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How can a humanitarian crisis be ‘cool’?

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel with the Canadian Red Cross to Liberia where I visited the Red Cross’s field operations outside the city of Monrovia. My visit to the Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation center was an experience I will never forget. There, I saw first hand the work the Red Cross does and how this rehabilitation center truly provides these kids with the opportunity to learn the skill sets necessary to succeed in a profession, as well as help them through counseling and other forms of support. The children I met were all under 18 years old, and all of them had lived through and seen first hand the atrocities of the Liberian civil war that ravaged the country from 1989 to the end of the country’s second civil war in 2003, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia. When I returned home from this whirlwind journey I was beyond excited to share my experience of meeting these children with my friends. However, I quickly realized that no one really asked me in depth questions about my trip, what I saw, or how I was dealing with all of it. I was overcome with a great feeling of disappointment and frustration. I couldn’t understand why no one was interested in hearing what I had to say.

Last week’s viral launch of the Kony 2012 video campaign provided me with an insight into the real issue at hand. It was not that people weren’t interested in the child rehabilitation center in Liberia; it is that they were completely unaware as to what had actually happened in Liberia, and more generally about the harsh realities of child soldiering throughout Africa. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” proved to be the case as thousands of Youtube and Facebook users were joining the cause of stopping the LRA leader Joseph Kony and helping save the child soldiers of Uganda.

The viral launch of Kony 2012 instantly prompted the next generation to join the bandwagon effect of social activism. In their campaign to make Kony famous, the founders of Invisible Children made Kony 2012 ‘cool’, providing their cause with a massive appeal and leading to thousands to want to join this new movement. After all, who doesn’t want to run around town covering the streets with posters or sport a cool red bracelet. Indeed, I won’t deny that the organization’s marketing strategies were right on, and their use of social media in the making of their video was remarkably well done. This video has marked a new era of social activism, one that speaks to today’s youth.

However, something remains unsettling. The ‘coolness’ factor has, in my opinion, glamorized and simplified a more serious issue at hand.  Is this not just another example of neocolonialism, portraying Africans as powerless and helpless in saving their own people? This scenario of the white man’s burden towards Africa seems all too familiar: the white ‘good’ guys embark on a military intervention in a foreign country to stop the criminally indicted war general.  This is essentially what Invisible Children is calling for: a direct intervention by the United State’s military in Uganda to stop Joseph Kony. The video does not propose any plans for reconstruction or what the military would do after Kony’s arrest. It is undeniable that Joseph Kony is responsible for unimaginable war crimes and crimes against humanity and that he needs to be arrested; however, such a complicated issue requires a more complex, sophisticated response than simply wearing a bracelet. Child soldiering is not something that should be ‘cool’, and Joseph Kony’s recent fame should most certainly not be glamorized.

Indeed, a general lack of awareness is extremely contradictory in today’s world, seeing as we are now living in a global community without borders, where people can exchange information and share ideas with one another instantaneously. If this is really the case, then why are some issues taking center stage while others remain invisible? This paradox is caused by the glamorization and ‘coolness’ factor allocated to certain issues, allowing them to garner increased media attention and thus create a greater awareness. It is for these reasons that a tsunami is likely to receive more media attention through a shock and awe approach than an ongoing famine in the horn of Africa, which will occupy the headlines for short period of time and then disappear because of its lack of ‘coolness’. The same goes for the crimes committed by the LRA that strained away from mainstream media until now.

This is only one example of a much larger problem that today’s society is faced with. We are so focused on trends and copying one another in everyday life that this preoccupation with what is ‘cool’ has transcended into the humanitarian world. Social media has built upon the so-called “CNN effect” of television and pushed it to higher levels with a larger audience, and now various groups are using these outlets to push humanitarian crises into the ‘cool zone’. This could be a very slippery slope as humanitarian crises are not ‘cool’ nor should they be portrayed that way. Yes, creating awareness is good and necessary; however, providing actual aid and sustainable solutions to the crises are what really matter. Until then it is important to remain critical with regards to all things ‘cool’, Kony2012 included.



–  Arielle Piat-Sauve


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One comment

  1. Excellent critque of the Kony phenomenon. I am relived to read another point of view. Well done!

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