Friday, 16 March 2012

The White Man's Burden: More on the Kony 2012 campaign

Our treasured national poet, Rudyard Kipling, infamously referred to the welfare and development of the African people as the 'white man's burden'; something that as a superior race, was an obligation to the white Europeans who were busy 'scrambling' for Africa 150 years ago.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Kony2012 campaign is not without a hint of neo-colonialism: Its liberal and altruistic motives are no different in many ways from the justifications used by British pro-imperialists during the inter-war period. Emerging from WWI as a declining industrial power and with souring unemployment, British policy makers advocated the development of the colonies in order to stimulate British exports and alleviate the depression. This was accompanied by a second, supposedly 'selfless' line of argument that formed Britain's 'Dual Mandate' policy. With the League of Nations' blessing, Britain framed itself as the 'benevolent imperialist' who would manage the development and civilising of these new states until they were ready to do so themselves.

Assumptions of racial superiority, prevalent in earlier colonial discourse, had certainly not faded entirely by this time. More generally such arguments were premised on the assumption that Africans were unwilling or incapable of developing themselves. To make a direct comparison between the Kony2012 campaign and European colonialism is perhaps unfair; the Invisible Children campaign are certainly not suggesting a general development of Africa in order to stimulate US exports and thus ease unemployment. However it is my suspicion that many of the celebrities endorsing the campaign (whether they are black or white) assume that the west is superior to Uganda and therefore that intervention there will be beneficial. 

As an example, the video makes no mention of the success Uganda has had in forcing Kony out of the country (I have already slandered the claim that the campaign's pressure caused Kony to 'change tactics' and go into hiding). By choosing to hide this fact, it has chosen to emphasise its own success over that of the Ugandans themselves, and thus only perpetuates the belief that Africa is incapable of its own action.

Moreover it seems to claim that its intervention would appear as some sort of magic bullet to the problems of those who have been affected. I am sure that many at the Kony2012 campaign have an intricate understanding of the complexities of such issues, particularly around development; so why sell it in such a simple fashion? Those watching the video might be fooled into assuming that the propagation of western influence is always a good thing. They might become convinced that Ugandans are helpless without their support.
They will therefore be disappointed to find that, like the most benevolent of the early Christian missionaries to Africa, that western development and welfare is not universally accepted as a panacea for improving quality of life.

To condemn too much is dangerous: The possibilities of popular pressure can be harnessed by noble campaigns; holding governments more accountable for morally bankrupt policies. But this is not the place to do it. Improving the terms of trade for Africa vis-a-vis the west, or tackling corruption there would have a far bigger impact to the welfare of Africa. But such issues are too divisive and complex for popular support to agree on a decision. Conflictingly, they would serve to undermine the interests of many ordinary people in the west; so what then? The answer apparently is to stick to the black and white issues.

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