Documentaries and film dramas no doubt have the ability to pull on the heartstrings, to motivate action, to inspire careers. I still credit my viewing of The Killing Fields, when I was about 9 years old, as the catalyst to engaging in a career of health and development in Cambodia.
But not all works of film are alike. We now live in the age of social media. Projects no longer only seek to “tell a story” and let the viewer reconcile their own mind and feelings to chart their own courses of action or inaction on a particular disease, conflict, or ongoing saga that may or may not be true. These days, it’s all about an agenda that is being pushed. There is a growing population of online minds to be shaped and actions to be motivated. The rise of social marketing wishes for us – the viewers, the masses – to think a certain way and be pushed into action in a that a stakeholder wants you to do it; usually via the donation of funds or joining an effort to advocate for change; though what often happens is armchair activism, or slacktivism as some call it.
These efforts have been most effective when we already are aware a problem exists. The fight for improving the US health care system has an obvious face that we know – either in the mirror or those close to us (I’m Canadian – so having friends who do not have access to health insurance because of the current economic recession is important to me), efforts to make gay marriage a legal reality around the world, and of course, the Occupy movement. But for crises and issues that we might not be aware of – well – that’s another story.
I mention all of this because the webosphere has been all a twitter about a certain viral video called Kony2012 and an organisation called Invisible Children Inc. As of the writing of this post, it has had 43,354,020 viewings on YouTube and a plethora of celebrities from Oprah to Justin Bieber tweeting about it since its launch on March 5. This collective of efforts are seeking to raise awareness of the crimes of Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, with Invisible Children seeking to “save” Uganda by lobbying for a US military effort. My first reaction was confusion. Hadn’t we already gone through this before? Hadn’t the problems subsided, Joseph Kony was rotting away somewhere in central Africa like how Bin Laden was hidden away with sickness in the valleys of Afghanistan/Pakistan? Weren’t other development issues – like violence against homosexuals in Uganda, the reduction of mortality of children under 5 years of age, or poverty reduction, the new primary goals of Uganda’s development strategy?
So when all of this hubbub showed up on my Facebook newsfeed this past week, my first reaction was to see what my best friend, Andrea, was posting about it. Not only being an amazing girlfriend and one of my closest friends despite the miles between us, Andrea is my most trusted source of information on Northern Uganda-related development activities. She has been involved with development activities in Uganda since our days at the University of Toronto. It began with her tireless work, starting in 2005 with the organisations GuluWalk and its parent, Athletes for Africa. These grassroots organisations sought to raise awareness and money to resolve an issue that was ACTUALLY occurring on the ground from 2005 – the rehabilitation and assistance to child soldiers who had previously been kidnapped and recruited by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to fight in the oft-unknown Ugandan civil war in the north of the country. But Andrea’s career has not been limited to this one specific issue. Just as LRA activity has slowed to a trickle in Uganda and the Northern Uganda region now focuses on rebirth and reconstruction, Andrea’s career has also evolved and she now works on broader community development issues. So when Andrea started to post links for voices that were critical of the Kony2012/Invisible Children movement, my eyes and ears perked. Amid all of the Facebook Newsfeed items that were pro-Invisible Children were Andrea’s early and very informative links that deconstructed these efforts.
I won’t go more into the specifics of the Kony2012/Invisible Children debate. But what I wanted to emphasize from this week’s events in this post was the important of evidence and knowledge. There are a great many problems affecting the world’s most vulnerable. At the same time, there are so many voices and actors who are engaged in this thing called “international development.” So many efforts are being launched. Many using the heart – but not so many involving a cooperative and supportive brain. Some of them are truly good, sustainable and create positive change. Others have ugly and unintended consequences. The virality and deadly consequences of the MMR vaccine debate, with Jenny McArthy and Jim Carrey as its faces, comes to mind. And some don’t really do anything. As taxpayers which fund development efforts, as members of a global society, or even as practitioners of development activities and decision-makers, I believe it is necessary to look beyond what a viral sensation may deem to be real and to ask for the evidence. In my experiences working in the field of health and development, I’ve found it necessary to stay hungry, as the great Steve Jobs said. To delve deeper into the problem. To ask for other sources of information and to look behind the voice and into who is really speaking. The words and the images may tug at your heart – but what does your brain say?
If you are interested in learning more about the Kony2012/Invisible Children debate, check out this article from The Atlantic. This site also provides a very comprehensive digest of the voices who have been debating about the subject too. The drinking game is especially creative. And if you wish to watch a truly heart-wrenching, visually stunning, but also informative documentary about the harm done by the Lord’s Resistance Army – I would check out War/Dance, 2008 nominee for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.