If you are even remotely in touch with the Internet, you have certainly heard something about the campaign to arrest Joseph Kony. This widespread awareness of Kony, and more broadly the Lord’s Resistance Army, have been the result of a determined social media campaign by the group Invisible Children that largely targets the idealistic tendencies of well-off Westerners, and more specifically teenagers and college-aged students. Their effort has been incredibly effective in raising awareness, but has drawn its fair share of critics. This intense criticism has been met with clarifications and justifications by the Invisible Children organization but the debate rages on.
As a young college student with grand hopes for the world, I can certainly understand the appeal the “KONY 2012” movement that attempts to solve an incredibly complex problem with a seemingly simple solution: awareness. But it is this oblivious drive for awareness that can have perverse consequences for the future of central Africa and can exacerbate the fundamental problems of the region that allow insurgent groups like the L.R.A. to get away with horrendous human rights violations. Young people can give all the money they want to try and stop the evil the Joseph Kony represents, but it is doubtful that organizations like the Invisible Children will do any good for the long term stability of the region.
On Invisible Children’s official website, they clearly lay out their intended goals for U.S. action, “It (KONY 2012) supports the deployment of U.S. advisers and the provision of intelligence and other support that can help locate and bring Kony to justice, but also increased diplomacy to hold regional governments accountable to their basic responsibilities to protect civilians from this kind of brutal violence.” Essentially, the Kony campaign is endorsing the foreign policy agenda of the “Responsibility to Protect,” a popular foreign policy agenda within international governing bodies. Responsibility to Protect is an idea that the international community has the responsibility to protect civilians from human rights violations, especially genocide and ethnic cleansing. Invisible Children is channeling this idea to the masses to confront what they believe is the figurehead of an organization that is committing crimes against humanity, Joseph Kony.
But does the United States have this responsibility to protect? From Somalia to Iraq, the idealistic hopes that push forward an intervention are often themselves a cause of immense suffering. The infusion of cash, humanitarian aid, and military aid that flow into these war-torn, and often corrupt, countries can often lead to a further deterioration of the already perilous situation. By supporting central African governments in an effort to stop the LRA, Invisible Children is already creating several problems. First, they are using donations in a way that indirectly supports governments that are often so corrupt that they can easily be classified as politicized militant groups that simply run massive patronage networks. Many of these governments would have much to gain from the elimination of the L.R.A., but are themselves perpetrators of actions that are antithetical to Western values. Second, turning the international community’s focus to central Africa creates incentives that can actually give power to groups like the L.R.A. As Alan Kuperman states in his brialliant piece, The Moral Hazard of Human Intervention, “The emerging norm, by raising expectations of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these (armed) groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and increasing its likelihood of success.” There are many other moral hazards that understandably complicate an intervention in central African by a group of idealistic Americans, and we must be skeptical as to how well, if at all, Invisible Children is equipped to handle the huge risks of the intervention that would actually be necessary to dismantle the L.R.A..
While the results of this campaign have yet to be played out, it is important to be incredibly skeptical about a campaign that simplifies such a complex issue down to the point of near misinformation. We must not be swept up by the over simplistic idealism of campaigns like Kony 2012 that play into our “highest instincts,” while also not becoming jaded by the intense complexity of humanitarian interventions. We must search for solutions to human rights abuses at home and abroad, but without understanding many of the perverse consequences of humanitarian intervention, our good intentions will bring more pain and suffering to a region that does not need any more meddling from Western nations.