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Guest post: The lessons of the Kony campaign

OK, it wasn't exactly #Kony2015, but it is still kind of a big deal...

The Lessons of Kony 2012

by Kentaro Toyama


Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army

For a couple of weeks, Kony 2012 stole the spotlight in international development. It dominated conversation, with some applauding its success as an awareness-raising campaign (e.g., Nicholas Kristof); some criticizing it for its oversimplified, condescending, self-gratifying portrayal of the issues (e.g., Teju Cole); and many grumbling along the lines of, “Who are these punks who managed to get so much attention and funding?”

Almost all of the commentary, whether positive or negative, discusses one of three issues:

  • — Content of the video, its accuracy and the various subtexts of the video.
  • — Intent of the non-profit that produced the movie.
  • — Budgeting of donor money.

These are all important questions, but they miss the real issue that Kony 2012 raises — namely, how we as a society prioritize important issues in the age of Internet social media.

Prioritization is the essential question in a world of finite resources, and especially in times of economic distress. Yet, it’s also a question that the hyper-connected anarchy of the online world is horribly unsuited to answering.

First, let’s identify five issues for which there is little disagreement:

  1. Kony should be stopped and brought to justice.
  2. Kony has long caused terrible harm, and the victims deserve our empathy and support.
  3. General global awareness of Kony and his context are a good thing.
  4. With (a lot) more resources, Kony could be brought to justice.
  5. Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army have shifted to the D.R.C. and are no longer in Uganda. (I include the last one, because critics seem to get stuck on this point as if it were the primary flaw of the video – but would any of the deeper issues go away if the video were up front on this point?)

If you believe in statements (1) through (4), you should back any effort that seeks more resources to bring Kony to justice. That, at least, is the basic argument of Kony 2012 supporters, and it is difficult to refute on its own terms. None of the statements (1)-(4) are easily contradicted, and they do seem to stack up inevitably towards an all-out anti-Kony campaign.

But the important question is not whether Kony should be brought to justice, but whether doing so should be a priority given all of the other challenges our planet faces.

In a world of limited funds, limited attention, and limited empathy, we cannot address every problem with all of the resources they require. Kony and his victims present a severe challenge, but so do a million deaths by malaria, two million due to AIDS, a million children in prostitution, half a million maternal deaths, one billion illiterate adults, and on and on and on. We can’t solve all of these problems, at least not all at once – so, we necessarily have to pick and choose.

And if we have to choose, how should we choose? With regards to private charity, it seems reasonable that individuals make these decisions on their own. It’s their money, why shouldn’t they be allowed to spend it as they see fit? This seems reasonable, but in the aggregate and in the memetic free-for-all that is the Internet, it results in decision-making by marketing, not by knowledge, not by experience, and not by wisdom. It might be right to prioritize Kony, but the issue shouldn’t be determined by a video.

Everyone acknowledges that Kony 2012 is first and foremost a marketing phenomenon. Among its other marketing tactics, the non-profit managed to get the backing of several Hollywood celebrities, and their tweeting seems to have set off the online epidemic of Kony interest. That led to an impressive number of YouTube hits and a subsequent gush of fundraising. Though the organization has kept mum about its revenues, it has sold out of all of its Kony 2012-related merchandise.

Some people argue that there is nothing wrong with this, and that we should celebrate a small non-profit’s ability to raise an important issue to global consciousness. If anything, hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise not care about much, now care a little about an overlooked issue.

The problem with Kony 2012, though, is not in its relationship to a single cause, but in its relationship to all other causes. Decision-making by marketing bypasses a thoughtful approach to resource allocation. Fast forward a few years, when every savvy non-profit has learned the lessons of Kony 2012. Every week, our Facebook feeds would be full of links to slick videos. The wealthier non-profits will engage in all-out advertising wars for public and private dollars. The few campaigns that catch fire would be enough to sustain hope for the rest, like winning a lottery.

Of course, most of us will learn to treat this new rash of information as so much spam, but in the meanwhile, organizations will receive funding not according to their merit, but in proportion to their marketing budgets and the popularity of their celebrity supporters. Cynics will say all of this is already happening, but Kony 2012 marks a moment of acceleration.

What’s the solution? As with other challenges of individual freedom run wild, it’s hard to argue against limiting freedoms – everyone should have the right to market their cause. Ideally, non-profits would be careful to situate their causes within the context of broad global challenges. But even if they don’t, we don’t have to buy into the marketing.

The best defense is a combination of broad education, individual responsibility, and collective power. As far as education goes, the public sphere responded swiftly with arguments both for and against Kony 2012 –in the future, potential donors could look for this ensuing commentary as a way to make more informed decisions. (Why the rush to buy a bracelet?!)

Individually, we could each develop guidelines for personal giving that are based on careful consideration rather than reactionary twitches to random forwards – we don’t have to be Bill & Melinda Gates to have a giving strategy. Finally, there’s the possibility of collective giving, where group members get together to pool funds, research causes, and give based on a well-considered strategy. Organizations like Social Venture Partners do something like this – their impact has both direction and synergy.

To the extent that we give our time and money to various causes, we each have power to influence. And with even a little power comes a little responsibility.


Kentaro Toyama

Kentaro Toyama is an information scientist, co-founder of Microsoft Research in India, a geek heretic and a Seattle-based writer working on a book about changing our approach to aid and development.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.