Save Helpless Faraway Africans From The Comfort Of Your Armchair!

Wow. I never dreamed that I’d have a legitimate excuse to write a TechCrunch post about Joseph Kony, the crazed Ugandan warlord whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been a pet obsession of mine for some years now. The first draft of my thriller set mostly in Uganda and the Congo had a villain loosely based on Kony, but I had to edit him out, basically because he’s far too batshit crazy to be even remotely believable. The world is surprisingly full of things so implausible they would never fly in fiction, and the LRA is one of them.

Now, stretching credulity even further, a 30-minute-long LRA-awareness video from the quasi-NGO Invisible Children has gone viral around the world. Celebrities and A-listers everywhere are retweeting it. Of course! Because if we just increase worldwide public awareness of the LRA’s horrific depredations, why, then…

…and that’s where they lose me. What exactly are Invisible Children hoping to accomplish with this? They claim credit for persuading Obama to send 100 US troops in October to help the Ugandan army find the LRA; but for what it’s worth, I happen to know that the US Army was interested in tracking down Kony well before that. (How? Last June, while roaming around East Africa, I went diving in Djibouti with some Special Forces dudes–as you do–and Kony came up in conversation.)

Raise your hands: who here seriously thinks the Special Forces will be any more effective because Taylor Swift, Diddy, Rihanna, and Zooey Deschanel are tweeting their moral support? Exactly how deluded do you have to be to think that “public awareness” will solve a grim and deadly military problem? Remember a few years ago when the Twittersphere got all irate about Iran’s disputed election, and everyone set their location to Tehran to “help the resistance,” as if a posse of faraway microbloggers might help take down a totalitarian government? Have we learned nothing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said time and time again that technology, especially social media, can overthrow governments and change the world in fundamental ways. But only if it’s synchronized with actual on-the-ground action. What good is “public awareness” going to do to hunt down a gang of crazed psychopaths wandering around one of the last effectively lawless regions in the world, the vast anarchic northeastern Congo? (No, not Uganda – Kony fled from there six years ago.)

Aside from “raising public awareness”, Invisible Children wants to raise money to pay for an early-warning radio network that will warn villagers if the LRA is nearby. (That is, whatever’s left over after they pay themselves — millions in salary and over $1 million on travel last year.)

That part may actually sound like a good idea … until you realize we’re talking about distributing equipment to thousands of tiny habitations in an area bigger than France with almost no infrastructure whatsoever, all essentially to spread FUD, because even if you do successfully warn people that the LRA is nearby, there’s not a lot they can do about it. It’s completely impractical verging on absurd, which may explain why their list of actual accomplishments is so anorexically thin, despite that million dollars spent on travel…

Wait, no, it’s OK: they have an app! The LRA Crisis Tracker “gives real-time updates of atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.” Because, you know, iPhones are ubiquitous in the remote Congolese and Central African Republic regions haunted by the LRA. But who cares about them? The important thing is that you can download the app and somehow feel connected to their plight. Like you’re making a difference.

“A perfect illustration of the good that can be accomplished with evolving technology,” says a review on the App Store. That person is smoking crack. Look, I am a huge, huge, huge champion of technology in the developing world and its ever-growing ability to revolutionize people’s lives for the better. I give you this, this, this, this, and this as evidence. But this Invisible Children crap–wholly aside from the many, many questions raised about that organization–is meaningless feel-good armchair activism at its worst.

And that’s without even beginning to consider the whole insulting, paternalistic “Africans are helpless and doomed, as ever! Only we rich Americans and Europeans can save them!” subtext. (Meanwhile, in the real world, over the last decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa.)

But if all this still somehow strikes a colonial chord in your heart, and you feel like you need to do something — do me a favor? Give to Doctors Without Borders, who go to the toughest, grimmest places in the world, where they do astonishing, lifesaving disaster-relief work, with their eyes wide open to the limitations and compromises of their context. And please don’t pretend that “raising public awareness” has anything to do with actual solutions.

Image: Lava trail to Mount Nyiragongo, outside Goma, DR Congo, by yours truly, on Flickr.