The visible lessons of Invisible Children- #globaldev critique in the viral age (in response to Paul Currion)

I largely disagree with Paul Currion’s post The invisible lesson of Invisible Children at IRIN News-even though I like their new approach to add more critical commentary to their very informative site.

In some ways, ‘Invisible Children held a mirror up to the aid industry’ he writes, but the industry
’s response has been more critical, nuanced and broader in both quality and quantity than Paul wants to give an aid industry seemingly looking for the next viral fundraising phenomenon credit to.

My response focuses on three areas: First, the moment Kony 2012 went viral, there was an almost equally viral wave of critical responses-mainly driven by online social media; second, Invisible Children/Kony 2012 have been driven by a North American philanthropic and cultural industry that certainly deserves more critical attention and, third, humanitarian organizations and their communication for development efforts are more than just intermediaries between global Northern donors and Southern recipients.

A sustained, high-quality critique quickly emerged online

When I wrote my initial response to the Kony 2012 video, I was unaware of how big this phenomenon would grow.
But within a short amount of time students, academics, NGOs, experts on Kony and the LRA and most of the aid critics worth their blogs contributed to the debate (see WhyDev
’s Readers Digest of Kony 2012).
The quantity and quality was impressive and content was shared widely. That was before more reflective pieces, Paul mentions Teju Cole in his post, emerged, e.g. Amanda Taub
’s excellent ebook Beyond Kony2012.
By now, with the usual academic publication delays, even more critical engagement emerges-firmly embedding the Invisible Children/Kony 2012 phenomenon in classrooms, research projects, philanthropic talks and critical development discussions.
The most viral video has probably become the most debated and analyzed digital aid phenomenon.

Branding culture, American philanthrocapitalism and media ecologies

As the founder of Humans of New York makes his debut on first class daytime television such as Ellen DeGeneres show and journalist Nick Kristof turns his second book project A Path Appears into a PBS documentary, we are constantly reminded that the success of Invisible Children/Kony 2012 was driven by a North/U.S. American culture that has a desire for a product-featuring, hero-against-the-odds-driven and de-complexified-individual-social-change-promoting package.
Invisible Children/Kony 2012 ticked all those boxes. That’s why Oprah re-tweets Kony 2012 and not Oxfam’s recent inequality research.
We need to be more critical about the ‘heroes’ that these narratives feature and the capitalist dynamics of selling books, Kony 2012 packages and facebook engagement.
To some extent, I agree with Paul who writes
We have these tremendous tools of communication and connection, but all we use them for is to spin the thinnest of stories, asking for more financial support for our own organizations
Save The Children US’s award to Tony Blair was an interesting example where the global philanthropic celebrity culture clashed with expectations from a primarily British public and critical international staff that believe in a more critical engagement with former politicians like Blair.

We have to be more attentive how non-American organizations, more political NGOs and movements or other global entities try to engage in the digital age and what their success and failure says about the attention economy, mainstream media and culture that focuses more and more on ‘founders’ and ‘makers’ not listeners and learners.

Beyond fundraising: Humanitarian social media engagement and communication for development (C4D)
Paul also writes
Humanitarian organisations don't connect those affected by disasters with those who can help. They mediate between the two groups, and so contribute to keeping them separate.
I do not agree, or, more precisely, I do agree with Paul that the humanitarian and development system can do better, but that it fulfills more tasks in the contemporary digital age than raising money.
First, new technology, new organizations and new Internet-based tools that actually connect those affected by disasters with those who can provide support are transforming disaster response. I am looking forward to reading Patrick Meier’s book that should summarize many of those debates.

And closer to my own research, teaching and engagement is the question of how important communication and development work at the ‘home front’ are. It is not just in Canada or Australia where critical development debates and organizations have been absorbed by conservative governments and their international trade departments. In Scandinavia we also need to communicate not just ‘development’, but issues around global justice, social change and unequal power relations-Oxfam’s current research is one excellent example of important ‘intermediaries’ (still?) are and that their efforts also benefit ‘affected people’.

In conclusion, I think that the Kony 2012 phenomenon and the spectacular rise and fall of Invisible Children have had positive impacts on development and humanitarian debates, organizations and hopefully a new generation of enthusiasts who will view ‘DIY aid’ in a more nuanced way.

We also need to continue to engage critically with individualized aid efforts, single ‘heroes’ that are supposed to represent something bigger and keeping humanitarian debates lively, sometimes even exciting, to ensure that we communicate ‘inwards’ and ‘outwards’ and do more than just looking for more money…


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