When helping does not help: Invisible children and colonialism

In almost thirty years of being a nurse I’ve learned that what one person thinks is helpful can be coercive to another. “Help” is complex, raising questions such as: how has the helper negotiated the relationship? Does the helper understand the problem? Do the people being helped agree with the helper’s framing of the problem? There is also the issue of power in the helping relationship. How did the helper get the power to help? What access to resources and knowledge does the helper have? Does helping disempower the helped?

The film and campaign KONY 2012 by Invisible Children and directed by Jason Russell about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by the “monster” Joseph Kony has generated passionate pleas from a range of “friends” to support the “people” of Uganda. I am excited about the democratisation of information through social media, but I’ve been frustrated that this video has made us all “experts” about Africa. There is a bigger social and political backdrop to this story which has been tracked by Blackstar news and Akena Francis Adyanga.

My concern with this video is that it valorises the story being told by Invisible children (and other white people) at the expense of African leaders, without access to the same power structures or resources. The  documentary repeats the colonial imperative for Africa to be saved by white people. This video smacks of yet another colonial “civilising” project,  where the old binaries of colonialism are revived. These frame Africa as backward, while the west is modern; “we” are positioned as free while “they” are oppressed and so on. In this binary of good and bad, Africans are represented on the not so good side of the binary. Therefore, the solution must be a good one, a white one, and in this hierarchy Africans lose out. Local efforts and voices go unacknowledged in favour of the white saviour complex, which as Teju Cole suggests “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”. Even the name  “Invisible Children” as the Sojourner project points out “denies and co-opts the agency of Ugandans – many of whom have organized to protect child soldiers”.

I have a stake in this propaganda video on several fronts. One is my personal experience of being born in Tanzania to parents who were also born in Tanzania and and having two sisters who were born in Kenya. My own life has been shaped by three versions of colonialism: German, Portuguese and British, and continues to be shaped by colonialism’s continuing effects in the white settler nation of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Secondly, in my doctoral studies, I investigated the colonial legacies of health and nursing in the context of migrant maternity. My profession of nursing is not only an altruistic and caring enterprise, but is also complicit with biomedicine in the advancement of colonialism and imperialism. Medicine has used imperial claims to modernity and universalism, while the concept of “health” has in turn has lent moral credibility to the colonial enterprise. Consequently, one of my theoretical and political commitments is the resistance to imperial cultural analysis. I abhor the white saviour narrative, where vulnerable children or women of colour must be rescued from men of colour by “culturally superior” white men or women.  We need less individualising narratives, where the full social, political and historical contexts of a situation can be considered.

So what does a process such as colonialism have to do with this video? European colonialism put in place hierarchies of superiority/inferiority and structures of domination and subordination. The conquest and control of other people’s land and goods has recurred throughout human history, but European colonialism in the 19th century allowed for the growth of European capitalism and industry through the economic exploitation of raw materials, cheap, indentured or slave labour and profitable land in the colonies. Profits always returned to the imperial centres. Domination and authority were supported by defence and foreign policies and internalised so that ordinary “indeed decent men and women accepted their almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior, or less advanced people” (Said, 1993, p.10). These imperial ventures were justified on the basis of developmental and pedagogical notions of progress and improvement. They created the template for contemporary production under globalisation. So none of us are outside of or immune from postcolonial relations, values and belief systems whether our ancestors were colonisers or colonised. We are all influenced by colonialism.

Narratives produced about the colonies have historically defined the West in contrast with the “Orient”. The Orient was represented in a denigrating and negative way, in order to represent a civilised and positive Britain. Generalisations were made about groups of people who were treated as a homogenous mass (rather than communities of individuals) about whom knowledge could be obtained or stereotypes created – for example ‘the inscrutable Chinese’. The video plays into this oppositional dichotomy of “us” and “them”, constructing two social groups as distinct and internally homogenous. It begins with a sense of connection, it targets our desire to belong and connect by talking about social media, emphasising what we have in common. However, the “we” that it refers to is white. The video then moves to the “other” and the mobilisation of social movements that social media allows in the form of the Arab Spring. The director Russell then shares a very personal experience of the birth of his son and how his son takes part in his father’s film work and activism. The son embodies Russell’s desire for a better world than the one he came into “because he [my son] is here, he matters”. Russell then takes us to Uganda and the experience of another young man who has had a different life from that of his son. A young man who has experienced loss and unimaginable suffering, who has no future because of Joseph Kony. Russell says something like “you mean this has been happening for years? If this happened in America for one day it would be on the cover of Newsweek”. How can we fail not to be moved? Rusell takes us through the journey he makes with his friends of trying to raise the attention of the United States government of the plight of this young man and eventually through the advocacy and donations of lots of young people who donate small amounts of money every month, the government takes action. Of course this might have nothing to do with the fact that oil was found in Uganda in 2009. Russell in his voice over says they did not wait for governments, they’ve built schools, created jobs, created warning systems to keep people safe. All funded by young people.  Russell invokes liberal humanist arguments (the very ones that were central to colonial capitalism) about the right of the individual to have a good life. As Teju Cole righly points out “the White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege”.

The video enacts the binary colonial script of the civilised and liberated white person who rescues Ugandan children, thereby affirming the superiority of the former. Russell reproduces the narrow representations of people of colour as a mass of oppressed people who live in a world without freedom, ruled by oppressive vain tyrants (oops that sounds like the West!). He reproduces a flattened and familiar “single story” of Africa. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”  In the process, the complexity and diversity of people’s lives are lost and local activism is hidden from view in favour of camera crews with resources and magnanimity. Think about Binyavanga Wainana’s essay, How to Write about Africa:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress

The effect is that we focus on the other, instead of looking at the monsters in our own communities. Rather than offering our support to the efforts of indigenous people who are quietly attempting to right wrongs without a television camera present, we get carried away in a tide of righteous indignation about “stopping the monster”.The video provides a depository for our own feelings of powerlessness and frustration. It demands very little of us. We don’t need to be accountable to a faceless mass, because we can trust Russell, we’ve seen the birth of his boy child, we’ve seen him in his kitchen, we’ve seen him in the family bed with both his children. He is trustworthy. Never mind facts such as Kony is no longer in northern Uganda, that the Ugandan army have also contributed to the violence meted out to civilians, that General Museveni used child soldiers way back in 1986 or that only 31% of funds that Invisible children receive go into this charity work.

So what does helping really mean in a different social context? How does sharing a link to a video to an organisation that is barely transparent about its funding, that uses the bodies of children to make a point, that carries us away with the injustice of it all, help? How does the fact that the focus now in Northern Uganda is about repatriating child soldiers who are being held in DRC, Sudan and the Central African Republic, on postconflict rehabilitation and the reintegration of child soldiers? What impact will this film have on former child soldiers who have now reintegrated into  their communities? Can something with good intentions lead to misconceived interventions? Hell yes! The history of modern Africa is replete with aid failures and poorly allocated resources.

I am not against standing up and fighting for what is right, but only when we really understand what we are standing up for, not on “zero knowledge and maximum hysteria” as Elliot Ross argues. So we must make the most of this technology that is available to us and to critically interrogate the sources of this new media, their motivations and their operations . We need to do the research, to ask questions about our own complicity in contemporary geopolitics and to support the people who understand the problem.

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