"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


make yourself invisible

Oh, the kids are out in Austin this weekend, and this time, they're protesting. Inasmuch as lounging under the live oaks in an "LRA camp" on the lawn of the state capitol can be called "protesting." Or "suffering" for that matter.

Sigh. Invisible Children is a fantastic example of exactly the worst kind of advocacy on behalf of victims of armed conflict. It's ethnocentric, culturally insensitive, and apparently driven by the idea that having American college kids pull stunts like this weekend's "Rescue" will somehow make the lives of children in Northern Uganda better.

(Ways they have actually helped children in Northern Uganda after 5+ years of ridiculous t-shirts and mediocre films that don't really explain the situation: Support for ten schools.

Which is a good thing. But it took how many millions of dollars and wasted years to do it?)

The problem with IC, as Professor Blattman pointed out a couple of months ago, isn't that they're raising awareness about a serious situation. It's that they're doing it in an entirely self-centered, White Man's burden, rich kids off to "save Africa" way. "Abducting yourself" is just ridiculous; there's no way that a night or two out under the stars downtown comes remotely close to helping students empathize with the Ugandan children who face the fear of abduction every night. And it's not really an "abduction" when you know that at any time you can go home.

By all accounts, the IC organization is seen as a bit of a joke in northern Uganda. This isn't suprising seeing as there's no evidence that IC's ideas for helping with the situation appear to actually come from Ugandans themselves. In that sense, IC falls prey to the same problems as do many, many other advocacy organizations. They waste time, effort, and money while taking years to do the very minimum to change the situation they want to help improve. I have no doubt that IC's intentions are good. But their approach is deeply misguided, and the effect they have isn't that far removed from holding a concert to wish the world's poor good luck.

The fact that it's Sunday night and the kids here in Austin have still yet to be "rescued" by any of our local celebrities (and I have it on good authority that Lance Armstrong was at the Hula Hut tonight) is perhaps the most telling thing of all. Turns out that mediocre advocacy in the form of stunts don't accomplish much.


Blogger Michael said...

As someone who knows a heck of a lot more about Africa than I (or most of those IC people) do or ever will, what should Americans do to help those in Uganda or similar situations? I would imagine that IGOs and NGOs are just as wasteful and inefficient as IC. Churches might be helpful, but are too cheap and probably don't do much either.

So what is the solution? Is there even a solution that Americans can assist in, or does the only solution to such atrocities have to come from within the country in question?

Monday, April 27, 2009 8:07:00 AM

Blogger Erin Bernstein said...

Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

A group here at the University of Tennessee had been in touch with IC's filmmakers/founders expressing our concerns with the "Rescue," the shirts to advertise it, and their overall insensitive portrayals of northern Uganda and the region.

Of course, we met arrogance and immaturity.

Thank you for your intelligence.

Monday, April 27, 2009 8:46:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Erin, thanks for your kind words. I'm glad that your group at the "other" UT :) is aware that advocacy needs to be intelligent. Putting child soldier's faces on film alone is enough to completely discredit IC.

Michael, it depends on the NGO. I think something like sponsoring a child through Compassion International is a great way to radically change one family's lives. In terms of ending the war, that's a diplomatic-level question that requires a political and military solution. Uganda being where it is, that means it has to be a regional solution as well, which means the conflicts in Sudan and the general insecurity in the Congo need to be solved as well. I do think there's room for lobbying our government to take an interest in the situation there and to put pressure on Museveni's government to really solve the crisis rather than manipulating it for political ends. But ultimately, the United States isn't going to force a solution in northern Uganda. It just won't happen.

In other news, I asked an IC protester on campus this morning what they're actually doing to help people in Uganda. "We sell bracelets!" he offered. I asked if he'd done any research on IC's perception in the region. He then proceeded to yell at me for not caring about Africans as I walked to my office. Good times.

Monday, April 27, 2009 10:13:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Invisible Children aired on Oprah yesterday, May 1.

I've been trying to learn a lot about international development, and I felt compelled to write a letter to Oprah on my blog. I would really appreciate it if you read it and provide any feedback/criticism.

Mariam M.

Saturday, May 02, 2009 12:26:00 PM

Blogger Carole Turner said...

Hey. I know this is your older post about IC but I just found it. Thanks for posting it.

I am one of the naive people, who just want to do something in the mean time, for Africa, so I joined the IC rescue. I have to say, I did have a check in my heart about it, even left early and didn't feel guilty, but wasn't sure why. I did think their shirts were cool and I hoped they were getting something accomplished for Uganda. But in my heart, something didn't feel quite right. SO, I am glad to find this post. I want to know more from people who actually know, like yourself.

I don't want to be a romanticising american who feels good for protesting and THINKING I am helping, I actually want to help. I am an orphan and vulnerable children care advocate and I want to learn what is the best way to actually do that in Africa.

Thank you for your blog.

Saturday, May 02, 2009 11:07:00 PM


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