Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Friday, March 6

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring

Though the protracted war in Northern Uganda languished for nearly two decades without any real acknowledgment beyond the country's borders, the original Invisible Children documentary and the campus movement it spawned can be credited as among the first large-scale efforts to bring more attention to the subject. Still, it's very much worth reading Chris Blattman's sage, but critical, perspective on the group's approach—his takedown doesn't pull punches (if I can mix a wrestling metaphor with a boxing one... close enough, right?), but it's right on:

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.
I've written more than once about celebrity advocacy, disaster pornography, and the like. This pretty much falls into that genre. As most critics will note (look at the comments to Blattman's post), IC at least deserves praise for making a heartfelt effort to raise awareness for something important, and doing quite a good job at it. No doubt, their young, hip approach to the cause has been a significant part of their success. And some say that this is more than enough—so what if they smooth over the details or miss them altogether, isn't some awareness better than none at all?

One, I think that's a false choice—no one suggests they should have stayed at home, just that their approach could be more sophisticated. But, even so, I'm not that sure some awareness is better than none: "A little learning is a dang'rous thing."

I'm mostly concerned about two possible externalities of efforts like these: misunderstanding and paternalism. If the point of advocacy is to effect policy change, then I think we have to ask, what shape will this change take? Not to preach heresy in the age of Obama, but change, alone, is not enough. If the advocacy is misinformed and patronizing, why is there any reason to think the policies it begets will not be as well? In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill discusses public intervention in private matters—a distinct concern, but for the same reason, and with the same outcome: “The strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place.” The logic here is that the public rarely understands personal problems, so its intervention has a bad track record. The same, I would think, could be said of misguided activism.

Case in point: Invisible Children. As one commenter to Blattman's post writes:
I talked with aid workers in Gulu and the rest of Uganda in the first half of 2007, and IC was met with unrestrained and unparalleled scorn. I was told their NGO was an outcast in northern Uganda--"nobody in the NGO community even knows what they *do*" is, if I recall correctly, an exact quote.
I had a similar experience, though it was put to me as something like: "Gulu is overrun with frat boys." (In fairness, that may have more been in reference to those hoping to film the next Invisible Children, rather than those who made the original.)

My point, I suppose, is that there's a dangerous tendency in the U.S. to fetishize causes. This is why celebrities flock to them and groups like IC print trendy T-shirts that read, "i heart the LRA." It would be one thing if such efforts tended to lead to smarter policy outcomes or more robust and appropriate interventions. But they don't. Instead, we end up trying to save people who don't need or want saving, and even if they did, we wouldn't know how.


Vinh said...

I remember seeing the Invisible Children documentary in a dorm auditorium sometime in 2005 (I found out about it from someone's AIM profile - remember those?) and having a similar reaction to both the film and the level of enthusiasm from the crowd. Your John Stuart Mill quote is apt, though the Fall Out Boy(!!) Invisible Children Spring 2009 US Tour might be enough to make me forget about such intellectualization.

Aaron said...

Vinh — Do people seriously still listen to Fall Out Boy?

Seana said...

Invisible Children has really motivated hundreds of people to take a look outside their everyday worlds to the suffering and injustice we often overlook. Also, showing our generation that we can make a difference. Its bracelets and schools for schools program have helped a lot of children in Uganda. Their products are made in Africa. I think its a revolutionary NGO.

halalandharam said...

Invisible Children aired on Oprah yesterday, May 1. I wrote a blog letter to Oprah and I would really appreciate your feedback/criticism!