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Appreciating complexity

in Arts & Culture/Featured by

As debate swirls around the Kony 2012 viral media and fundraising event initiative – and whether it’s a praise-worthy effort to bring a war criminal to justice or a messy, opportunistic scheme characterized by white privilege – one Newfoundlander isn’t surprised at how complicated the issue has become. In fact, she’s been working on an initiative since last year that aims to acknowledge the complexity of international aid and conflict. But instead of simplifying them, her goal is to promote the complexity of these issues as something to embrace.

Alex Fox is a 4th year student studying fashion communication and design at Ryerson University. Originally from St. John’s, Fox spent several months in Ghana last year on an internship organized by Engineers Without Borders-Canada, and for her the experience is what opened her eyes to how little she knows, and how complex international aid and conflict issues actually are.

“[After] my experience in Ghana, I came back knowing less than when I went there. Everybody said ‘what did you learn?’, and I said ‘oh man, I learned what little I know.’ I came back realizing I knew way less about development and Africa than I thought I knew when I went there.”

The eye-opening nature of the experience caused Fox to realize just how little everybody – including so-called experts – knew about international problems, and it got her thinking that maybe acknowledging that complexity was a good place to start. Whereas many groups in international aid and development try to take complex issues and boil them down into easy, simple strategies and straightforward actions, it occurred to Fox that maybe complexity could be embraced as a strength instead. So, in September, she began organizing ‘The Complexity Project’.

“…even if we move to Ghana for the next ten years, we’ll never understand what it’s like to live there and experience those different levels of poverty. We will always be more privileged…”

“At its root it’s started by a bunch of westerners, so it’s essentially the same [as other western-based development organizations], but one thing we’re trying to address and bring light to is the fact that…even if we move to Ghana for the next ten years, we’ll never understand what it’s like to live there and experience those different levels of poverty. We will always be more privileged…we’re trying to be humble, we’re trying to bring awareness of this complexity. We have to empower people to make change on their own, and choose their own destiny. We’re trying to…bring light to the fact that these ‘solutions’ aren’t working and we need to stop coming up with solutions that we like. In the case of Kony, we should be empowering Ugandans to see what they need and assist them to do it on their own.”

Fox wanted to make a documentary about her experience in Ghana, and as the final project for her undergrad thesis required a creative piece of work, it seemed a perfect fit. That film will help to present The Complexity Project and its wider initiative to the public.

Alex Fox learning in Ghana in 2011

“While I was [in Ghana] I did a lot of interviews, took a lot of footage, and when I came home, I started thinking about how I wanted to position it in the communications world for development. Do I promote things positively? Or urgently? How do you promote people’s dignity? There’s so many complicated things…but then I decided that’s what I wanted to address. How do you market something that’s so complex? People need to switch to thinking about things as complex. As not just a matter of people not having shoes, so let’s buy them shoes. What’s preventing them from having the income to buy shoes? What’s preventing them from having the materials to produce shoes? So embracing complexity is what I’ve learned and what I’m preaching now. Things are complex and every time you’re presented a solution it’s not going to work.”

“We need to stop looking for simple solutions and embrace the complexity, and be comfortable as a group with the fact that we’ll never know everything about this issue.”

“[It’s] not just a matter of people not having shoes, so let’s buy them shoes. What’s preventing them from having the income to buy shoes? What’s preventing them from having the materials to produce shoes?…We need to stop looking for simple solutions…”

Since Fox started working on the idea, the initiative has steadily grown. Fox has now been joined by a team of seven people working on the project; they’ve organized a website and a blog about social justice issues based on the idea of embracing complexity, and the film will help to frame the project for the wider public. The website will also feature extended interviews and resources associated with the documentary. The group is also trying to organize a research survey to study people’s attitudes and perceptions toward aid and development, and toward the tension between embracing complexity and seeking easy answers.

Fox hopes to return to Ghana in the fall and expand on the interviews and documentary work. The initial episodes of the project – comprising a three-part mini-series titled ‘Marketing Complexity’ – will be screened later this month at Ryerson University.

No (more) easy answers

The idea of accepting complexity rather than looking for easy understandings may be difficult in a world used to seeking quick and easily actionable responses to problems, but Fox is optimistic that people will learn to acknowledge the complexity of global issues and embrace that as the first step toward building a better world.

“People are…sad and hopeful and pessimistic and all these things at once, and often think ‘holy shit, this is crazy, I don’t know what to think! I don’t know what to do!’ But we need to use that as a reason to commit to keep learning and to keep driving ourselves forward.”

Will the general, busy, and impatient public be interested in embracing complexity?

“That’s the question that makes my stomach sink, because I don’t know,” admits Fox. “That’s what I would want and love, but…it’s taken me years to get to that level of commitment. I’ve been overseas, I’m now doing this almost full-time, but it’s taken me so long to get here and have this level of commitment. I try to think about what got me here, and look at myself as a case study. I always get this question, isn’t this [i.e. the Kony 2012 events] better than nothing? To give $200? My answer would be yes, most of the time. If you do take the time to research where your money is going, and really understand what the positive and/or negative impact could be, then yes, that is better than nothing. But you can’t let that action distract you from something else.”

“I think a lot of people are kind of distracted from the root causes of why the Lord’s Resistance Army are there in the first place. Why are all these states in the position they are in? People are going to get distracted from understanding these root causes…”

That, to her, is what is most challenging about the Kony 2012 events.

“I think a lot of people are kind of distracted from the root causes of why the Lord’s Resistance Army are there in the first place. Why are all these states in the position they are in? People are going to get distracted from understanding these root causes, because now they have an action they can do on April 20 and pat themselves on the back. Oh, I’ve contributed to it and now I can move on and buy my next t-shirt or video game. It’s just a distraction.”

“I’m hoping it’s just…a mindset. I think once you get people started on this path of researching these questions and going further, it’ll pick up. But it’s about being explicit and saying I don’t have all the answers. You know, even Chomsky’s pretty good but even he doesn’t have the answers.”

“If people say what can I do – should I do this Kony thing or not? – I just say: keep learning. Or start learning. That’s really the only thing you can do, is learn and influence others with the things you can learn about. I don’t have any concrete suggestions on what we can do to stop Kony or stop the violence in Africa, but we need to keep learning about the issues. And so right now, instead of promoting an action, I want to create a network. Build a movement of people who have this more humble attitude.”

For more information, or to get involved with The Complexity Project, you can visit the website here.

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