The international aid community at large has arguably seen few significant changes since the inception of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the late 1800's. The landscape was decidedly different, the mission being proper medical attention for wounded soldiers. Fast forward nearly 150 years and wars devastate with more damage and repercussions have become unimaginably complex. I won't go into the ethics of aid, this is for another series of posts, but the community's passive permission of donor driven aid has stifled progress and has formed a globally pervasive culture of charity. Given this context, we can better understand why Invisible Children would conceive the now infamous KONY 2012 movement. It shook up the aged view of humanitarian aid with a massive ad campaign to stop violence in central Africa with a simple goal, make Joseph Kony's crimes against humanity popularly recognized. Invisible Children's youtube video hit a massive growth spike within days of its uploading and set a youtube views record. Simply put, the intended method was, if we are loud enough and expose Kony's crimes to enough people, some group will be forced to do something about it. The advocacy component by itself would have drowned in the sea of already established groups, but it was the way they went about advocating that caused their rise and unfortunately also their dramatic fall.
The level of design and advertising of the KONY 2012 campaign, arguably better than many consumer products, has never been applied to humanitarian efforts to such a large scale, save UNICEF's trick-or-treat box. Its website, events, videos, and media kit are designed with detail worthy of a major global brand. Perhaps this is what was necessary to start a change or at least a dialogue within the community about the state of affairs. The campaign quickly secured the attention of the U.S. and abroad , and brought the humanitarian discussion onto everyone's screen. The campaign quickly took on the style of a Michael Bay summer blockbuster, whereas critics would have preferred the styling of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Unfortunately, all the design in the world could not save the shallow-action framework put up by Invisible Children.
Popularity cuts both ways, and an increased audience can amplify even the smallest demographic. Quick scrutiny is expected in our increasingly super-connected society, but what was received from the academic community was unusual. With the first negative comments out on the web, blood was in the water, and criticism rapidly increased and deepened. It was certainly not the first embarrassingly shallow humanitarian effort, just watch cable tv between 12am-4am and wait for the commercials, but Invisible Children seemed to have hit a nerve. The articles became more derisive than critical, flooding the web with a repudiative sentiment. Why did Invisible Children's campaign call for such staunch opposition? Perhaps the campaign punctured the stagnancy with the wrong message? Its clear that Invisible Children's campaign is not representative of contemporary aid relief efforts, but the problem is that this can be good as well as being bad.
The lack of impact-action planned out by Invisible Children is certainly irresponsible, but for as ugly as it was, it may not be completely their fault to bear. The presence of MONGOs (My Own NGO), a term used in Linda Polman's The Crisis Caravan to refer to ill-guided citizen started NGOs, are a well experienced problem within aid and development yet it persists, and with Invisible Children it upgraded to 2.0 status. What's dangerous about MONGOs is their virality. Coupled with empty messages and erred methods, they effectively increase the complexity and difficulty of the field at large. What's missing is an increased accountability from the global community, because there is no such thing as bad students only bad teachers, and we were taught wrong. Aid and development organizations have worked closely with humanitarian organizations, and asked for the general public's actions to stop at their pockets and the headline. Are we then surprised that people, unskilled and uninformed nonetheless, have taken it upon themselves to remedy a problem that has been endlessly advertised as urgent? There are platforms and resources, well on their way to providing lasting solutions, that Invisible Children ignored, but these are poorly advertised and the barriers remain high for entrance. If the point of aid and development is to help people in need through change, then isn't it doubly ironic that no one is helping to constructively inform MONGOs, which happen to be a current barrier as well as a potential resource to reaching an effective solution?
As much as it bothered me, the KONY 2012 campaign opened my mind to a design driven future for aid and development. Invisible Children brought forth more bad than good, but we must realize that the bad were old ideas resurfacing and the good was a fresh perspective. We must accept that we cannot continue to go about irresponsibly notifying people of horrifying & urgent events, ask them for donations, and expect nothing else to come from the interaction. Altruism can be a powerful force for change, and we cannot afford to lose any advocates because we have a problem with the mistakes they've made, no matter how egregious the error. At the end of the day, the most important problem is that global problems persist and little progress has been made.