New Kids on the Block

Most madmen love the idea of fame so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true. He’s trending. He’s gone viral. He’s bigger than Victoria Beckham, Tiger Woods and Newt Gingrich all together. He’s still nuts, of course, but his madness has become the social media equivalent of a cuddly polar bear cub eating an ice cream cone.

Have you seen the stir caused by the success (over 50,000,000 views!) of Invisible Children’s video; of their campaign to stop butcher extraordinaire Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army? Check out Michael Wilkerson’s blistering critique, and then the critique of the critique (in the comments). The blogosphere is choked with aid agency pundits like me getting steamed by the sheer ego of Invisible Children.  Even the Ugandans are pissed off.  Although Obama jumped on the bandwagon.

Ok, they’re an easy target. A problematic approach to facts (oops, you mean Kony isn’t even in Uganda), a seemingly unprecedented exploitation of sentimentality (ugh, not his own oh-so-cute son again), ego so far beyond borders it becomes the ether of the message itself, a healthy dose of white-man-to-the-rescue-ism, and a “solution” that solves little . . . the critique is all spot on. Then again, what’s so new about any of that in the world of charity fundraising? Just look at some of the appeals launched around the Somalia crisis, Darfur, or, perhaps in the near future, the Sahel. Invisible Children isn’t that different. They’ve just raised the game.

So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It’s the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast? About six months ago, my niece “Lisa” in Chicago excitedly asked me to contribute to Invisible Children.  At the time, I’d never heard of it. I poked around. I can’t say I was taken by the cause, but I couldn’t help feeling envious of IC’s having so effectively reached Lisa, usually more interested in dance and boys. These young upstarts at IC are the next big thing. And we aren’t.

Why? Well, for one, they have a simple message that people grasp. For another, good looks. More importantly, Invisible Children has discovered what the entertainment industry figured out a decade ago. It’s not about us old timers. It’s not people who read the Philip Roth or contribute conscientiously to their pension fund. It’s about the under 25s, maybe even the under 15s. It’s about the kids. That’s why there are a couple dozen TV shows about teenage vampires. That’s why we have Jedward.

The aid industry has just been Biebered. IC’s hundreds of thousands of donor / activist – they were invisible to us.  Kids. That’s the target and that’s the message. If you think the aid world depends on gray haired HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, aka rich folk), wait and see what IC does with its pubescent legions.

My advice to the aid industry? First, get over it. Then, get on the boat. Invisible Children has more than an audience, more than loyal donors. They’ve built a repository of faithusiasm that will make change happen. As a colleague of mine lamented, too bad we can’t do for tuberculosis or Eastern Congo what they’ve done for Kony. Invisible Children might well deserve our scorn, but we’d be smarter to take notes. They are schooling us in comms, mobilization and fundraising. While we try to exploit social media to improve return on investment, IC turned social media into operations itself.

They don’t have any shame, and they don’t have doubts.  They don’t have any hang ups about dreaming.  When was the last time any of us from inside the aid cartel conveyed a dream? Oh, and because I can’t resist, what’s one more thing IC doesn’t have? A sense of irony. With image after image of saluting school kids in uniform, they’ve built a business model on the commitment to cause and enlistment of children in the service of one man’s vision. When they finally get him, I bet even a madman like Kony will appreciate that.

29 thoughts on “New Kids on the Block”

    1. Hey Dick,
      Don’t you think that this actually is the progeny of Band Aid and Blair Witch Project? The celebrity and youth driven mobilization to an oversimplified cause, combined with the hand held camera? Marc

      1. I’m actually more skeptical about the long term impact (good or bad) than the Yale political scientist mentioned in this piece.

        The reason I’m skeptical is because I can visualize a lot of ‘action kits’ left in the back of teenage closets a few years from now. But I think it is a shrewd observation that in marketing of this scale, it’s not about ‘Kony,’ it’s about you. $30 for some meaning in your life seems like a pretty good price, less than a tank of gas for your parents’ Range Rover — which sounds really cynical but maybe it isn’t. (See also: what we truly want, as described by Viktor Frankl, Eric Hoffer.)

  1. I’m Viewer 56,647,137, thanks to you. Believe I saw a similar video that was being circulated about 4 years ago. I remember the huge emotional impact it had on me at the time — the visual from the rafters of all the kids sleeping was breathtakingly sad and at the same time motivating. The simplicity of the message — “this is horrible and you can help” was and remains extremely powerful. As a “layperson”, the frustration is that I am neither called to be an “insider” nor do I just want to “throw money” at these seemingly intractable problems. Building capacity seems to be the name of the game, though of course immediate and urgent needs must be met simultaneously. What, besides giving money and forwarding videos, do you suggest non-insiders do which will help make a difference? What organizations do you think build capacity best, and why?

    1. That’s kind of the million dollar question Sophia. Seems to me what you are doing is already on course, by which I mean keeping yourself informed. Improved capacity is certainly the answer, but the track record of expatriate-led efforts to build the capacity of others isn’t great. The only thing I’m clear about is that humanitarian action is not a solution. We’re a bandage. Hard enough to get that job right. After that, all bets are off.

  2. I agree with the author for this article!
    I write this from Uganda..and I work for the Red Cross here. I have hard a chance to work at the time when Kony was a big headache in Northern Uganda. I see he has become a hit…even when he is not in Uganda. I suggest some real attention be focussed onto very pressing public health concerns in the area like TB and the infamous Nodding disease! 🙁

  3. Hi Marc, I found myself agreeing with you 100% — which now makes me doubt whether we’re on the right line at all! 🙂
    The one thing which, watching the reaction to it, it reminded me of was a much younger and less cynical version of me protesting against the first Gulf war (*cough*). When anyone told me that “it’s so much more complicated than your ‘no blood for oil’ sloganeering”, I just brushed them off as an armchair critic and didn’t listen to them again. I hope that fate doesn’t befall all of us in the face of 55million people suddenly interested in previously-obscure central African wars…

    1. In my youthful days it was divestment in South Africa. Another issue where simplicity of messages belies the complexity of reality. Kony2012 certainly seems to have ignited a lot of discussion. One of the interesting points I saw was Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughts about this sort of advocacy: “I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?” See

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