Spoiler:I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.
KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m not alone.
Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% 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.
The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.
Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.
As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”
Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.
Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.
Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.
If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.
~ Grant Oyston
Grant Oyston is a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Please do not email me except to provide alternative causes, or with media requests, as I am no longer able to read emails (which I’m receiving at a pace too rapid to keep up with).
EDIT: Please read Invisible Children’s response here.
The vast majority of peacekeeping missions, peacebuilding efforts, and conflict resolution plans are conceived in New York, Washington, and Brussels, often by people who have never or rarely visited the countries they purport to help. Perhaps you've noticed that these so-called solutions rarely work. That's why I'm a big believer in looking to local leaders to find answers whenever possible. As Suraj Sudhakar points out in a great post, that people are poor and live in a conflict zone does not mean they are stupid.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Invisible Children's work, which is apparently a cardinal sin these days. (If Oprah likes them, clearly I'm in a first-class seat on the slow train to hell.) There are many reasons I think IC is not worth supporting, but among the most paramount is the fact that most of their advocacy isn't actually focused on Ugandan children, but rather on how their supporters feel about Ugandan children and the problem of the use of child soldiers. Hence a series of films that do more to tell us about the filmmakers than to explain the conflict, events that focus on protesters spending the night waiting to be "rescued" from their campouts, and a merchandise line that would appal any well-mannered Ugandan. As we've discussed before, for all their movies and talk show appearances, IC has done very little to actually help many Ugandan children, and they are very poorly regarded by Ugandans in the reason. Good advocacy isn't about the advocates; it's about the people who need others to stand up on their behalf.
insisting that WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR PEOPLE WILL KEEP DYING doesn't always mean that the "something" in question should be done. Too often, Westerners get involved in conflicts we don't really understand. And not surprisingly, bad things tend to ensue (cf Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.). That we don't know exactly what would solve the problem in a place like Somalia is not a good enough reason to take action for its own sake. The risk of doing more harm than good is too high.
CorruptUser wrote:This isn't to say that Kony shouldn't be killed; I prefer a US drone-strike with absolutely no legitimacy given to the bastards running Uganda.
PeterCai wrote:CorruptUser wrote:This isn't to say that Kony shouldn't be killed; I prefer a US drone-strike with absolutely no legitimacy given to the bastards running Uganda.
So that another mass-murdering warlord may take his place after a bloody power struggle that results in the death of even more Ugandans? Great idea! Obviously American interventionism is the answer to everything!
Jorpho wrote:I am reminded of this article on the 7 Worst International Aid Ideas.
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