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Déjà vu: Kony 2012’s debt to Live Aid and George Clooney

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

Kony 2012 is the biggest campaign of its kind, but it’s not the first. Remember Live Aid? Remember George Clooney on Darfur? We’ve been here before, and so far it hasn’t ended in peace and prosperity for Africa or Sudan. Maybe there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

It was just a few hours after the Kony 2012 video was posted online that the backlash against it began. Many commentators – myself included – didn’t need long to pick apart the campaign and its many flaws in detail, and we predictably received a firestorm of criticism from people who construed our many and varied reservations as the kneejerk, reactionary views of sceptics who didn’t really care about dying African children.

The debate has since lit up the Internet, with the anti-Kony 2012 faction (opposed to the campaign, not pro-Kony) going almost as viral as the original. To the innocent, untrained eye – those millions of people who hadn’t heard of Kony until last week, and who would struggle to identify Uganda on a map – this debate was fresh and often revelatory, opening those eyes to a world of nuance and complexity and to the idea that doing good is difficult. But to those of us who have been following the issues for years, the arguments trotted out on both sides of the divide were nothing new, merely reflective on a much grander scale of similar arguments about different issues. Because we’ve been here before, Kony 2012 is merely the largest of a number of campaigns for all kinds of causes, and the debate around the efficacy of loudspeaker activism has been around ever since there were loudspeakers.

First there was the Live Aid phenomenon. This was Bob Geldof’s initiative in 1985 to raise money for starving children in Ethiopia, and as far as the raising money bit went, it was an astonishing success. Put together a cast of rockstars in live concerts in London and Philadelphia, broadcast the concerts live to 1.9-billion people, and intersperse the dancing with heart-wrenching, tear-jerking footage of Ethiopian babies with distended bellies, flies buzzing around their listless eyes. Add in the hit single Do they know it’s Christmas? (“[Africa is] a world of dreaded fear/Where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears… Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you), and watch the money roll in: £150-million of it, which was worth even more than it is now.

This money went to famine relief in Ethiopia. Uncharitable folk describe how the provision of food aid allowed Ethiopian rebel groups to continue their fighting without the financial and logistical burden of having to feed themselves, but this is perhaps an unfair critique given the difficulty of disbursing aid in conflict zones. Some is bound to be misdirected or misused, no matter how good the intentions. But the bigger problem raised by critics was the damage that Live Aid – and the more recent Live 8 – caused to the image of Africa and Africans. Those pictures of the Ethiopian babies with the distended bellies have never disappeared. In fact, I’d argue that distended bellies and lifeless eyes have become icons of Africa. After the Lion King, of course. We are the helpless continent in the imaginations of much of the world, unable to protect ourselves or our children; a desolate, bone dry, empty land “where nothing ever grows/no rain or rivers flow”, to quote the Band Aid single. We don’t even know it’s Christmas, for God’s sake.

So what? It’s just an image, right? Well it’s a bit more than that. If you’re looking for the modern roots of racism, look no further. I certainly wouldn’t respect a continent that allowed its children to starve for no apparent reason. And I certainly wouldn’t invest in it, or take it seriously on the world stage, or let it sort out its own affairs. If I was so inclined, I would also think it was a continent of which I could take advantage.

All because Bono and Bob Geldof told me its people were all helpless and starving and frankly only semi-human-looking in those pictures I saw at the concert. Don’t underestimate the damage this has done to Africa. The continual struggle to persuade people, businesses and governments that we are not basket-cases is one that has cost the continent billions and billions and stunted our development by years. When you start to weigh up these lost years against the people saved by the Live Aid campaign, at the very least you ask yourself: was it worth it? Did the end justify the means?

This isn’t to say that Bono and Bob Geldof are bad guys. Quite the opposite. I focus on those names because they were both instrumental in Live Aid, and because I’ve met them and spoken with them in the context of African development issues. Forget the music, that’s a sideshow for both men – African development is their passion and they are both extremely well-informed about what they are doing. They’ve done their research, they’ve spoken to everyone they need to speak to, and their decisions are conscious of the trade-offs required. Like the Kony 2012 campaign, they decided that the obvious needs of the here need to be addressed now, and the potentially larger problems they cause later tackled then. Whether it’s their decision to make is another debate.

Perhaps it’s relevant to point out here that Geldof has moved away from the campaign activism that he championed so vociferously, choosing instead to establish an investment fund to put real money into African businesses, which he believes now is a more effective path to development.

My second example is more directly relevant to the Kony 2012 campaign, starring as it does two men made famous in the Kony 2012 video: ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project. Prendergast is the main man here. With his flowing hair and rugged smile he looks just like Kony 2012’s Jason Russell, but 10 years older; the two work closely together. Unlike Russell, Prendergast has a serious pedigree in African issues, serving as an Africa advisor in Bill Clinton’s state department. And Prendergast’s adopted country was just a little further north – Sudan, and specifically the conflict in Darfur. The Enough Project was convinced a genocide had been committed in Darfur by the administration of Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, and was determined to put a stop to it. Using famous faces such as those of George Clooney and Angelina Jolie to get its message across, the Enough Project’s campaign was the template from which Kony 2012 drew: explain the situation in simple, binary terms; make the solution seem obvious and unarguable and use popular pressure to make governments buy in.

It worked. Prendergast and the Enough Project pushed strongly for an arrest warrant to be issued by the International Criminal Court against Bashir, the first time a sitting head of state had been indicted. Fortunately the ICC’s chief prosecutor Ocampo – a man with a reputed fondness for the spotlight – needed little persuading, shepherding the case through the pre-trial hearing, and the warrant was issued in March 2009. Cue a huge international response, with bulletins and front-pages all over the world dominated by the news.

But what about the response in Sudan? All too predictably, Bashir wasn’t impressed with this development. He especially wasn’t impressed that humanitarian agencies were sending information to western advocacy organisations and lawyers, a fact which had been made abundantly clear in all the publicity. So he expelled all the major humanitarian organisations from the country the very next day, removing a vital lifeline from Sudan’s citizens who depended on them for health and medical services. In a commentary at the time, Alex de Waal and Julie Flint, authors of Darfur: A New History Of A Long War, perhaps the most comprehensive book on the subject, wrote that the move risked destabilising the fragile peace that had recently been achieved in the area, and might create a humanitarian disaster in Sudan.

Two years later, they’ve been proved correct. Fighting continues in Darfur and humanitarian agencies are powerless to prevent an impending food crisis in some southern Sudanese states, because they’re still not allowed in by the government in Khartoum. Not to mention the disastrous impact on the ICC’s reputation as African countries united to protect one of their own. “There will be no justice in Sudan without peace. When peace and justice clash, as they do in Sudan today, peace must prevail,” De Waal and Flint concluded. And as Clooney himself admitted in a 2010 interview: “We’ve been able to get a lot of attention focused on the terrible situation there and nothing has changed. It’s very frustrating.”

George Clooney, Jason Russell, John Prendergast, Bob Geldof and Bono are all good people. They want to help. And they want you, the average person with a conscience, to be able to help as well. But doing the right thing is a surprisingly complex business, so much harder than doing the wrong thing. And when you’re dealing with issues as serious as famine, genocide, rape, murder and child soldiers the consequences of any slight deviation from the right path can be catastrophic. That’s not to say we should do nothing.

But let’s accept that not everyone can contribute to every problem and that no solutions are perfect. What mass action on the Live Aid and Kony 2012 scale necessitates are simple explanations and simple solutions. And if simple solutions worked in Darfur and Central Africa, they would have been implemented a very long time ago. DM

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