On Kony 2012 and Thinking Critically

Jason_Russell_of_Invisible_Children

The big news in the internet world today has been the large controversy that has subsumed Invisible Children and their 2012 campaign. For those of you who haven’t heard about it or of it, here’s the quick skinny: Invisible Children (IC) is an organization dedicated to fighting for and caring for child soldiers and the victims of the reign of the LRA – Lord’s Resistance Army – which got its start in Northern Uganda. Joseph Kony is the war criminal in charge of the LRA and they have terrorized central and East Africa for somewhere around 25 years. Yesterday, IC launched a campaign called “Kony 2012,” aiming to make people aware of Kony and his war crimes, coupled with a thirty minute “documentary” about the issue.

Next came the firestorm, launched by some critical blogs, and based off a few articles done by Foreign Affairs magazine about the work of IC. The critique is one that can be leveled at many charities, involving how they spend their money, how they campaign, and what good they do versus the havoc they may wreak. And internet fighting, awareness about the awareness, criticisms of “I know you are but what am I” started flying.

And this topic serves to highlight a number of issues I think serve as a good jumping off point for a general discussion about charity, social justice, and the White Man’s burden.

Let’s face it: not a lot of people are willing to do research. We read blogs and keep up with certain magazines because there is some part of us that enjoys being spoon-fed information, especially information about things that are not close to us and things that are hard to do primary research on. It’s a fact of our increasingly specialized world – I simply don’t have the time or resources to devote to doing tons of research on various issues, so I find a few sources I trust, and listen to what they have to say (not that I accept it blindly, mind).

This is where critical thinking comes in. A lot of the critiques about Invisible Children are not necessarily specific to Invisible Children (though specific ones, like their vocal support of African militias despite the war crimes perpetrated by them, is highly problematic); many of these same critiques can be applied to all sorts of aid organizations. For example, the critique of the “White Savior complex” is one that can be applied to any number of organizations seeking to do work in Africa, Asia, and other nations populated by persons of color.

And that’s why it’s important that, even though it’s tough, even though it’d be nice to just click on a link and throw your support behind something, we need to be careful about what our charity donation dollars go to. Too many of us hear an emotional story, see some poverty porn, and proceed to open our wallets without actually taking the time to look at the numbers of how an organization spends those dollars. And that is how questionable organizations (which may or may not include Invisible Children) stay alive – many are depending on you not looking too deeply into how they function.

I’m not saying that this is a conscious decision – I don’t doubt that numerous organizations have nothing but good intentions.

But here’s the second prong of this discussion: good intentions do not wash away harmful effects.

And here’s the part where I have to own up to something: as a result of my realization on point two, I can no longer, in good faith, support TOMS shoes. For ages, I’ve heard the critiques about TOMS and made the same response that I hear many IC supporters saying: “At least they have good intentions. At least they’re doing something. And something is better than nothing.”

But when that something becomes actively harmful, good intentions no longer suffice. TOMS shoes is one of those things – I’ve realized – that tend more toward “actively harmful” than sustainably good, despite all solid intentions. The model upon which TOMS functions is, itself, deeply flawed. Doing shoe drops in countries that need the shoes as aid is a temporary fix. And I don’t doubt it feels AWESOME to see a smiling kid put on their first pair of shoes.

But it would be better if that kid was able to walk down the street and buy shoes from a local business. It would be infinitely better if that kid had a place to get his or her next pair of shoes when they grow out of them. And it would be better if the local shoemaker could stay in business by selling shoes to the locals rather than their market being flooded with free, cheaply made, shoes from America.

I’d ignored these critiques because “at least TOMS is doing something.” There are reasons the kid can’t get shoes from the local businesses, so at least having a free pair is better than no pairs, right? Right, but it’s not the whole picture. And if we examine the entire picture, we see that the TOMS model is ultimately unsustainable and hurtful to the local businesses because it fails to fix the root of the problem – which is that the locals are unable to afford shoes.

I admire the hearts of those who are involved with TOMS and with Invisible Children and with a number of other charities or do-gooder organizations (TOMS is a for-profit company) that face similar critiques. But I cannot, in good conscience, support something based merely on good intentions.

But this does not mean that we don’t try to support charities, that we cynically resign from the social justice sphere because “everything is problematic.” Thinking critically is not the same thing as thinking cynically.

Maybe, for you, your conscience is fine with supporting TOMS and Invisible Children. Maybe you have thought about it critically and come to a different conclusion – that happens. It’s part of living in a pluralistic society. But what needs to stop is blindly following something because someone put together a snazzy film that made you cry.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I’ll be taking the blog space and time tomorrow to highlight some charities that I have vetted and support in their missions. Later in the week, I’ll expand on the idea of a “white savior complex,” for the uninitiated. But what I hope that you take away from this blog post and from the controversy over Invisible Children is not the bitter cynicism that pervades so much of charitable giving, but rather an urge and a desire to have a nuanced discussion of issues and to think critically about each and every dollar you spend.