“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
- Helplessness Blues* - Fleet Foxes
At the end of December, the Washington Post wrote a piece on the gradual winding down of Invisible Children, the American organisation responsible for the viral ‘Kony 2012’ video. One of the things the piece mentioned was the Invisible Children’s supporter base:
'Invisible Children was new and groundbreaking in many ways. The organization started after three young, inexperienced filmmakers produced a DVD whose target audience came to represent a new demographic for charitable giving: American teenagers, most notably young, while, middle- and upper class girls and young women… In order to appeal to a large group of people — particularly teenagers — it is to be expected that the complexities of a now-27-year-old war would be presented in a slim-downed narrative.'
This is a ‘magic’ audience: young, passionate, often with disposable income, and large social networks. I’m - still, ok, just - one of them. We search after individuality and authenticity, and aspire to live with integrity when we’ve worked out who we are. We want the world to be a better place, and we’d like to be a part of making that happen. Maybe a key part. We have learned, in the words of the Fleet Foxes, that we are somehow unique: ‘special snowflakes’ as the more sarcastic would have it.
Organisations and brands want to woo us, to win our trust and ouir loyalty, and so they tell us stories about ourselves and the ways in which we can be better versions of ourselves by making them a part of our lives. And this is as true in the non-profit sector as it is in the for-profit sector. Disposable income is at a premium, persuading people to give it to you to make the world a better place is hard, especially when you’re aiming at an audience known more for its shopping than its giving habits. And for a while, Invisible Children were incredibly good at it.
The novelist Dinaw Mengestu described the Kony 2012 video and accounted for its success:
'Kony 2012… wants to tell us about Joseph Kony and his atrocities, but much more than that, it wants to convince us that there is a solution – that we need not sit helpless on the sidelines while children in Africa suffer because there is something we can do, and that something is as easy as a click of a button. That solution, however, only works in the myopic reality of the film, a reality that deliberately eschews depth and complexity, because of course the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us. Kony 2012 is the most successful example of the recent “activist” movement to have taken hold of celebrities and college students across America. This movement believes devoutly in fame and information, and in our unequivocal power to affect change as citizens of a privileged world. Our privilege is the both the source of power and the origin of our burden – a burden which, in fact, on closer scrutiny, isn’t really a burden at all, but an occasion to celebrate our power.’
- Not a Click Away: Joseph Kony in the Real World (for Warscapes)
As Mengestu, Teju Cole and others pointed out, this is a dangerous story: when a campaign is about our quality as generous donors, we worry less about the details of the work our money is funding. Cole described us as ‘wounded hippos’:
'His [referring to Nicholas Kristof] good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated "disasters." All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.'
Just because we know it's happening doesn't mean we're not susceptible to it: it feeds off the narratives we’ve been told all our lives, that have shaped us.
However, the story we are being sold us doesn’t make for sustainable development, because there are no simple solutions to the problems to which Invisible Children and other NGOs are trying to respond, and it ignores our own complicity in the world that creates these problems. It doesn’t make for good relationships or collaborative work, as it continues to embed a mindset of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that we didn’t shed with our formal empires in the mid-twentieth century, where we have the solutions and give them to them, creating an ugly power dynamic that we refuse to fully contemplate because we’re just trying to help, and what’s wrong with that?
Trying to break the fourth wall and step out, as it were, is hard, daily, work.
But worth it.
Because honestly, to bring it all back around to us again, it’s not a healthy perspective to have on the world and our place in it. If we are the solution, then the cost of our failure is astronomic, and we react bitterly when brought face-to-face with it as poverty and violence continue, becoming disillusioned in the organisations who promised to use what we gave to ‘fix things’ and in our ability to make any kind of difference at all. And when we this happens we do stop being able to make a difference, because we stop trying, stop giving, and turn inwards again, ignoring the problem.
The best, most sustainable, development work, should try to counteract all of this. It involves partnership, collaboration, allowing whatever assistance we bring in money and expertise to be used by the communities we’re working in. It is going to look different in different countries and contexts and allow for flexibility and adaptability. Those who do it are willing to be a cog, and to be the best cog they can be to get the global machine functioning well.
It's not a bad life choice. After all, cogs can all have different shapes and different roles in their machine: the machine doesn't work well if it's missing a cog, and a cog doesn't work if its not connected to another cog or gear.
I don't think we should be under any illusions that this means that we’ll get it right every time: but we might fail in a less destructive fashion.