Misinformed poverty porn: It’s an entire genre in the world of “consciousness-raising” NGOs, as any foreign correspondent, researcher or professional do-gooder can attest. I saw Invisible Children’s first such contribution to the genre years ago, an hour-long film also dubbed “Invisible Children,” purporting to explain the Northern Ugandan conflict and the child solider problem to viewers. Then, as now, the NGO had stirred up a firestorm of passion to stop the injustice. That film, like the new “Kony 2012,” obscured the geopolitical context of the conflict in favor of a simplistic “good vs. evil” narrative about saving the children.
But the film confuses many of the most basic facts about the conflict. Joseph Kony isn’t even living in Uganda right now, and hasn’t been in years. The conflict has always been relatively small, and was isolated to Northern Uganda before the LRA was expelled from the country. Did you catch any of these basics from watching the film? Also? The astonishing 30,000 children that are depicted behind Kony with the help of modern CGA? It’s terribly misleading. Kony does not have – and has never had – a 30,000-child army at his disposal. It’s horrific that any children were abducted at all, of course, but it doesn’t have the astonishing scope that “Kony 2012” depicts. Thirty thousand is, in fact, the number of children abducted over the course of an over two and a half decades-long conflict.
What the film does make clear is that its aim is to make sure the United States doesn’t withdraw military advisers from the country until Kony has been captured. Furthermore, it wants to hold the government’s feet to the fire to make sure that the President Yoweri Museveni’s government has all the military resources it needs to find and capture Kony once and for all. And a more hidden aim, Talk 2 Action’s
Not only this, but how is it that no one seems to be asking any questions about Invisible Children’s treatment of child interview subjects? Any journalist who has ever taken an ethics class and any academic who has ever gone before an IRB should well know: You just don’t go into volatile situations and ask vulnerable people to relive major trauma on camera. It is questionable to do this with adults, and it is unconscionable that the first few minutes of this film show us former child soldier, Jacob, as he breaks down in tears discussing his suicidal ideation and grief over the death of his brother. Were there psychologists present to deal with the fallout from this? What if there had been an actual suicide attempt? Did the filmmakers consider any of this? It’s difficult to say, particularly as the first film captures similar footage from many other children, all detailing their most horrific life experiences for the benefit of Invisible Children. Why isn’t anyone interrogating this or naming it as exploitation?
As Chandra Talpade Mohanty argue in her book, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Western writers and researchers to often present vulnerable postcolonial populations as monolithic victims with no personal agency of their own. Unlike us, they are static beings, unchanged over time. This is dehumanizing, and it exacerbates the mythology of the Great White Hope destined to save “the poor savages” from the horror of their lives. Ultimately, the passive victims serve as object lessons meant to inspire us to give a shit about, for example, postcolonial conflict. It happens seamlessly and without much discussion, and detractors are dismissed as “haters” and “cynics.”
This has happened many times before, and it will happen again: Nick Kristof teaching us all about “female genital mutilation;” Sally Struthers begging us to sponsor an African child with distended belly and flies on his face; Brangelina saving yet another child from certain demise and transforming cross-cultural adoption into a hot new trend. Invisible Children using film to manipulate your emotions and convince you to donate money. But child trafficking and intrastate conflict are real world problems.
And it’s going to work every time. People in the first world love nothing more than simplistic narratives about how we are going to save Africa. Parsimonious narratives in which “good” and “evil” are strictly delineated and we can feel “moved” without having to worry with little things like facts. Stories that make it easy for us to position ourselves as heroes. There will always be campaigns that do violence to the complexities of international politics. The media will always do violence to the complexities of international politics. The best we can do is call on them to be better, and if we must intervene, we should be doing the homework needed to ensure we do the least possible harm.