news and commentary
news and commentary
The Guardian, Monday 17 June 2013 20.30 BST
It was bad enough in 2005. Then, at the G8 summit in Scotland, Bono and Bob Geldof heaped praise on Tony Blair and George Bush, who were still mired in the butchery they had initiated in Iraq. At one point Geldof appeared, literally and figuratively, to be sitting in Tony Blair’s lap. African activists accused them of drowning out a campaign for global justice with a campaign for charity.
But this is worse. As the UK chairs the G8 summit again, a campaign that Bono founded, with which Geldof works closely, appears to be whitewashing the G8’s policies in Africa.
Last week I drew attention to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched in the US when it chaired the G8 meeting last year. The alliance is pushing African countries into agreements that allow foreign companies to grab their land, patent their seeds and monopolise their food markets. Ignoring the voices of their own people, six African governments have struck deals with companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont, Syngenta, Nestlé and Unilever, in return for promises of aid by the UK and other G8 nations.
A wide range of activists, both African and European, is furious about the New Alliance. But the ONE campaign, co-founded by Bono, stepped up to defend it. The article it wrote last week was remarkable in several respects: in its elision of the interests of African leaders and those of their people, in its exaggeration of the role of small African companies, but above all in failing even to mention the injustice at the heart of the New Alliance – its promotion of a new wave of land grabbing. My curiosity was piqued.
The first thing I discovered is that Bono has also praised the New Alliance, in a speech just before last year’s G8 summit in the US. The second thing I discovered is that much of the ONE campaign’s primary funding was provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, two of whose executives sit on its board. The foundation has been working with the biotech company Monsanto and the grain trading giant Cargill, and has a large Monsanto shareholding. Bill Gates has responded to claims made about land grabbing in Africa, asserting, in the face of devastating evidence and massive resistance from African farmers, that “many of those land deals are beneficial, and it would be too bad if some were held back because of western groups’ ways of looking at things”. (Africans, you will note, keep getting written out of this story.)
The third thing I discovered is that there’s a long history here. In his brilliant and blistering book The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power), just released in the UK, the Irish scholar Harry Browne maintains that “for nearly three decades as a public figure, Bono has been … amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronising the poor and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful”. His approach to Africa is “a slick mix of traditional missionary and commercial colonialism, in which the poor world exists as a task for the rich world to complete”.
Bono, Browne charges, has become “the caring face of global technocracy”, who, without any kind of mandate, has assumed the role of spokesperson for Africa, then used that role to provide “humanitarian cover” for western leaders. His positioning of the west as the saviour of Africa while failing to discuss the harm the G8 nations are doing has undermined campaigns for justice and accountability, while lending legitimacy to the neoliberal project.
Bono claims to be “representing the poorest and most vulnerable people”. But talking to a wide range of activists from both the poor and rich worlds since ONE published its article last week, I have heard the same complaint again and again: that Bono and others like him have seized the political space which might otherwise have been occupied by the Africans about whom they are talking. Because Bono is seen by world leaders as the representative of the poor, the poor are not invited to speak. This works very well for everyone – except them.
The ONE campaign looks to me like the sort of organisation that John le Carré or Robert Harris might have invented. It claims to work on behalf of the extremely poor. But its board is largely composed of multimillionaires, corporate aristocrats and US enforcers. Here you will find Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, who aggressively promoted the Iraq war, instructed the CIA that it was authorised to use torture techniques and browbeat lesser nations into supporting a wide range of US aims.
Here too is Larry Summers, who was chief economist at the World Bank during the darkest days of structural adjustment and who, as US Treasury secretary, helped to deregulate Wall Street, with such happy consequences for the rest of us. Here’s Howard Buffett, who has served on the boards of the global grain giant Archer Daniels Midland as well as Coca-Cola and the food corporations ConAgra and Agro Tech. Though the main focus of ONE is Africa, there are only two African members. One is a mobile phone baron, the other is the finance minister of Nigeria, who was formerly managing director of the World Bank. What better representatives of the extremely poor could there be?
If, as ONE does, an organisation keeps telling you that it’s a “grassroots campaign”, it’s a fair bet that it is nothing of the kind. This collaboration of multimillionaires and technocrats looks to me more like a projection of US and corporate power.
I found the sight of Bono last week calling for “more progress on transparency” equally revolting. As Harry Browne reminds us, U2’s complex web of companies, the financial arrangements of Bono’s Product RED campaign and his investments through the private equity company he co-founded are all famously opaque. And it’s not an overwhelming shock to discover that tax justice is absent from the global issues identified by ONE.
There is a well-known if dubious story that claims that at a concert in Glasgow Bono began a slow hand-clap. He is supposed to have announced: “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” Whereupon someone in the audience shouted: “Well fucking stop doing it then.” It’s good advice, and I wish he’d take it.
Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
is this the beginning of the end of white racist Hollywood dominance in the movie business?
East Asian movies and Dramas already have an international audience. African movie makers are following their lead.
The casting for Dr. Bello joins together powerhouse stars Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox and Jimmy Jean-Louis with Nigerian A-listers Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke. It’s not the first time actors from either side of the pond have starred alongside each other, but producer and director Tony Abulu says Dr. Bello symbolizes a new chapter for African movies.
“This is not a film,” Abulu told theGrio. “This is a movement. This is the beginning of a new Africa.”
The Nigerian government recently created a $200 million loan fund to help finance the country’s film projects, which are often quickly produced and sent straight to DVD. That’s not to say the film industry, better known as Nollywood, isn’t already doing well. The world’s third-largest filmmaking industry produces thousands of movies every year, but the hope is that the government’s financial help will result in better quality films and a stronger international audience.
Abulu, a Nigerian-raised filmmaker who now lives in New York City, was the first to receive a loan from the fund. In March, with the $250,000 in hand and other money he fundraised, he set out to produce a film that would appeal to all audiences.
“Whether you’re white, whether you’re black, there’s a message in it specifically for every group and community,” Abulu said. “There’s a spiritual message and there’s a cultural message.”
In the film, cancer specialist Dr. Michael Durant, played by Washington, immerses himself in his work to avoid dealing with the traumatic loss of his 10-year-old daughter from cancer and the ensuing blame from his wife (Fox). In the process, he crosses paths with Dr. Bello (Jean-Louis), an uncertified Nigerian doctor who teaches Durant to look at medicine in a new way while they try to save the life of a young cancer patient. In a series of twists, Dr. Bello becomes ill and Durant must risk everything and travel to the mountains of Nigeria to find a special potion, which holds the cure.
The film was shot in both New York and Nigeria, and Abulu said the cast really enjoyed working together.
“We had a ball,” he said. “The American actors, the Nigerian Actors — it was fun. We had a wonderful time.”
Isaiah Washington, best known for his role in Grey’s Anatomy, told the New York Times the film’s opportunity to “cross-pollinate” Hollywood and Nollywood is what influenced him to get involved. He also said he wants to help make Nigerian films mainstream.
“How can I bring value to destigmatize Nigeria and destigmatize Nollywood?” he said.
Though Dr. Bello had a smaller budget than most Hollywood productions, which at times bill up to 9-digit figures, Abulu is hoping the story surpasses that. He wants to prove that Nollywood can hold its own outside of Africa, and he’s hoping Hollywood is paying attention.
“It’s not going to be easy because Hollywood doesn’t make movies to experiment,” he said. “Africa is a major risk.”
He wants to reveal a market for the continent similar to the way, he said, Tyler Perry proved there was an audience for non-violent black films.
“Nobody ever believes black folks in America will watch something that is not violent. They tell you in Hollywood, if you’re going to make a black movie, it’s got to have violence, sex and crime because they don’t believe there’s a market for anything else.”
“But Tyler Perry was able to prove there was,” he continued. “We are going to prove that people will be interested in Africa.”
Dr. Bello will open the 2012 African Diaspora International Film Fesitval tonight in New York’s Symphony Space, and Abulu is planning a major release for the film by next Spring.
With the release, he hopes to encourage more collaborations between the two film industries. But more importantly, Abulu hopes the film will help grow Nollywood into a solution for Nigeria’s economic problems.
It’s a big goal for one film, but he knows this already.
“I don’t make films for arts sake anymore,” he said. “I make films now to open doors.”
Watch ol’ fart and bigot Pat Robertson wobble his head and damn near sneeze his head off to the point where he’s giving everyone around him the “Word Flu.” His 700 Club used to be very contagious back in the day because it featured Pat’s ignorance and we all know that ignorance is very contagious.
U.S.-based non-profit Invisible Children responded directly on Monday to criticism over its widely popular Kony 2012 campaign, a viral video that has drawn tens of millions of viewers and major celebrity endorsements. However, despite the group’s best efforts, the campaign is still taking heat over its portrayal of Africans as victims whose only hope lay in the actions — and wallets — of white saviors. And critics say it’s that centuries-old narrative that’s in part responsible for the campaign’s viral success.
In a video that clocks in at just over eight minutes, Invisible Children’s CEO Ben Keesey attempted to reinforce his organization’s commitment to ending political unrest in Uganda.
“I understand why people are wondering is this is just some slick, kind of fly-by-night slacktivist thing,” Keesey says in the video, “when actually it’s not at all…. It’s connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”
Kony 2012 launched on March 5 as an experiment with a seemingly simple goal: to make Joseph Kony, leader of Ugandan rebel group the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), famous. Kony, who’s widely considered an international war criminal responsible for hundreds of thousands of murders, kidnappings, and rapes, has been active at least since 1986 but has gone largely unnoticed by the U.S. public. Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign aimed to change that with the launch of its ambitious multimedia push.
And, to that end, it’s worked. The Kony 2012 campaign has pushed what’s literally become one of the most successful viral video in history — to date, it’s had 75 million viewers and counting. Representatives from YouTube wrote that the clip has seen “unprecedented popularity” for a non-profit video; two days after its release, the video had 31 million views in a single day, and 20,000 “Kony” related videos have been uploaded to the site in the past week.
But the campaign’s visibility is forcing to the surface some uneasy questions about race, political organizing, and the Internet. Namely: Must nuanced political issues be narrowed down to their simplest forms in order for the public to digest them? Can that issue work without perpetuating deeply problematic caricatures about race? And what, in the long run, does it mean to “win”?
How it worked
It’s impossible to write a blueprint for what makes anything go viral, but the Kony 2012 does share some important traits with its viral predecessors: it told a simple story in a compelling way and got a lot of famous people to tell it, too.
“It’s a very specific example of connecting a really big metanarrative of technology and change and generational potential with a very high-impact, emotional, personalized story,” says Patrick Reinsborough, executive director of SmartMeme, a group that follows viral stories on the Internet. “It provides a sense of collective agency for folks.”
The campaign itself is centered around a 30 minute video by filmmaker and Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell. In it, Russell attempts to explain to his 5-year-old son that Joseph Kony is an evil man who kidnaps children and turns them into ruthless soldiers who kill their parents. In using this technique to explain the situation to his son, Russell is also informing the viewer. It’s one of our culture’s most common storytelling narratives: there’s an evil man who does terrible things to innocent people—often children—and he must be stopped.
From there, Invisible Children asks its viewers to get involved. They can make a tax deductible donation of at least $10, purchase the group’s $10 Kony bracelet, or buy a $30 action kit that includes the bracelet, a t-shirt, stickers, buttons and an action guide.
In addition to donating, Invisible Children encourages supporters to “hit the streets” and spread the word about Joseph Kony’s evil and engage lawmakers who have the power to influence U.S. foreign policy. Celebrities like Oprah, Rihanna and Ryan Gosling have helped spread the word.
Activists in the U.S., even those who disagree with the narrative put forth by the group, think there’s much to learn from their strategy, which has rested mostly on engaging high school students between media projects.
“One of the most powerful and compelling things about their model is that they don’t just do stuff online,” says Sasha Costanza-Chock, assistant professor of civic media at M.I.T.
Constanza-Chock thinks that Kony 2012 is a good example of “transmedia activism”, which he defines as storytelling across multiple platforms and making concrete calls for people to get involved. “The video is only the most recent, most visible, most highly produced current outgrowth of a multi-year strategy that that organization has pursued.”
Why it’s trouble
One of the most glaring omissions from the video is that it’s missing the perspectives of Africans as anything but victims.
“It’s propaganda for a western viewer,” says Tavia Nyong’o, associate professor of performance studies at New York University. “Any African watching it feels very strongly like we’re not in the picture—there’s no African complexity, and there’s certainly no African agency.”
Within days, Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire rose to the top of a chorus of African voices criticizing the campaign.
“It simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda and makes out a narrative that is often hard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict,” Kagumire said of the Kony 2012 video. “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”
The absence of Ugandans, specifically, and East Africans more generally isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. It informs the content, particularly on an issue that’s as complicated and politically nuanced as that of Joseph Kony and the widespread violence that’s plagued Uganda.
“The way they present the facts and information and history of the conflict and their solution is not something that is by any means the common point of view amongst Ugandans,” says Nyong’o. “They say it’s ‘not about politics and it’s not about the economy’ [in the video], but it’s actually all about politics and the economy.”
Much of the dissent has also focused on Invisible Children’s support of U.S. military intervention—and the video’s role in stirring U.S. public outrage to spur military action.
Former LRA abductee Victor Ochen, for instance, agrees with the campaign’s point that Kony must be stopped, but warns against actions that would increase the numbers of civilian tragedies. “The stronger survivors become, the less Kony remains an issue,” Ochen wrote at the African Youth Initiative Network’s blog. “Restoration of communities devastated by Kony is a greater priority than catching or even killing him.”
At the very least, any attempts to capture Kony would put child solders at risk—which is just one reason why some Ugandans support amnesty for LRA fighters. It’s also widely understood that the LRA’s power has diminished greatly in recent years and that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda since at least 2006. U.S. military intervention would also indirectly lead to support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—a man who’s been in power for 26 years, has been condemned by the International Criminal Court, and whose wife has been pushing a bill to punish homosexuality with the death penalty.
“Simplification can end up in some very dangerous water,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “I understand the need to simplify so that people can make sense of what’s going on…but I think this is one of those cases where what seems like simplification to get this information to spread may actually have some really tough political implications.”
Critics claim that the film’s portrayal isn’t just inaccurate, but it also plays on entrenched racial stereotypes.
“When you don’t know anything about a situation, it’s easy to project a familiar scenario. People talk about the ‘white savior complex’ and it sounds like that’s a metaphor, but in fact there’s been a lot of literal right wing Christian evangelism in the region,” says Nyong’o “There’s this idea of rescuing the helpless African which goes back to 19th century missionary complex.”
Nyong’o says that it’s fine to be motivated by one’s religious beliefs, but that problems arise when those beliefs are manipulated to a point of obscuring the complexity of a problem. Indeed, the region’s anti-gay zealotry has been funded by influential U.S.-based right wing churches.
Following the money
The white savior complex isn’t just a familiar narrative—it’s a lucrative one.
Since at least 2006, Invisible Children has received donations from a host of Christian evangelical groups with strong anti-gay platforms in both the United States and Uganda. B.E. Wilson at Alternet took a look at the group’s tax information and found that the National Christian Foundation donated $100,000 to Invisible Children in 2008—the same year that it gave similar amounts to rabidly anti-gay and anti-choice groups including Focus on the Family, the Discovery Institute and the Family Research Institute, which was labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The National Christian Foundation says on its website that its primary goal is to “enable followers of Christ to give wisely to His Kingdom.”
In 2006, Invisible Children received a $30,000 cash donation from the Christian Community Foundation, Inc., a group who shares many of the same board members as the National Christian Foundation. What does all this mean? B.E. Wilson writes:
“From its first calendar year, Invisible Children had appeared on the radar screen of some of the world’s largest Christian fundamentalist grant-making organizations—which apparently deemed Invisible Children to be a worthy investment that would help advance particular visions for establishing God’s kingdom on Earth.”
Invisible Children’s last financial statement shows that it received $10.3 million in donations during the 2010-2011 fiscal year. While the group says on its website that 100 percent of contributions go directly to advocacy, financial statements show that 32 percent of Invisible Children’s expenses go to salaries, travel expenses and film production.
It’s unclear how much money Invisible Children has raised so far through its Kony 2012 campaign, but the campaign’s notoriety brings up relevant questions for organizers working for social justice in the U.S.
“I think there are some big questions that a lot of people are still struggling with about what is the connection between making an idea go viral, and actually leveraging it for change,” says Reinsborough of Smartmeme.
So how can people in the U.S. get involved in meaningful ways? One place to start, says Nyong’o at NYU, is to learn more about the conflict from a variety of African voices who have been working in the region. He also warns that making Joseph Kony a celebrity isn’t a quick fix.
“Rihanna may not have heard of Joseph Kony, but people in Uganda and the Congo and Sudan know who he is,” Nyong’o says. “It’s not clear to me that enhancing his fame does anything really except to further” his reign of terror.