Invisible Children and the LRA back in 2006. I was reading various books on African history, and watched a few different documentaries. I ordered and watched the Invisible Children “Rough Cut”. For a group of guys who were not “filmmakers” it was technically well done. From what I recall they were raising money at the time to get their film finished, and they were building a network to educate students about what was happening in Uganda. I do not believe they have released the finished film from the “rough cut”.

After 2006, I did not hear about Invisible Children again until last week. I watched the video. Without critiquing the message, has proved to be a well executed piece of social media advocacy. It begins with a clear call to action that only requires twenty-seven minutes. Pretty simple.

Clearly, Kony and the LRA need to be stopped. No one questions this. Abuse of children must be stopped. But, there are many problems with this campaign. Many other people who are far better qualified and knowledgable than me have weighed in on this, and point to the weaknesses and dangers inherent in it. I have linked to one opinion at the bottom, but there are a few things that have continued to bother me, that I felt compelled to reflect on.

When I first went to Kenya in 2006, I had a lot of preconceptions of what it was going to be like. Most of these ideas were formed from what I was exposed to in the media. In other words, stories of famine, suffering, poverty, AIDS, and conflict. Now all of those things do exist across various countries within Africa, but as I discovered those stories do not tell the whole picture. Media has a firm grip on how we see the world, if we do not take the responsibility on ourselves to gain a more sophisticated view, we are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.

Africa is not a country. Yet many people, including within media refer to it as if it is so. Political candidates in the Republican leadership contest have done so recently. I have been guilty of doing that. Referring to Africa as if it is a country grossly oversimplifies the complexities of the people who live within the fifty countries on the continent, and the many issues they deal with every day.

Kony 2012 over-simplifies the story of the LRA, and more importantly of the current reality within Uganda, of which one reality is that Joseph Kony and the LRA are not in Uganda anymore. The Ugandan governments complicity in allowing the LRA to operate in Northern Uganda for twenty years provides another stark and tragic reality. For the people of Uganda, there are greater daily issues they want to focus on. You would not know this from the IC video, but Ugandans themselves are making their voices heard.

What are the unintended consequences then, on the people of Uganda from this worldwide campaign? There will likely be negative impacts to tourism, both from tourists who may stay away because of fear of violence, and there will be an influx of “good intentioned” advocates who want to “help”. One can only imagine how many young people are planning trips to help in Uganda this summer, and may not have or get any training on appropriate ways to do this. As one person once said to me, sometimes there is nothing worse than good intentions. Many countries in Africa continue to suffer from decades of well-intentioned, but poorly enacted “help”. What will Kony’s victims feel about him being raised to celebrity status? Are they being re-victimized?

Kony 2012 perpetuates the single story of Africa. It’s not that the story in and of itself is not important, Kony and the LRA must be dealt with, but it is not the only story. IC has mobilized the attention of millions, yet they have not clarified how they will spend the money raised, other than their mission to produce more films and advocacy. Yesterday’s press release declared they will determine what to do with the money when the campaign ends. The people of Uganda deserve a better answer than that, because the money being raised is being done so using their story, their blood, their suffering. Their story has been co-opted, and it has been done so in a way that is self-aggrandizing on behalf of Invisible Children.

IC may not have meant to portray themselves as white knights, but for many viewers, they did exactly that. How are Ugandan’s being engaged in the effort? What about the people in the countries where the LRA are now terrorizing?

Being critical is easy. The people at IC put themselves out there to bring attention to the horrific crimes of the LRA and Kony. They deserve full credit for bringing worldwide attention, and unintentionally inspiring this debate. But simplifying a complex problem and spreading misleading information to millions of people is irresponsible. They should have been more careful in building a narrative that was accurate and reflective of the feelings of the people of Uganda. And, they should have given viewers other places to go to acquire more knowledge of the story.

Raising our own awareness means more than watching one video and sending money to an organization that can produce great videos and create a global social media phenomenon. The internet allows for searching out multiple qualified opinions on important issues, easily and quickly. Let’s hope this happens for those who really want to get involved. Where does all the energy go for this campaign if Kony is caught? What if he is never brought to justice or killed? How will all this good will and energy be channeled to address other pressing issues for the people of Uganda and elsewhere?

One other issue really bothered me about the Kony 2012 video. Why was it necessary for Jason Russell to talk to his three year old son about a mass murderer? Why does any child need to know these things? In my opinion, he robbed his son of his innocence, and his son will never get that back. One of the reasons why the story of child soldiers is so powerful is because it’s about the innocence of children being ripped away. Children’s innocence should be protected for as long as it can be whether it’s a Ugandan child or American, although that has become increasingly difficult.

Kony 2012 has created a global movement, or least millions of people who clicked on a You Tube link and maybe watched the whole 27 minutes, we don’t even know how many did. Hopefully, the controversy over the video has spurred many of those viewers to think about what it all means, and to search out better information about what is happening in Uganda, the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, and all over the continent.

Africa is not a country.

I have many friends in Kenya, and I have also spent a little time in Tanzania. My experiences in both places were complex and magical. I yearn to go back, to greet my friends, to make more friends, and to deepen my understanding of an amazing part of our global community.

Here is an article from Aljazeera.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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9 Responses to Africa is not a Country – Kony 2012

  1. Great commentary Matt. It’s so interesting watching my 14 year olds wrestle with Kony and all the issues. For me – I look at it as a HUGE learning experience for my children. To ignite their passions against injustice, to examine the truth and where it comes from, and to dig deeper to try to find a different truth, why did it start, who’s telling the truth, etc.

    I’ve forwarded this onto them.

  2. The Economist predicted in late 2010 ( that: “The written word was a forgiving medium for over-complicated, ill-conceived messages. Video demands simplicity and immediacy. The best companies will use this to their advantage by thinking through more rigorously what it is they are trying to say and do.”

    Dan Pallotta argues in HBR ( that regardless of KOMY2012’s gross oversimplification, it has lessons for all organizations on how to advocate for an issue, because it has become the most viral video of all time: 100+ million views in less than a week ( I’m sure re-election strategy teams everywhere are taking notes.

    • That is all well and good Victor, except their over-simplification and disregard for the resulting consequences of the video, is going to be a problem for the people of Uganda and Gulu as today’s news suggests. The people there are offended by seeing Kony’s face on posters and t-shirts. Invisible Children should have thought more rigourously about what they said, and what the results might be.

      • Did you read Dan Palotta’s piece in HBR? He wrote: “Yes, Kony is out of Uganda, but that hasn’t stopped his Lord’s Resistance Army from killing 151 people and abducting 591 in the last year alone. What are the critics saying, exactly? Leave the poor murderer alone, he’s suffered enough already? What’s the alternative? Maintain the strategy that’s left him free for sixteen years?”

      • I’m not criticizing them for bringing awareness about Kony, but what’s the point in mobilizing millions of ill-informed advocates? What happens when they find out the truth? Just because the message is simple does not mean it has to be misleading or inaccurate.

        As I said in my post, IC should be applauded for the awareness they have brought to the issue, but this type of campaign exists in a very dangerous spot, and we don’t know what the consequences are going to be yet. But, the fact that the people of Gulu are rejecting the video, as it would seem from the reports today, should carry great weight. They are the victims. Disregarding their input and their feelings is as bad as letting Kony continue to carry out his campaign of violence.

        Media has great power and with it comes great responsibility. IC has the opportunity to do something really great or not. Time will tell.

  3. “IC has the opportunity to do something really great or not.”
    Check out

  4. Virginia says:

    Matt – you are so right about ‘unintended consequences’ …even of well meaning advocacy efforts. Altho it’s important to ‘get the word out’ in advocacy initiatives, sometimes the very people we want to help get HURT. (where i worked in the Middle East, we facilitated a BBC interview for a medical professional; the night it aired in England, they came & took him to prison for TWO YEARS…) sigh. The best, long-term relief & development efforts need to be ‘facilitated’ – in, through, with & BY the communities themselves… for their ownership…

    really like your blog! : )

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