Some Thoughts on Activism

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August 24, 2012 by WAR

If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day

If you teach me to fish, you have fed me until the river is contaminated and the shoreline is seized for development.

But if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers and fashion our own solution.

by Henry Gales

A recent screening of the film KONY 2012 in Lira, Uganda ended prematurely when the audience began shouting and throwing rocks at the screen. Complaints included the film’s heavy focus on the director and his son, simplification of their complex problems, and out-of-touch solutions. One could easily dismiss this incident as a simple cultural misunderstanding, a failure on the part of the screeners to properly explain the context of the film to the audience. However, I find that such a strong reaction—not merely one of disagreement but of anger and hatred—warrants a much more severe and fundamental criticism of not only KONY 2012, but of the entire model of aid employed by most NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and non-profits.

Boiled down, there are three different types of aid that one can provide. The first, and most simple, is the donation of expendable resources: food, supplies, community service, etc. At best, you’ve provided needed resources that will be just as needed tomorrow. At worst, the resources aren’t genuinely needed and the “aid” program is doing something much different, such as US food aid programs that undercut the market for locally-produced goods, put farmers out of business, and create dependency on imports, which often become more expensive once aid-funds dry up.

The second type of aid consists of providing skills or resources that can sustain a person or community for an indefinite period of time, the type of work that NGOs love to get their hands on. It is a straightforward one-way transfer of skills and tools that leads to shiny success stories, fundraising, and lovely proverbs like, “teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” If the world were as simple as people, fish and rivers, these would be the be-all end-all of solutions. But, fishing isn’t a very useful skill when dams strangle salmon-runs to a fraction of their former glory or when international trade agreements flood the markets with industrial imports and make it impossible to earn a living by fishing.

This brings us to the third type of aid, activism and community organizing. Unlike the previous two, when done right it cannot consist merely of the movement of goods and services from one party to another. Rather, the outside intermediaries directly engage with oppressed communities and learn from as well as help them. It is a process and level of involvement that requires years, if not decades of commitment. But, the results are fruitful: communities and partnerships that can adapt and respond to the problems at hand, new ways of living and thinking about the world, and other revolutionary achievements.

This is not to say that the only way to learn or help is to commit decades of your life to community organizing. Organizations like No More Deaths and Pastors for Peace do an exemplary job of distributing needed goods and services and recruiting short-term volunteers while also networking with organizations that are involved in long-term community organizing.

Comparing one organization involved in service and/or advocacy to another is not an apples to apples situation. They range from amazing (linked to a long-term political project and strong community organizing) to unremarkable (plain-old distribution of goods/services and/or lobbying) to seriously fucked up.

I can, without hesitation, place Invisible Children (the NGO behind KONY 2012) in the latter of the three categories. The Lira screening mentioned above was one of the first in any area heavily affected by Joseph Kony’s violence. Invisible Children’s lack of hesitation to launch a viral campaign without so much as consulting the people who they claim to be helping demonstrates a severe lack of responsibility and failure to understand white privilege and first-world privilege. Moreover, the bulk of Invisible Children’s funds go towards travel, publicity, and the $90,000+ salaries of their founders. I’m not in a position to propose concrete solutions to Joseph Kony’s atrocities, but I know that it will never come from a bunch of goons who get paid cushy salaries to produce movies that are offensive to LRA survivors. Good solutions will only come from community organizing that respects survivors’ boundaries and includes them as protagonists in the struggle for their liberation, however much more difficult that may be than selling bracelets and lobbying Congress.

There are plenty of other NGOs that are less notorious, but no less problematic, examples of this type of organizing. They have no accountability to the people who they claim to represent, since their decisionmaking processes completely exclude the affected communities. They spend large portions of their budget on administration and fundraising and little or none of their budget on working and organizing with oppressed peoples. And—while they may at times better the world in some ways—more often than not they make things worse by cementing the vertical and undemocratic power structures that span between the first-world and the third-world, between white people and people of color, between rich and poor. They actively continue to disempower those who are already disempowered. If you want to change the world, be careful where you’re putting your time and/or money. Otherwise, you’re likely going to be making the problem you’re trying to solve even worse.

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