A man dies and goes to Hell. On arrival Lucifer gives him a tour of the facilities: the damned are divided into national groupings, each with their own pot of boiling sulphur covered with a heavy steel lid. Yet one pot has no lid. “Who’s that for?”, asks the new member of the damned. “Oh, that’s for the Poles,” says Lucifer. “They don’t need a lid – if one tries to crawl out, the others will drag him back in.” – traditional Polish joke.
If Lucifer were organising his affairs by profession rather than nationality, a likely candidate for a lidless pot would be the world’s international development experts, judging by much of the reaction to last week’s #StopKony campaign by US nonprofit Invisible Children. If you use any kind of social media you will have been nudged in the past few days to pay attention to this campaign to put an end to the atrocities of this African Warlord, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. 74 million people, when we last checked, had watched the #StopKony video on Youtube, which is unprecedented reach for a viral campaign about a conflict in Africa.
Yet for the development community this is not, apparently, something to cheer. Their arguments, well summarised here, are that the ‘slacktivism’ of Invisible Children over-simplifies the problem, exaggerates the importance of Kony relative to other development challenges facing Africa and promotes a paternalistic attitude in the West. This all seems terribly familiar. We have heard similar complaints about, for example, the work of Bill Gates and others to take on malaria (it’s not that simple, there are other bigger problems, etc.). Or, indeed, reactions to Live Aid in the 1980s.
As is often the case with such criticism, some fair points appear to have been exaggerated out of all proportion by the experts of the conventional wisdom. But let’s take #StopKony for what it is – an innovative campaign to engage millions of people in the fight against poverty. It is innovative not just in its use of social media. It is also picking a ‘hard’ issue (lobbying governments to take action to apprehend a warlord), rather than just making the ‘soft’ ask of a donation for some telegenic humanitarian crisis. In picking a clear, definable problem and mobilising public opinion it has the characteristics of what we think is the new way of tackling global problems – the posse.
The reaction to the #StopKony campaign shows off some of the worst traits of the development community (where Michael has worked for 20 years, including 12 at the UK’s Department for International Development): snobbery and miserabalism. If every problem is treated as so complex that only PhD’s in anthropology with years of field experience can talk about it, then how can the development community expect the support of voters for aid budgets and policies that support developing countries? If any action by the public to engage with a real development problem is treated with this kind of disdain, then why should we be surprised that there is so much pessimism?
So, our congratulations to Invisible Children for bringing so many people into this important conversation. Well done.