IPSA Reading Group Tackles International Intervention


When it comes to humanitarian crises, is all awareness good awareness? Does responsibility ever trump sovereignty, and if so, when? NYU Wagner students gathered to discuss these questions, among others, at an International Public Service Association (ISPA)-sponsored reading group with Professor John Gershman on March 21, 2012.

The thought-provoking and animated discussion began with a look at the controversial Kony 2012 video,  a production of Invisible Children, Inc.  that has gone viral, especially among young people in the United States. The video tugs at viewers’ heartstrings, encouraging them to join an international movement that is calling for the arrest of Ugandan Joseph Kony, a leader in the Lord’s Resistance Army, on charges of war crimes and child abuse. The video has generated substantial support for the campaign against Kony. However, it has also drawn criticism from those who say it misrepresents and oversimplifies the conflict.

Reading-group participants noted the video’s lack of information about what Ugandans have done to fight Kony, and the limited airtime for African perspectives. The video ignores the potential costs of military intervention and many other issues affecting Ugandans and other countries involved in the crisis, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where Kony is believed to be living. Does the IC production constitute “badvocacy”? What do we make of all the college students who might not have otherwise known the name Kony, and now wear wristbands for the cause?

This led to a broader conversation about U.S. intervention in international affairs. Too often, sound bites about conflicts in Syria, Libya, Egypt and Uganda, among other nations, leave out the history of U.S. actions that exacerbated the problems giving rise to these conflicts. Domestic politics and dependence on oil also play a role in whether and how the U.S. chooses to respond to conflicts across the globe.

It is often easier to criticize than to propose solutions. But the IPSA group did have some ideas:

  1. Consider the appropriate size and scale of U.S. military budget and action. While the costs and benefits of social programs has been a hot topic in U.S. politics in recent years, there has been relatively little talk of this nature with regard to the military and international interventions.
  2. Prepare for peace, not just for war. Support culturally competent peace-building efforts to try to avoid the need for international interventions in the first place.
  3. Tell the truth about complicated conflicts. Sometimes quick summaries are necessary, but public awareness campaigns must eventually translate into nuanced, contextualized understanding and action.
  4. When considering international intervention, think critically about questions such as: What is the history of this conflict? Who is telling the story and how does that affect the way it is told? What is the source of legitimacy for the intervening parties? What is their relationship to local actors? Who is best served by their actions?
  5. Make eye-catching movies about ways to address inequality in our own neighborhoods. Where is the shiny video encouraging people in the U.S. to occupy bank-foreclosed homes?

The IPSA Reading Group, organized by NYU Wagner students in coordination with Professor John Gershman, meets regularly to discuss issues related to international development and policy. This conversation will be continued at IPSA’s 2012 conference on Friday, April 13, 2012.

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