KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

KONY2012 – a story in one flavour

with 9 comments

So, the Internets are abuzz with KONY2012, Invisible Children’s latest film offering. This comes broadly in two flavours:

1. The bulk of the masses, the mainstream media, plus a number of fawning celebrities all talking about how great this is.

2. A much smaller, but increasingly loud chorus of aid bloggers,  researchers, journalists and Ugandans themselves criticizing the film as oversimplistic, inaccurate, misleading and potentially harmful.

I’m not an expert on what is happening in northern Uganda, and lots and lots has been written on this already (see Brendan Rigby’s excellent ongoing compilation of articles and blog posts on the topic), but the beauty and curse of the internet is that everyone can have their say, whether they know anything or not!

So here are a few thoughts from me from a knowledge manager’s perspective:

Firstly, I couldn’t have found a better illustration of my last two blog posts on storytelling. KONY2012 nicely illustrates on the one hand how the most effective way to engage people is through a story, not though research reports, statistics, and official documents, but on the other hand how a story can vastly oversimplify or even misrepresent a complex problem and leave you with little idea about what is really happening, especially if you don’t or can’t verify or if you rely too much on a single story.

Secondly this whole buzz does create two potentially important opportunities:

i) Kony is in the news! – maybe all this public attention to Kony and northern Uganda can actually provoke some useful discussion, and maybe all this “awareness” can be translated into increased political pressure, and even political will, not necessarily to do exactly what the campaign is requesting, but rather prompting people to learn more about what is a complex situation and to think a little bit more about , be a little better informed, and think more about what they can (and can’t) do to help the developing world. Maybe.

ii) Smartaid and badvocacy are once again a hot topic. The potential backlash against KONY2012 opens up a useful debate about the role of advocacy, of activists and about how to communicate and fundraise for development. There’s an important “awareness raising” opportunity here too for advocates for a more nuanced understanding of development, and for a  more dignified and authentic presentation of people and problems in developing countries to bring this discussion to a broader audience.

A last point is that this situation highlights a fairly fundamental problem in knowledge sharing around development – the rather large gulf of understanding and perspective between researchers, aid practitioners, advocates and activists, governments and the donating public, and the most important and least listened to group of all – those affected by the problem (and one hopes the intended beneficiaries of any action). It highlights the immense challenge in bringing the knowledge of “experts” whether researchers, aid workers or affected populations (who are in a way the real experts) in a compelling and actionable way to those who could use it for evidence-informed action that might make a real different to people’s lives. At least it seems very difficult to do this without compromising the integrity of the knowledge itself, or perhaps the temptation to do so in order to get your message across is sometimes too great.

In a thoughtful blog on KONY2012 and the difficulties of bridging this gap James W. McCarty wrote: In this situation I think what we need is not academics who “simplify better” but activists who “complexify better.”

Undoubtedly we need both, but I think what we also need are more knowledge brokers, intermediaries who can help bridge the gap between those who know and those who can put that knowledge to use, with the aim of not only connecting people with relevant knowledge, but also putting it into a form that can be easily used and is interesting, and compelling enough for them to take notice and persuading them and helping them to use it effectively, and doing this while obeying the golden rule of advocacy “simplify but don’t distort“.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Great post. The increasing number of my friends (not involved in development work) on facebook who are posting links to nuanced critiques of Kony2012 demonstrates that, as a result of such high profile campaigns, the knowledge gap may be dwindling. I think the ‘masses’ may be more intelligent than many aid bloggers seem to believe — at the very least, we need to have faith that mainstream attitudes toward aid have the potential to change, should we dedicate ourselves towards making that happen.


    March 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm

  2. […] The gulf in understanding between commentators and the people experiencing the problem first hand […]

  3. […] KONY2012 – a story in one flavour (KM on a dollar a day) […]

  4. […] Excerpt from: KONY2012 – a story in one flavour […]

  5. Reblogged this on buridansblog.


    March 9, 2012 at 9:36 am

  6. Great post Ian. I found this bit on the subject from Euan Semple’s blog ( interesting:

    “Part of me loves the way ideas can spread so effectively and so quickly on the Internet, and part of me is worried by it. In “real life” we have all sorts of social and practical constraints on our righteous indignation. On the web we don’t have such constraints.”

    As Semple suggests, each of us must govern our volume control on mob rule.


    March 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

  7. Ian, another great post. Fascinating how this story evolved in snyc with your latest post on storytelling.
    I especially like your point about the need of more activists who ‘complexify better’. In my opinion, aid workers, including UN staff, should be added to that list. At this point, I have nothing to add on the notion of storytelling and the ongoing Kony debate.
    But I would like to challenge you on a rather theoretical question you implicitly raise: the integrity of knowledge. I’m not sure what you mean with this. Obviously, there is no universally accepted definition of knowledge. But the context in which we use the term can, in my opinion, not be disregarded. And this context is, as you wrote before, highly complex:
    That complexity entails groups holding different values, acting according to different norms as well as constant struggles for greater influence and power. (Some of them being targeted towards what we call ’empowerment’ for greater human development; some of them being attempts to maintain power relations that are discriminatory.)

    I think it makes sense to conceptualize ‘knowledge’ in a development and aid context without referring to the notion that knowledge is personal, made up of individual’s experiences, ideas and values. It is based on skills, experiences and know-how, as well as beliefs and perception of the reality and a vision of the future. (This definition is loosely based on Nonaka.) If that’s the case, how can there be an integrity of knowledge?

    • @benjamin thanks for your comment. I was actually meaning much more personal by “integrity of knowledge” i.e. being true in your communication to what you know/believe. If you are trying to simplify or repackage what you know to explain it to someone else, then integrity is doing so in a way that isn’t intentionally misleading either through distorting it to make a point, or explaining it in a way that you know is likely to be misinterpreted.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      • @ Ian, Thank you for the reply and the clarification. Now I understand your statement. And I fully agree with it. Please keep on writing Ian; I learn a lot from your blog posts.

        Benjamin Kumpf (@bkumpf)

        March 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm

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