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geoffrey york

Children and their mothers receiving food and treatment , mostly for severe malnutrition and measels, at the hospital that MSF has established in Mogadishu, Somalia on Sept. 7, 2011.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In the crossfire of attacks and counter-attacks over the "Stop Kony" viral video phenomenon, there are emerging signs that the controversy could ultimately boost the movement for smarter aid to Africa.

As a marketing ploy, the video has been fantastically successful. The 29-minute video by a California-based activist group, Invisible Children, has been viewed more than 70 million times, helping the group raise $5-million for its campaign against Joseph Kony, leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army.

The viral video has provoked resentment from many Africans, skepticism from political analysts, and unease from foreign aid experts, who see the video as dangerously simplistic, paternalistic and inaccurate.

But by sparking an unprecedented debate over aid to Africa, the video (and the backlash against it) is promoting more awareness of the complexity of aid projects. This debate, in turn, is helping educate donors on better ways to help Africa. One example: a Canadian blog called Visible Children, which offers criticism and alternatives to Invisible Children, has received more than 2.2 million visitors in the past few days.

Here, from the Kony controversy, are some of the emerging lessons for improved aid to Africa:

1) Awareness and publicity by itself are not enough. Only a few years ago, there was a huge wave of interest in the Darfur crisis, led by celebrities such as the Hollywood actors George Clooney and Mia Farrow. Television, films and social media were awash with concern about Darfur. Yet the resulting publicity has failed to lessen the Darfur conflict, which remains as complex as ever. Many donors are learning that feel-good media campaigns – and the tweets and wristbands of Invisible Children – are insufficient by themselves.

2) Western aid should not be seen as a substitute for African self-help. Donors must avoid a self-aggrandizing focus on themselves, because it alienates the communities that they are supposed to benefit. Many Africans were infuriated by the Invisible Children video because it focused so much on the American filmmaker Jason Russell (and his blond three-year-old son) instead of African community groups. The credibility of Invisible Children was also damaged by a widely circulated photo of the filmmakers posing with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers. Egotistical aid can create the impression that Africans are incapable of resolving problems without foreigners. Some critics call it the "Whites in Shining Armour" syndrome.

3) Military intervention is far from a panacea, and militarization of problems can be dangerous. The arrest of Joseph Kony could never be as swift and tidy as a helicopter raid on Osama bin Laden (despite what celebrities such as Vanilla Ice have tweeted in recent days). In 2008, when the United States backed a military campaign against the LRA by several African armies, the offensive was a disastrous failure, provoking revenge attacks that killed hundreds of innocent civilians.

"The problem hasn't been that Kony isn't well-known," says Alex de Waal, a British expert on conflict in Africa. "Compared to the host of other rebel groups … he enjoys by far the highest profile. The problem is that he is hard to catch, and that his adversaries have too often colluded in keeping the war going. The Ugandan army had an incentive for keeping the LRA alive and kicking – it justified a high defence budget and gave the generals plenty of opportunities for getting rich."

4) Instead of focusing on a single charity or project, build bridges to a diversity of experts. Invisible Children is a relatively small group, and it admits that it is a "media-based organization." But its publicity has spilled over to benefit older and more experienced groups, such as Human Rights Watch, which has offered a useful tip sheet on how to go beyond military action in the anti-LRA campaign. It listed a series of steps that could help save lives: increased protection for civilians in LRA regions; better communications and early-warning tools such as cellphone towers; rehabilitation for LRA soldiers and captives who escape; and improved demobilization programs for LRA soldiers who want to surrender.

5) The project with the slickest video is not always the most effective use of donor money. Joseph Kony may be an evil villain from central casting, but the campaign against him should not necessarily be the highest priority for foreign aid in Africa. Far more people are dying from preventable causes in Africa – including malaria, AIDS, poor maternal health care, and droughts in the Sahel and Somalia – than from the LRA's dwindling attacks.

One of the key messages emerging from the Kony debate is this: Before you hand over money to any charity or advocacy group, do your due diligence on which campaigns are most cost-effective in saving lives.