The developing world often gets poor representation in the western media. From well-meaning but simplistic representations by charities and advocates to enduring stereotypes of dark continents and poverty, developing countries are frequently denied the right to be seen as the complex, varied and human places they are.
While academics, advocates and commentators debate this problem all the time, the actual people being discussed have historically lacked a voice. But new forms and innovative uses of technology mean this is finally changing. People in developing countries are increasingly able to access platforms that allow them to represent themselves, challenging simple generalisations about their lives and homes. In today’s Digital Diversity, Olivia O’Sullivan examines the heated response to the Kony2012 campaign and spotlights the work of Al Jazeera and FrontlineSMS in trying to get Ugandan voices heard above the noise of the debate.
Digital Diversity is a series of articles from kiwanja.net about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.
By Olivia O’Sullivan
The Kony 2012 viral video campaign provoked a huge response when it was released in March this year. The video, produced by the NGO Invisible Children, called for the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to become a globally notorious figure, and argued for worldwide support of his arrest and capture. There has been an energetic and often heated debate in the human rights and advocacy community, as well as in the wider media, about the representation of Ugandans in the film, the value of ‘awareness-raising’ as a tactic, and the issue of whether a complex conflict can be boiled down to a simple moral clarion call.
The campaign undoubtedly did much to publicise and promote concern for the children kidnapped and abused by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Supporters had a point when they argued a simple video had done more to engage people on the issue of the LRA’s atrocities than years of work by diplomats, NGOs and aid workers, and that complexity is often an excuse for inaction in the face of terrible conflict. But critics suggested the campaign was somewhat wide of the mark – is mere ‘awareness’ and the support of large populations in the West for simple moral outcomes always productive? Some, such as ICC chief prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo, credited the campaign with prompting the launch of an international brigade of 5000 troops to combat the LRA and search for Kony on March 23rd 2012. Others argued such a force had been planned and in the works for years, supported by the dogged and informed work of advocates and international institutions, before the issue became such a famous cause in the West. The debate frequently gets stuck in two modes – those who prioritise contextualising problems and resisting colonial stereotypes versus those who prioritise the constancy of moral principles in any context.
The Kony2012 campaign elicited some fantastic and thoughtful critical responses in the west – such as this piece in The Atlantic on the ‘White-Saviour Industrial Complex’ by Teju Cole. The article makes the point that such advocacy campaigns can inadvertently portray the developing world as a place of simple moral choices where westerners can access meaning. Campaigns which are well-intentioned and compassionate nonetheless make the developing world a cipher, a place which offers those with more predictable and comfortable lives the opportunity to be a hero and a saviour.
But developing countries are real places. And while the argument among NGOs and advocates produced good discussion, the critical missing element has been the voices of people from the countries being represented. This is part of a broader problem: developing countries have long been portrayed as places of undifferentiated darkness and suffering in western advocacy campaigns. As the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues in the talk below, no place can be summed up by a single story.
What is encouraging is that new media and technology increasingly provide people in the developing world with the ability to challenge and add texture to the single story often portrayed in the western media. Take, for example, Rosebell Kagumire, a young Ugandan journalist who took the opportunity of the Kony debate to upload a video to Youtube explaining her response.
Such a move would never have gained such a wide audience before the web and open access sites like Youtube provided a more democratised use of media. But not everyone is on the internet – Africa still has the lowest levels of internet penetration in relation to population in the world. Africa is, however, the world’s second-largest mobile phone market. Responding to the Kony campaign, Al Jazeera, Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS teamed up just two days after the Kony2012 video was released, to provide an opportunity for Ugandans to respond. ‘Uganda Speaks’, is a project which allows ordinary Ugandans to post their text messages on an Ushahidi map on the Al Jazeera site – via local SMS numbers – to let the world know what their country is really like. In this way, mobile users without internet access and online users alike can have their responses heard.
The stream of responses, under the #ugandaspeaks hashtag, has been revealing and interesting – while many were based on hearsay and distorted views of the campaign, other contributors had strong and specific critiques of the Kony campaign. Users were less than enthused by the portrayal of LRA victims as ‘invisible’, however well-meaning the idea was. Additionally, the human rights abuses and atrocities committed by government forces in the conflict with the LRA was an issue the campaign seemed to elide. The notion that Uganda needed a western rescuer came in for particular criticism, as one message argued, “Americans… are scratching our healing wounds again and acting the saviour in a crisis”. Other contributors supported the campaign and its focus on the victims of the LRA’s reign of terror, for example this message, “It has done a great job telling the whole world that Kony was real, many died, more living the trauma”. The importance of enabling many voices to enter the debate was summed up by one message, “#Kony2012 has put Uganda on twitter map + is making it cooler for ev’1 to think critically (and hopefully progressively) about Africa”.
Al Jazeera launched a similar ‘Somalia Speaks’ project in February to enable Somalians to post messages they wanted to communicate to the Somalia London conference this year. The aim of such initiatives is summed up by Al Jazeera journalist Riyaad Minty, “it’s time for Africa to be heard”. With the help of flexible, accessible technology, the hope is that the hold of a single narrative about the developing world in the media can be broken. Africa as the dark, silent continent where others project their desires to be heroes can be replaced by a rambunctious, varied and bold debate, in which people can finally challenge their own portrayal. The developing world not as a place where westerners find meaning, but as a place that talks back – that represents itself.
Olivia O’Sullivan has worked for the Guardian newspaper, the Sudan team of the UN Peacekeeping Department and with the London NGO Waging Peace. She is an MPhil in International Relations at Cambridge University. She previously studied History at Cambridge University and Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, California. She is currently the Research and Media Assistant for kiwanja.net
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.