Perhaps the biggest legacy of "Kony 2012," the viral video that was posted by every single one of your Facebook friends for a few weeks in spring 2012 but never actually led to the capture of African warlord Joseph Kony, is the critical essay response from Nigerian novelist Teju Cole, who derided the video as the latest manifestation of "the white savior industrial complex."
In his Atlantic article, Cole argued that organizations like Invisible Children (the makers of "Kony 2012") sometimes did more harm than good by approaching international problems in a way that satisfied their sentimentality, rather than tackling the roots of complex issues. It's hard to tackle the problem of Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in a vaccuum without thinking about the "militarization of poorer countries, short-sighted agricultural policies, resource extraction, the propping up of corrupt governments and the astonishing complexity of long-running violent conflicts over a wide and varied terrain."
Cole spoke at a Buffett Institute-sponsored event at Leverone Auditorium Thursday to update and expand on many of these ideas. He used Lindsay Stirling's "We Found Love" video, in which the popular violinist covers the Rihanna hit with tribal Kenyans, as an example of how pervasive the "white savior" addiction remains. He discussed the successful Ebola awareness campaign in Nigeria as an example of African peoples helping themselves. Ultimately, Cole said that's one of the keys to all this: if you really want to change the world – and not just get a Facebook profile picture from Africa – the best way is to get involved at a local level, where you can actually move the dial on issues.
After an hour-long talk – featuring a few technological malfunctions straight out of your average Northwestern lecture – Cole opened the floor to questions. The most interesting inquiry, as Cole himself acknowledged, was about whether someone like "Brad" (Cole's imaginary straw man of a white 19-year-old visiting Africa for a few weeks) wasn't doing some good after all by visiting Africa and taking what he learned back to his life in America.
Cole's response: why is it always about Brad? Cole made clear that he thinks international support can be helpful (he particularly shouted-out Doctors Without Borders and the Clinton Foundation), but in order to make a lasting difference, aid organizations need to work with people on the ground rather than assuming they know everything.