The world's scientific and social network for malaria professionals
Subscribe to free Newsletter | 11150 malaria professionals are enjoying the free benefits of MalariaWorld today

The rock or wave dilemma

March 11, 2012 - 16:54 -- Ricardo Ataide

I don't know about you, but this week my Facebook, email and news feeds have been flooded with the Kony2012 video and the many pro- and con- reactions to it. I myself have watched the video and, albeit feeling it was over simplistic and a bit Hollywoodesc, I felt that it was clever as a tool to make people more aware of child-soldiers, war-crimes and the people responsible. Many people have criticised the NGO that made the video (Invisible Children-IC) because the video was overtly simplistic, relies on old facts, or because it once again portrays Uganda (and consequently Africa) as a place of conflict/despair/poverty/lack-of-solutions. Outraged, some commentators have brought up to the table the issue of colonialist-whites once again thinking that Africans cannot do anything for themselves and so the white people will once again solve everything. They criticise IC also because IC has some kind of action kit that you can buy and thus contribute with money for them, money that is nothing but a way of people feeling they did something.


Now, I'm not going to go into a discussion on what I think about all of the above allegations but I realised that most of the critics are focusing their sight on IC when they should maybe take advantage of the (I'm sure, brief) wave that all of this has created. It's like they saw a huge rock fall in their pond and are now all shouting at the rock and not very concerned with the waves and its effects. Ok, now, I'm being over simplistic, I know.


But it does raise the issue, when is a lot of awareness too much awareness? I started imagining the following scenario: a video would appear in the internet showing pictures of sick mothers, sick children, torn families, ineffective treatments, poverty and suddenly the Killer Mosquito and the scourge of Malaria would be presented as the culprits. The video would finish with a kit (composed of a t-shirt and a bracelet with the words "eliminate malaria") that you could buy from an (imaginary) organization and part of that money would go to lets say distribution of anti-malaria pills. Lets imagine that this made-up video was able to stir millions and millions of people on facebook and youtube and twitter and money would start being spent on those kits and millions of people would start asking the questions, what can I do to help? Why didn’t I know about malaria before?


We all know that the kit scenario is presenting a very simplistic approach/solution that would probably not be backed up by a proper evaluation of the distribution of, compliance and resistance to the medication (for example) and that certainly would need to be addressed. Now, would we as malariologists condemn this action? We probably would and we probably should. We want to make sure that things are done in a proper fashion. But would we fail to take advantage of the awareness generated towards malaria and let this die out to the sound of our criticism towards the (fake) organization that launched the video? Would we just be upset at the money not being spent on research or better yet on mosquito elimination and improving people’s sanitary and living conditions, or would we realise that if the video was not there in the first place we wouldn't have known that that money (and the concerned society from where it originated) was there in the first place?


In this fast-paced world of ours, where everything has to be bite-size and exciting and new, it is difficult to get people's attention, let alone explain something in detail to them. There are simply too many issues and too many concerns and not enough time. Videos that are overtly sensationalist and simplistic and even with traces of hero-like behaviour are expected to pop-up on the web from time to time. I believe though that we (the specialists of the targeted field) should take advantage of the awareness that they generate towards the issue at hand, point out the flaws of the proposed approach and then use that awareness to our advantage. 


So, I propose that if ever a video about malaria brings up as much attention as the Kony2012 video did, we as a community should focus more on harnessing and redirecting the energy of the waves than on shouting at the rock.


Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on


Congrats on an excellent blog - this is the kind of thought-provoking material that we need on MalariaWorld. It may interest you if I say that we are currently working on a video on counterfeit drugs that we hope will cause a similar wave (and rock) as you mention here above.

Personally I think that whatever the approach that was taken in the Kony2012 campaign may be, if the goal of putting this man in front of the International Criminal Court in The Hague is reached, than it was worth it.

That the campaign has its roots in the USA and that the villain is African is of secondary importance. If it was originated in country X, and brought a criminal of country Y that tops the list of the ICC to justice, I would be equally happy.

Anyone else?

Submitted by Ricardo Ataide on

Hi Bart,

Thanks for your comment. I'm very curious to see the video you have put together, the general tone of the message as well as the reaction it will generate!

Ricardo Ataíde

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

Yesterday, I was thinking this exactly. I've only recently heard about the Kony 2012 video and was able to see the first ten minutes or so. In general, I think it did what it needed to do - simplify a problem that the general public has no way of ever fully understanding and get them outraged about it enough to do something (even if it was just a little bit). What can people sitting at home, going about their day-to-day lives actually, I mean really and truly, do about someone like Kony - or something like malaria? They can't do much. They can call their Senator and Congressmen and sign a few petitions showing support for funding on X, Y & Z and they can buy a kit and wear a t-shirt, put a sticker on their car. That's really about it.

But those phone calls, those petitions, they open up doors and create momentum and a public demand (for how long, who knows? or should I ask 'who cares?' because it exists, and that's what you're going for) for some sort of action to be taken. You *have* to capitalize on that. Your rock and wave analogy is spot on - people are spending a lot of undue energy and emotion on something that's really not the issue at all. Just because someone is from another country doesn't mean they can't have empathy toward another human being's plight. We need to move past that and look at what's actually happening.

I just imagine what kind of stir could be created if a video on malaria with similar ploys and word-of-mouth popularity were unleashed on the web/the media outlets at large. I would ride that wave for as long as we could and try to make something wonderful come out of it.

Peace Corps Volunteer
Ghana, West Africa

Submitted by Ricardo Ataide on

Hi Beth,

Thanks for your comment. I think your first paragraph is spot on. How to feel engaged with a cause that is so far from us and towards which we feel we have no time or even knowledge to address? Indeed, petitions, T-shirts, stickers... that is what most people can do. Is that good enough? Is that really any good at all? That is an ethical discussion I made the mistake of entering with some people that are much more into that issue than I am and I won't make the same mistake again! I'm currently waiting on a couple of books suggested to me by one of thse people: Martha Nussbaum's "Creating Capabilities" and Sen's "Development as Freedom". I hope that after reading those I'll be able to discuss the subject again.


Ricardo Ataíde

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on


I see your point, I agree awareness is good. But the video serves IC self-promotion more than it raises awareness of the real problems in Uganda. And how will they spend the money raised? Apparently, this organization spends more money on salaries than in specific actions and has never been audited, see below:

Writing on the social media site, sociology and political science student Grant Oyston said, “As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32 per cent went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal for an issue which arguably needs action and aid, not awareness, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they lack an external audit committee. But it goes way deeper than that.”

Taken from:

Um abraco,
Sara (GABBA)

Submitted by Ricardo Ataide on

Hi Sara!

Nice to see the GABBA community here.

I agree that IC are probably not the model NGO. But do you see how you focus your entire comment on what IC did and what IC's problems are and what IC's real intentions must be and not on what should be done and how to do it?

That was exactly what my post was about. Trying to answer the question: what is more important? Complaining about what happened or use it to our (the experts in the field) advantage and help to fix it?


Ricardo Ataíde

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

Yes, yes, I wanted to make all those points but I also think that the propaganda can be used to the experts's advantage.

But overall, I would rather have charities raising money that will be used mainly for the appropriate causes and not for their own salaries or self-promotion :)

I like the blog, keep it up! Bjs