Archive for March, 2012

Save Me?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Teju Cole has a great piece on the Atlantic website about “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” inspired by KONY 2012 and other international do-gooder efforts. (He’s also in tomorrow’s final of the 2012 Tournament of Books.) It’s an evocative phrase, let’s break it down.

That the saviors are white matters because of the white man’s burden, the legacy of colonialism, and unexamined white privilege.

That they frame themselves as saviors (if that’s what they’re doing) matters because that denies agency to the people who are being nominally saved.

That it’s an industrial complex matters…why? Because do-gooding should be an artisanal craft? Because it should be a monastic calling? Because it should be divine inspiration? Because…. Hmm. The original term “military-industrial complex” pointed out that two apparently unrelated areas were related that shouldn’t be related, because they concentrated too much material and political power. What power do would-be white saviors wield? And why should their professionalization be worth calling out as a danger?

Could it be because the power to call attention to an issue or problem, particularly one as previously obscure as the Lord’s Resistance Army, turns out to matter after all? And that the innocence and disintermediation that were the public face of KONY 2012 supporters somehow confirm our prejudices about what do-gooding should look like – non-industrialized, organic, idealistic?

The truth is, white saviors have a pittance of the Pentagon’s budget. Not much of an industrial complex – more like a set of competing and fractious medieval guilds. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they try to leverage the hell out of soft power.

There are many kinds of complex that white saviors could be ascribed: superiority, inferiority, Cassandra – but industrial? Nah. They wish.

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This Blog is Just Six Words Long

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Trayvon. Trayvon. Trayvon Trayvon Trayvon. Trayvon.

What the hell, people. What the EFFING EFF.

In good news, Leah Hunt-Hendrix is awesome. I can’t wait to read her book on the “genealogy of solidarity.” And she’s stirring things up within philanthropy among individual and institutional donors. Go Leah!

#Kony #Kony the remix

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Can’t stop thinking about #Kony2012, I’m surprised not to see more about it in the philanthropy blogosphere. Anyway, a few pieces have cleared things up for me. Somewhat.

Communicopia educated me about the work that Invisible Children has been doing over the past eight years to build their constituency that made the video go so viral. Though they appear to have come out of nowhere, IC have actually been slogging in the trenches for years. This article is pure gold, the insight-to-length ratio is off the charts. Go read it.

You’re back? Good. Now, this puts it all into perspective. Girls 13-24 are the ones sending around the video because they’re the ones that IC has been targeting and seeking to empower.

Ethan Zuckerman brought me up to speed on the most thoughtful critiques of IC’s strategy, and they are many and persuasive. Go read that one, too, but wait a minute, because it’ll take a while, and you should especially read the comments, which are bubbling with vitriol. Drama!

Which brings us to Dan Pallotta, who in typical pugnacious style, comes out swinging. A friend pointed out that Jason Russell of IC was going to be on Lawrence O’Donnell, so I DVR’d it. OMG – So. Smarmy. I had a viscerally negative stylistic reaction. I do it myself sometimes, but male upspeak is not a great look for anyone. Again, maybe he’s speaking the language, literally, of the people he works with, but it grated with me. But Pallotta takes it to another level, accusing – particularly in the comments on his post – critics of being jealous of IC’s success. “The criticism is largely based in envy at Invisible Children’s success.”¬†Yeah, that’s gotta be there, but “largely based in envy”? Come on now.

And this gets to one of the things I found troubling in both sets of comments section (Ethan’s and Pallotta’s): the *extreme* thin-skinnedness of IC supporters. Any critique is to be not only repudiated but denounced as mean-spirited, unfair, or futile. “Go fix things in Uganda if you’re so smart” is the essence of one refrain in the comments. Really? The message is that delicate that it needs to be protected from any negativity? It’s one thing to pulsate with the energy of youth, it’s another to quaver with its fragility and, well, insecurity.

But then I watched the actual Kony2012 video. (Except the parts where he explains Kony to his 5-year-old. I find that nauseatingly manipulative, and skipped over those few minutes.) The first several minutes aren’t even about Uganda, or Kony. They’re about this moment in time, about what can be achieved by the many coming together on Facebook. He explicitly talks about this being an experiment, to see if something huge can be achieved. God love ’em, there’s even a visual depiction of a theory of change that’s as clear and simple as I’ve ever seen. (That’s the kind of thing I do all day at work, and I have to say, pace Dan Pallotta, that my emotion on watching it was excitement – there’s a way to do what I do better! Awesome! Let me learn how!)

I for one am really excited to see the first Kony2012 copycats that actually have success. Because that’ll be one of the true measures of impact, is if this does prove a successful experiment, and shows a different way of doing things.

A final note: I also learned from a website I hadn’t heard of before called Talk2Action that Invisible Children is funded by a number of evangelical Christian organizations. Knowing this, seeing the part of the Kony2012 video where the student activists are chanting IC slogans in unison made perfect sense, and also sent a little shiver up my spine. Perhaps it also explains the fervor of some IC defenders in the comments section? (Yes, that was upspeak.) I don’t really know how to parse the intersection of evangelical Christian missionary impulses, social-media wizardry, youthquake mobilization, and working on the front lines of international human rights work. Yet another reason this is fascinating and worth watching as it evolves.

#Kony #Kony

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

There’s so much going on with #StopKony I barely know where to start.

I spoke with a funder once whose range of investments included support for private security forces seeking out a war criminal. Philanthropy is institutional but it’s strangely chained to the raging id. You have the money, you have the autonomy – let’s see what you can do. Most wouldn’t do go that far, but some small number do. In some cases, no one knows, you like it that way, you keep it that way. In the case of Invisible Children, an NGO that raises money, you decide after years toiling in the shadows (well, relatively speaking, they’re actually fairly known on the international NGO scene) that it’s time to go viral. The theory of change is that you need political will to keep U.S. military advisers in country to keep the hunt for Kony on, so you tap your skills in video/media production and create a video designed to go viral.

And the cycle of backlash is just so fast. One of the people on my blogroll, Chris Blattman, has come out against the campaign, as have others. (Nice compilation here.) Invisible Children seems to have done an exhaustive job of responding to critiques, worth a read. Any opportunity to give a wider audience more nuance about how to think about NGO effectiveness is a positive in my book. For example, IC talks about how they get a two-star rating from Charity Navigator on transparency because they don’t have at least five independent board members. They have four, and say they’re interviewing for a fifth. It’s like buying a car, people, do your homework. But look beyond the rating systems, dig into the assumptions, learn some of the lingo. If you can spend 29 minutes watching the video….

Then again, as the caption says on a slide on my corkboard at work, “There is no such thing as boring information; there is only boring presentation.” Maybe someday someone’ll find a way to sex up the nuance of NGO accountability ratings. Until that day, put on your green accountants’ visor and start clicking. And if you have questions, I’m always here; this is what I do for a living….