Kony 2012: what Africa really needs is More White People

by Sam Kriss

Invisible Children. Pictured, left to right: a young Christopher Hitchens, Rambo’s weedy nephew, and Count von Count.

I’m sorry, but everything about this campaign is straight-up dumb.

Better blogs than this one have pointed out that Invisible Children, the charity behind the Kony 2012 campaign, only allocates 32% of its funds to charitable work, and have commented on the nature of its connections with the less than savoury government of Uganda and with war profiteers in the finance-capital establishment. It’s also true that the campaign maintains an undue focus on one (admittedly despicable) individual, excluding the broader social and geopolitical causes, and comes at a time when a peace process is already underway. The image used of the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey combining to form a white dove is frankly nauseating. I won’t waste too much space saying what’s already been said.

The thing is, I’m not too sure if anything in the campaign is really all that worthwhile. One of its main stated aims is ‘raising awareness.’ People should indeed be aware of the awful and tragic things happening outside the walls of their safe first-world homes. It’s important that we are forced to confront the fact that the coltan in our our jabscreens is mined by slave labourers in Congo, that the recycling we get so much self-satisfaction out of is being sorted by children in China, that our tax money is funding torture and apartheid abroad. But does spending vast sums of money on ‘raising awareness’ about the LRA really help? Does the fact that trendy bourgeois types are now tangentially aware that there is a place called Uganda and bad things are happening there as they sip their lattes actually constitute any kind of meaningful achievement? There’s a strange kind of self-absorption at work here: if there’s a problem in the third world, what we need to do is raise awareness in the first.

And this is, of course, because we Westerners have agency, and Africans don’t. This is one of the central underlying assumptions of all these movements, and it’s something that’s incredibly damaging. African populations are essentially denied any kind of self-determination or capacity for mass action, they’re reduced to pitiful, suffering objects. Things happen to them, they can never do anything themselves. They are turned into voids, with pleading, abyssal eyes. And into that void we as Westerners must project our sympathy, our duty, our humanity. We must act, because they cannot. We must intervene.

This is where we really need to think twice. All this really constitutes is a white man’s burden for the 21st Century. It’s dehumanising, paternalistic, and – however well-meaning – racist. If you dig back deep enough into the history of any problem faced by Africa today, you’ll find a bunch of white people, in the jungle, posing with guns, just like the berks above. Invisible Children are unapologetic in their advocacy for intervention. They want US military involvement in Uganda. They want American funding and arms for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. They want the people of the West to use their agency to call for humanitarian imperialism. In other words, they’re using the new-found clout they’ve gained from the emotional response generated by a genuine human tragedy to propose the absolute dumbest solution possible.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit on my throne of cynicism and disparage people who are trying to make some positive change. What, after all, have I ever done for Africa? Fuck-all nothing, that’s what. But the idea that I have some capacity to make change that African people don’t needs to be interrogated. The myth of the sufferer without agency powers only imperialist intervention, and such intervention tends to be disastrous. As Thomas Sankara (perhaps the greatest leader of 20th Century Africa) showed, liberated Africans are capable of solving their problems. The one thing Africa does not need is more interference from more white people.

EDIT: I initially (erroneously) wrote that IC spends 31% of its funds on charitable work in Africa. This has been amended.