When Helping Hurts

The controversy that has been stirred by the Invisible Children organization’s “Kony 2012″ campaign has created public discussion about important issues regarding human rights and humanitarian aid that need to be aired. The campaign is valuable in this way, regardless of its stated outcomes. A Foreign Affairs article on Invisible Children’s call for intervention last November makes one of the most damning critiques. Recently Foreign Affairs guest blogger  Joshua Keating charged that the organization “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) abduction and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony–a brutal man to be sure–as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Over the past 30 years, humanitarian efforts have become entangled with political realities to a dangerous degree because human rights are invariably a part of humanitarian crises. The record on this entanglement is mixed. The Berlin blockade following World War II led to treaties that attempted to protect aid to civilians in conflict areas from the political and military agendas at work. This meant keeping aid itself as neutral as possible.

However, great human need always occurs within a complex political equation. Helping people in these situations is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. Those most likely to suffer in natural disasters and war are the poorest and most vulnerable in the population. They live in the least substantial housing, lack the resources to flee to safety and are the least influential in the social structure.

A history of brutal leaders

Northern Uganda, where Kony operated before taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in turmoil for longer than young Invisible Children filmmaker Jason Russell has lived. The people of the Karamoja region, home to 1.1 million, have long endured drought and political and social instability. Since its independence as a U.K. protectorate, Uganda has experienced a succession of despotic leaders who plundered the country and ruled by terror. Its first president after independence, Apolo Milton Obote, suspended the constitution and ruled under martial law, creating tribal conflicts and insurgencies that brought the country to ruin.

Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup that implanted the infamous Idi Amin Dada, whose quixotic and deadly leadership has been well-documented in popular culture in the book and movie “The Last King of Scotland.” Civil war erupted and continued from 1979 through 1986. Government troops carried out genocidal raids that terrorized the region known as the Lewuro Triangle.

Obote returned to power in 1981, and some Ugandans say his second term was even bloodier than Amin’s. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, and he has brought relative peace and stability, except in northern Uganda. While he instituted progressive programs to combat HIV/AIDS, he is criticized on human rights by many international observers. Uganda is particularly harsh in its rejection of homosexuals today, for example.

A volatile mix

Reliefweb says the Karamoja region has the “lowest human development indices in the country.” The Reliefweb assessment also points out that 80% of the population faces food insecurity exacerbated by drought and lack of sustainable jobs. More than 1.1 million internally displaced people have returned to their homelands or have resettled to new locations after a peace agreement reached with Kony’s insurgency, but their ability to earn a living is still hampered by the broken economy across the region.

It is into this highly volatile mix of historical and contemporary political, economic and environmental currents that Invisible Children has stepped into and is suggesting military intervention. The Obama administration has put military advisers into Uganda to aid in locating Kony. However, their value is also being debated.

Looking past the fact that the assessment by Invisible Children is flawed (which should be enough reason for caution), it is also questionable how introducing yet another military operation in a region plagued by instability for the past 30 years could contribute to stability, especially when it would inevitably involve cross-border operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kony is said to be operating now.

Sometimes doing good is not as simple as it seems from the outside.

One Response to “When Helping Hurts”

  1. Mark West March 16, 2012 at 6:56 am #

    Bloggers who live in glass houses shouldn’t attack Invisible Children for getting their facts wrong. The LRA violence in Uganda has taken place far from the Karamoja region, which has its own set of distinct issues. It’s the Acholi from whom the LRA sprang and who have suffered the brunt of Kony’s violence. Details, Larry.

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