Kony 2012: A Critical Perspective

By now, you’ve likely seen the video for the KONY 2012 campaign, a viral video aimed at making Joseph Kony, a Ugandan militant terrorist, ‘famous’ in order to raise awareness of his crimes and ensure his capture.

If you haven’t, here it is in its full 27 minute glory.

The video is inspiring, and pulls at the right moral centres in everyone- if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be making the rounds on social media.

However, many viewers who have been touched by the video may have missed a fundamental step in the process before sharing the video around.  This is not a new video.  It documents a political situation in Uganda nearly a decade ago.  A situation that has changed dramatically in the past 9 years.

Invisible Children was founded as a charity in 2004, after the filming of Invisible Children: Rough Cut in 2003. In the film, a group of three Americans travel to Africa in order to document the happenings in Darfur, but instead stumble upon the northern Uganda war, in which rebel leader, Joseph Kony, would abduct children and effectively militarise them, adding them as soldiers to his Lord’s Resistance Army (or the LRA). If you’ve seen Hotel Rwanda or even Blood Diamond, you may be familiar with the concept of militarising children.

Kony has been adding children as soldiers to his army for decades now, with estimates placing the beginnings somewhere between 1986-88, when the LRA was instead named the United Holy Salvation Army. This was all done in the name of ‘defending the ten commandments’.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Kony and four other senior members of the LRA. Kony’s charges in particular included enslavement, rape, murder, sexual enslavement, and an additional twenty-one charges of crimes against humanity. Further to that, in 2008 the US placed Kony on a list of global terrorist leaders, passing the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010.

In October of last year, the US government deployed troops to Uganda to ‘aid partner nations’ in efforts to disarm the LRA and Kony, although not to engage with him directly.

It’s not made too obvious in the documentary that these developments have since seen Kony forced out of Uganda and he is now thought to be located somewhere in the Central African Republic.  The hunt for the LRA currently takes place over approximately 240,000 square miles of Congo forest, spread across three African countries.

Although his LRA is still technically operational, Kony himself has been in hiding deep in the Congo jungle- outside of Uganda- since the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest, and Uganda has, for the past six years, been in a state of rebuilding.

It also appears that the motives of Invisible Children may no longer be entirely altruistic.  Three founders collectively received over 1/4 million dollars in payment… wages?… in 2011 alone. On top of that, the charity holds significant assets, including: $750,000 in computer equipment, nearly $290,000 in transportation equipment, and over $175,000 in video camera and recording equipment.  One estimate puts the percentage of donations to Invisible Children that actually goes to Ugandan efforts at around 32%.

A request from the Better Business Bureau, a voluntary accreditation for charities, has been met with passive resistance from Invisible Children, who have so far declined an evaluation, which the BBB says demonstrates “a lack of commitment to transparency”.

But it is not just financial discrepancies that bring the intentions of Invisible Children into question.  Chris Blattman, an Assistant Professor of Political Science & Economics at Yale argues that the methods in which the video depicts the conflict, foster a negative reaction to the situation.

Blattman feels that there’s something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or the saving of Africa and that the saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions.

“One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur” he says, “is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.”

Invisible Children supports the capture and elimination of Kony by force, which they have demonstrated through their willingness to contribute aid to the Ugandan military and through their lobbying of the US government to provide military support to the Ugandan military.  This too, according to Blattman, is a dangerous platform, one that has ramifications not considered by social media users, who are not given all the facts.

In Blattman’s analysis of the situation, there will be an inevitable slaughter of children in any offensive action against the LRA.  Resulting in the process that Invisible Children are advocating, doing nothing but harm to the children they’re trying to protect.

“Another well-concealed fact: capturing Kony will probably mean going through a wall of formerly abducted children.” Says Blattman, “Kony usually prefers a bodyguard of 13-year olds, since he doesn’t trust anyone older. I’m not sure if there are many children with him now (most, I suspect, have now grown up) but either way it will be messy. Don’t expect to see that in a press release soon.”

Blattman even goes further in questioning where the offensive intel is coming from, asserting that, “As far as I can tell, none of the longstanding LRA experts are being consulted the US or Ugandans. So exactly where is the offensive getting their information and ideas? The answer… is despairing: the Enough Project, Invisible Children, and the Machine Gun Preacher folks. Talented advocates, but not necessarily the most talented LRA or counter-insurgency experts.”

Invisible Children raising awareness of an insane tyrant who obviously needs to be put down can’t be a bad thing, but there’s also argument that raising money to aid the rebuilding of Uganda might be.

History has shown us that countries, like Sudan, that are reliant on foreign aid will struggle if the aid is ever pulled. The solution isn’t foreign aid alone – the solution is facilitating a program in which developing countries are given guided assistance, so they are gifted the tools to aid themselves.  Perhaps instead of throwing our naive, rich and wholly underprepared tertiary students at a third world issue that is out of their depth, we should put them to studying more effective ways to offer assistance.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Invisible Children are deliberately misleading the Internet community to further their charity, but it wouldn’t be fair to say that they’re not either.  The film is undoubtedly carefully crafted to deliver a certain message – all films are – but is it irresponsible of them to only partially inform their viewers when the fate of an entire country may rest on their actions?

There can be no doubt that Joseph Kony should indeed be infamous the world over; the atrocities which he has committed can barely be imagined by the tertiary-educated first-world sharing the Kony 2012 video. But before you rush in and offer your support, make sure you understand where your money is going and that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Support the cause, not the charity.

And stay informed so that half-decade old news doesn’t catch you off-guard. Don’t let it take a viral event such as this to make you stand up and take notice of world events. Kony isn’t the first man to commit atrocities of this calibre, and he won’t be the last.

Let us know your thoughts on the KONY 2012 campaign in the comment section below. Further information regarding the LRA can be found at the Council of Foreign Relations and the International Crisis group.

Written in conjunction with Sean David & Karin Pearson

** UPDATE- March 8th 2012 **
Invisible Children have responded to some of the criticisms above via their blog.

**UPDATE- March 9th 2012**
I encourage you to read a clarification of our position here before reaching any conclusions on unwholesome intentions on our part.
Furthermore, I implore everyone to read Invisible Children’s response on their blog (see link above) as it clears up a number of allegations and provides further information on the organisation, which is vital to anyone who wishes to support the cause.
– Nic Maher, LUNA Editor-in-Chief


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