The real story after ‘Kony2012’


Marjoke Oosterom

NB: This post is an expanded version of a piece recently published on the African Arguments site.

The ‘Kony2012‘ documentary film was put online on March 5, by the US-based organisation Invisible Children. Within days the film raised $5m and within a week attracted 70m viewers worldwide. The film calls for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Acholi region of Uganda. Although the film shows the acute suffering of LRA victims, especially children, what really remains invisible are wounds of a society years after the LRA left.

Since its release, the film has been surrounded by social media hype and the film and the organisation behind it has been subject to much criticism. Concerns have been raised about Invisible Children’s finances; how the ‘slick Hollywood style’ plays straight into the emotions of the (American) audience when seeing children suffer; and how the simplicity of the story doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the war. Critics have made an effort to give details about the style of the campaign and have challenged the notion that a ‘US solution’ would be the right solution. Quite a bit has been said about problematic video advocacy and manipulation. But here is the real story for after Kony2012, as told in the recent film The Governance Gap to stop Kony does not put an end to the suffering of people.

The Governance Gap demonstrates the enduring – often invisible – legacy of the LRA war through the story of Nighty, a 44 year old Acholi woman. First of all, the Acholi developed a ‘survival mindset’ to cope with decades of violence, from both the LRA and the Ugandan military. Food and safety were people’s priority, not the ordinary governance processes. The conflict undermined the capabilities of the Acholi as citizens and their confidence to re-engage in democratic processes after war. Having lived in a militarised environment, people are still reluctant to raise issues they perceive to be sensitive. Moreover, they have little experience with a developmental state. For years, all they asked for was security and now that they have it, many won’t ask for more. This undermines the ‘demand side’ of governance; Acholi lack experience to actively engage in the reconstruction of their region and in decision-making. Nor are they actively invited to.

Second, it shows the gap in how Acholi perceive themselves as part of the country. ‘We are like slaves being brought into Uganda‘, Nighty says. The role of the Ugandan state is key in this. Acholi feel treated as second-class citizens. Current post-war reconstruction efforts do not sufficiently target these feelings.

Third, it shows the gap in post-conflict interventions in Acholi, which was one of the reasons to make The Governance Gap. Existing recovery efforts by the government and international donors focus on ‘hardware’; rebuilding physical infrastructure and services. This is important. Poverty in the Acholi region is far worse than in the rest of the country due to the war, and clearly visible. What is not visible is how the past experiences of war and life in the camps are carried on into the present. Interventions should therefore also focus on the ‘software’; building citizen capacities to re-engage in decision-making and democratic processes. And as The Governance Gap shows, reconstruction should include a process of national reconciliation in which the state acknowledges the atrocities committed by the military as well as its failure to end the war. Up to now citizens have few opportunities to have voice in the reconstruction process.

A campaign film such as ‘Kony2012’ may not be expected to provide the detailed nuance of a story. What it did, was remind the world of a ‘forgotten conflict’ where injustice had been done to thousands of people since the late 1980s (and don’t forget, not just by the LRA but also by the Ugandan government, and as some would argue… even by failing humanitarian actors). And true, Kony and his LRA continue to cause suffering. Every victim is one too many. They need to be stopped. They also need to be brought to justice, whether through the International Criminal Court or local forms of justice that seem more culturally accepted and appropriate.

But; if Kony is captured, the objective of Kony2012 campaign, this might solve a forgotten conflict, but not its aftermath. Since Kony left Uganda five years ago both the tangible and invisible consequences are still very real. And deserve as much attention as capturing Kony.

Marjoke Oosterom is a PhD candidate in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies. She works on citizenship and participation in (post)conflict settings. The film The Governance Gap is based on her PhD research in the LRA affected areas of Northern Uganda, where she spent a year in a rural village just 10km from the border with South Sudan.

See more insights from Marjoke Oosterom’s research.

Developmental hackspaces: Fostering a meta-participatory ethos for Information and Communication Technologies for Development


Hani Morsi

The program for the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Development Conference includes a paper session titled “Expanding Participation”, which invokes thinking about the clearly rising convergence of many conceptual and practical repertoires of development research, practice and emerging information and communications technologies (ICTs). The sustained interest in participation (as a large and diverse set of methodologies, practices and frameworks) and how it continues to inform the general developmental zeitgeist is paralleled by the steady evolution in technologies and technological practices that have their own embedded manifestations of the participatory ethos. Technically-focused communities such as the open source movement and technologies such as crowdsourcing, with characteristics of openness, social collaboration, and unrestricted information flows mirror the inclusiveness inherent in participatory processes in development work.

With such a similitude in the participative and increasingly democratized cultures characterizing the current evolution in development and technical communities, an important question arises: Are we, as development researchers and practitioners, adequately capitalizing on the potential opportunities created (as a result for such a convergence of shared values) for collaboration with our technical counterparts? Are we able to reimagine development within a context of the accelerating rate of change that the increasingly rapid rate of technological advancement brings about? How are we able to reconceive our ‘traditional’ ways of thinking about the global developmental priorities in a world characterized by such an accelerating rate of change?

The purpose of this blog post is not to offer any adequate answers to these questions, but to present a call to action on an issue with direct bearing on formulating these answers. How can development practitioners and technology professionals capitalize on shared values, more effectively collaborate on solving complex developmental issues and foster a reciprocal cross-pollination of ideas that is mutually valuable in finding practical and sustainable solutions in an increasingly dynamic global environment?  The collaborative spaces already exist, considering the multitude of cross-disciplinary conferences, research programs and development interventions that combine input from and invite partnership between those working in both realms of development practice and technological innovation, as well as local stakeholders and institutions. That is, the attention to inclusiveness and participation as central notions of collaborative efforts across joint undertakings between the development and technology domains is already extant and arguably on the rise. What needs more attention is factors affecting the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of collaboration between those working in development practice and their opposite numbers in the technology and innovation world, and this is what is meant by ‘meta-participatory’ in the title of this post.

Many of the attributes that both groups have in common have already been discussed. What about divergences? What stands in the way of a more vibrant alliance between development and technology? In many cases, it all about finding the right balance. Here are two key observations:

  • Disparate views on the role of technology for development: this is an elementary – even obvious – observation, but remains fundamental to bridging gaps in conception of technological tools and processes for development. Without risking treading into territory mined with multifarious and often polarized debates on the subject, and for the purpose of the main thrust of this post, it would suffice to say that development practitioners need to adopt a little more techno-fetishism, while technologists would probably do well to accept an additional degree of practical conservatism. In other words, we need to balance long-term, futuristic outlooks on the possibilities of what technology can (or cannot) do for development with short-term, pragmatic focuses on specific interventions. An equilibrium of far-sighted vision and effective action cannot exist otherwise.
  • Conflicting working ‘tempos’: technologists often have a ‘keyed-up’ working pace. Prototypes are built, deployed, tested and improved upon in a cycle that is analogous to but much faster than the slow-paced, deliberative, power-sensitive process that lies at the core of participatory methodologies. In collaborative projects, finding a practical balance of pace is difficult, but achievable.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the technological icons of present times, once said “…innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem”. Sudden moments of clarity and late night phone calls aside, if we are to truly co-construct knowledge about how find technologically-catalyzed solutions for global development challenges, we need to break out of our respective disciplinary silos and start reciprocally but constructively shooting holes in our preconceived notions about how to find these solutions. We need to open source development by building upon the shared values of participation and inclusiveness and promoting a joint discourse of ideas at the intersection of practical intervention, technological innovation and ethical considerations.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Three things the crisis (should have) taught us about women’s empowerment


Naomi Hossain

Reviewing the proofs for a new book called Living with Crisis (published by the World Bank in April – an e-book which means its free!) and a World Bank Policy Research working paper synthesising the same have meant reflecting on what the last three years taught us about women’s empowerment. The three things we (should have) learned are:

1.     Paid work women’s empowerment

Earning money for working is all very well and yes, very very important for women’s agency and the balance of power at home. But anyone who seriously thought that getting a job as an export factory worker or access to microfinance was the same as women gaining real power over their lives no longer has such good reasons for thinking so: the gains are too fragile and too easily swept away. Our synthesis of qualitative research across 17 countries on the impacts of living with the food, fuel and financial crises  found that:

  • The supposedly privileged industrial elite of export sector workers was highly exposed and easily abandoned when orders were down. This was clear in South East- and South Asia. As women were the most ‘flexible’ workers they were typically first to go or find their pay and conditions got worse. When orders returned, women were often in more demand, but only the youngest, most flexible (and most docile?). Women reported the jobs they got back in the recovery were worse – poorer conditions, more uncertain and far harder pressure for productivity, all in an era of rising living costs.
  • When the growth machine stopped or slowed, the problem of indebtedness rose to the surface. It turns out juggling debt had become a serious problem for people living in poverty in a lot of places – Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh among others – sub-prime was not only a problem for low income Americans or Greeks. Certainly it looks like time to revisit the link between credit and women’s empowerment.
  • Women were particularly likely to diversify into the informal sector to cope – setting up as street vendors, mobile hairdressers, laundry service providers, sex workers, and so on. Our synthesis work supported what WIEGO  (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) found – dramatically increased competition in the informal sector, meaning many more women working far harder and competing with each other ever more fiercely for an ever smaller share of the pie. If this is empowerment, I am Rick Santorum.

2.     It’s the care economy, stupid!

The aid industry’s fixation on getting women to earn money (on why this has happened see the paper by Rosalind Eyben and Marzia Fontana for the Bellagio Initiative) meant it neglected the fact that most women in the developing world work long hard invisible hours in the care economy and that that is what makes human development happen. What the crisis did was show us what happens when the unmeasured everyday work of getting families fed, clothed, healed, reared and fit for work suddenly gets much harder and less rewarding – for example, because the cost of living spikes in 2008 and 2011. What happens, as we saw in our research, was that women’s power over their work and wellbeing was suddenly and dramatically reduced. From across the world came evidence of how tough this was – more time spent shopping around for cheaper, nutritious, edible meals; the strain of getting hungry kids off to school or of keeping husbands around and happy; gathering food and fuel (I will never forget the image of a Dhaka woman in her fifties hacking a log with an axe I could barely lift – she saved a few measly takas, but thought nothing of the effort involved); self-medicating; helping and getting help from neighbours; begging, borrowing and stealing; humbling themselves to apply for official or charitable assistance; portfolio working in the ever-less profitable informal economy etc. Some women reported their efforts to cope stretched to 18 hour working days; in a Central African Republic village, women remarked wryly ‘it is the sleep that drags her away from her housework’.

A real risk here is that the aid industry not only continues to neglect the all-important work of care, but that – worse – it depends even more on harder care work to supply the resilience needed to get poor people through hard times. The lesson here should be the sound of alarm bells whenever ‘resilience’ is mentioned – a reminder to listen closely for the sound of women’s unpaid care work softly absorbing the pain of economic shocks, without complaining or showing up in the statistics.

3.     Women’s empowerment depends on social protection

The policy ‘takeaway’ from 1 and 2 is clearly 3: women’s empowerment depends on proper social protection. But we have to rethink this. It is not because women are the helpless victims of crisis – the ones who eat last or least when food is scarce because cultural values favour men – but because if their strategic unpaid care roles are protected against big shocks, women have a fighting chance of making use of opportunities that come along. That is the point of social protection.

For all the big talk about social protection in the past decade you could be forgiven for thinking that social protection actually exists in the real world: in fact it remains notional in many places. It doesn’t cover much of the population at the best of times, does not extend to the rest in the worst, and when it does, it often doesn’t make much of a difference – as a system it just doesn’t protect.  What does protect people during shocks is mainly informal – the labours of love of parents or partners, gestures of compassion and solidarity between neighbours or kin, small helping acts, organised charity, even moral support – the stuff the policy-wallahs cannot see because it is neither monetised nor measured. I don’t think people prefer to help themselves – let us not romanticise this as Big Society writ global – but little else was on offer. A decent functioning system of social protection, one that did not work people harder for a measly handout or punish them for being carers, made a lot of difference where it existed. But apart from the former Soviet bloc countries and a few places where lessons of previous crises had been painfully learned (for exampl, Indonesia) few people seemed to be getting anything to help them through the crisis.

There is still the chance that the crisis turns out to be the opportunity it could have been in terms of a seriously ramped up social protection agenda. The global protest movement might yet buy some social protection, just like the Communist threat used to, once upon a time. In these volatile times, the project of women’s empowerment depends on it.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS.

Just do women’s empowerment


Naomi Hossain

You’ve got to love War on Want for soiling the wholesome purity of the Olympics brand with a study documenting the exploitation of Bangladeshi garments workers stitching 2012 Olympics sponsor brands Adidas Nike and Puma products for as little as 72p a day. And before you even think it, no, 72p is not a lot of money, even in Bangladesh, not these days. You can get a meal, but it won’t be a good one; pay for a room where you can shift-share a bed with another worker; with any luck and a lot of overtime you might be able to pay for the healthcare you will need when you get ill or worn out from the routine of 10-12 hour days of manual work. There are no doubt Bangladeshis who are worse off than these garments workers, but the study findings suggest they are still paid less than the minimum wages they have struggled so hard to secure.

War on Want missed out two very interesting facts in their study of the exploitation of Bangladeshi garments workers by Adidas, Nike and Puma. First, while the same old sweatshop problems remain, those women workers have changed dramatically in the last ten years: they have a lot more collective and political power than before as a result of several years of direct, often violent, action and organisation; the helpless victims seeking UK NGO help depicted in the Observer article that covered the report are a figment of a particular kind of European imagination. (The report itself is far more respectful of the workers’ capacities for organisation and their own struggles for a rise in the minimum wage). While the exploitation remains a serious concern, we must not forget that these are a group of women whose power to articulate their own demands has grown, and grown in large part because of their work in these factories. My new Working Paper makes this point in detail.

The second missing fact is altogether more interesting. This is that the UK taxpayer not only buys the clothes that these workers make, but in the case of Nike, it also then funds their corporate social responsibility activities through funding to the Nike Foundation. Nike, whose outsourced women workers complain of long hours, illegal and unpaid overtime, abuse and general ill treatment, appears to be the self-same Nike whose Foundation promotes The Girl Effect – an effort to get girls in the developing world empowered through – well the website doesn’t make it entirely clear how they are going to get empowered but it involves some very nifty graphics. I can’t find a detailed budget breakdown, but the UK Department for International Development (DFID) budget suggests that £12,939,129 is going to the ‘DFID Nike Foundation Girl Effect Hub’. You could empower a hell of a lot of Bangladesh garments workers with that much money.

If anyone knows, can they please explain to me why the UK taxpayer is paying the Nike Foundation to empower women when its mother company Nike squeezes its suppliers so hard they pay those same women rock-bottom wages? Or is it all an incredibly cunning plan to empower women by treating them so badly that they are forced to fight for their rights … ? After all, impossible is nothing.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change Team.