By now, most people that will read this have already heard about Invisible Children’s new campaign, ‘Kony 2012’ (If you haven’t, go watch the video here, and then come back to read this). Many of you may also have noticed that the video and campaign have generated a great deal of controversy surrounding their plan, motives, model, finances, etc. As with any popular organization or movement, their massive popularity has resulted in the inevitable rise of critics analyzing IC with a fine-tooth comb. Beginning with my own IC experiences, I will attempt to give a balanced assessment of IC and the work that they are doing, and respond to some of the criticisms I have read.
I’m feeling quite vulnerable putting all this out to the web, especially because most of my ideas are not fully fleshed out. I don’t doubt that I’ll receive criticism for some the arguments I make, but I think it is worth it for the sake of continued dialog so that we can all learn from each other.
For IC’s official response to the criticisms it has received click here.
Also, you can read their open letter to Obama here.
I believe that IC has inspired and empowered a generation, including myself.
I grew up in an athletic family. Throughout high school, baseball was my main focus as it was all I really knew. Being the naive high schooler that I was, the thought of such atrocities taking place across the globe by Joseph Kony with the LRA never even occurred to me. I was content to play baseball, unaware of the devastation that was a reality for kids like me in Uganda. In 2006, as a recent high school graduate, some friends showed me this documentary film called “Invisible Children.” This film rocked my world, and I wanted to find a way to do something. Not long after, I found out that IC was planning a protest event in April 2006 that they titled the “Global Night Commute.” I took part in this event, and little did I know that this film and event planted the seed in me that would eventually change my entire life trajectory to working in international development. I’m currently completing my B.A. in Development Studies at UC Berkeley and plan to enroll in graduate school this fall for a Master’s in Public Administration. I plan to dedicate my life and career to creating positive social change, and I know I would not be where I am today without the initial knowledge and inspiration I gained from Invisible Children.
I am telling my story in order to express that IC’s work is making a difference. I do believe they are making an impact in Uganda through their programs, but I also believe they are changing the trajectories of young people’s lives, just as they did mine. Sure, these connections may start on a superficial level, but that does not mean their newfound excitement will not grow into something more.
The Plan to ‘Stop Kony’
Now, I’ll get into IC’s actual plan to ‘stop Kony.’ The biggest concerns I have read surround, killing or arresting Kony, arming the Ugandan military and supporting the Museveni regime.
Killing vs arresting Kony:
Some blogs such as Justice in Conflict have claimed that IC supports the potential killing of Kony rather than arresting him. This argument is simply, untrue. In a recent interview with AllAfrica.com, Jason Russell said, “The dream would be for Kony to be captured, not killed, and brought to the International Criminal Court.” This is further cemented in IC’s official critiques response where they say, “We are advocating for the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals.”
Arming the Ugandan military (UPFD):
Blogs such as Visible Children have argued that arming and training the UPFD is dangerous because it could later use those weapons and training against the people of Uganda. In IC’s official critiques response, they say, “The Ugandan government’s army, the UPDF, is more organized and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries (DRC, South Sudan, CAR) to track down Joseph Kony.” In addition, being aware of the UPFD drawbacks, IC writes to Obama in their open letter, “It is crucial that any beneficiaries be monitored closely and held accountable for abuses committed against the civilian population or any other illicit activities.” My opinion is that it becomes necessary to work within imperfect circumstances for the greater good of capturing Kony. I am open to further discussion on this issue though.
Some have similarly argued that IC is inadvertently supporting Yoweri Museveni, the long-standing president of Uganda (since 1986). But, by pitting themselves against Kony, are they automatically joining the side of Museveni? I don’t think so. The admission that one person is evil does not mean they accept someone else as good. As with the UPFD, if it is necessary to partner with another party in order to end Kony’s reign of terror, then it must be done. For me, it’s about the greater good, and I believe that greater good to be bringing Kony to justice.
Many have argued that more should be done besides just bringing Kony to justice. In their open letter to Obama, IC explicitly ask the president to support “programs that provide early warning to communities vulnerable to LRA attacks, help LRA abductees escape peacefully, and enhance telecommunications and road infrastructure in affected areas.” This addresses the concern of the LRA still committing attacks even when Kony has been captured. In addition, it encourages the escaping and forgiveness of LRA abductees. Moreover, IC has many programs that already address these issues at some level (you can view all their programs in their Critiques response page, linked at the top of this post).
The Video & Movement
This section I am dedicating to discussing the video and movement, which have brought up a variety of discussions including the ‘white man’s burden,’ sitting in difficult situations, and IC’s responsibility for those who join the movement. I don’t intend to fully flesh out these topics (there are entire books on these topics), but to merely give some perspective to generate more discussion.
White man’s burden:
First, I’ll address the argument that IC represents the typical white saviors, which is reminiscent of the ‘white man’s burden’ argument. Chris Blattman said,
“There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint…”
To frame Invisible Children’s work as a white man’s burden or white people feeling guilty about the history of colonization is utterly missing the point of their work. Invisible Children stands by the idea that we are all part of a human race, whatever race, nationality, gender, etc. Our friends burden is our burden. Our friends excitement is our excitement. In the beginning of the film, director Jason Russell makes this point saying, “Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect.” He further drives home this point a few minutes later when he says, “Every single person in the world started this way [showing footage of his son being born]. He didn’t choose where or when he was born, but because he’s here, he matters.”
The point is, no matter where injustice is taking place, we must have a role in standing up for justice. This goes for women’s rights, racial discrimination, child soldiers, income inequality, and the list goes on. We cannot simply accept that these are the realities of our world where we remain helpless. As Cornell West said, “Young people are taught to be well adjusted to injustice… but we must refuse to accept that there are no alternatives to our current reality.” Invisible Children is doing just that, and they are inspiring the rest of us to do the same.
Sitting in the pain:
The most powerful part of the film is when Jacob told Jason about the loss of his brother and his lack of desire to live any longer. As pointed out by how-matters.org, Jason chose to not dwell in the pain and suffering of the boy, and instead, told him it was ‘okay’ and that he would ‘find a solution’ to solve the problem. No doubt, Jason could have handled the situation better, but consider who he was and where it was at in his life and knowledge during that time.
When IC started they had practically no idea what they were doing. They were filmmakers in search of a good documentary. Instead, they were propelled on a new life trajectory because of the atrocities they witnessed and were told about in Uganda. In that moment Jason did what all of us want to do, so badly, in difficult situations, which is say ‘it will be okay’ and ‘we will find a solution.’ It would take incredible forethought and knowledge in dealing with difficult situations to be able to sit in the pain and not offer a solution. They were ill-prepared for that situation.
Since then, Jason and IC have walked alongside children like Jacob, hoping for a better future with them.
Responsibility for those who join the movement:
As with any mass movement, you cannot control the members of the group. For any movement that wants to achieve scale, the demographic of their followers broadens. People that choose to support the IC have their own motives, understandings, and experiences with the topic. And thus respond to this video and other things like it in their own way, which may or may not represent IC in the way they would like to be represented. That is a risk IC has taken by attempting to scale their movement. However, as I said in the first section, individual’s involvement may start on a superficial level, but it can open up the opportunity for them to take further steps in engaging with positive social change.
Room for Growth
While I full heartedly stand with Invisible Children, I believe there is always room for growth as there is with any movement, organization, or individual. In this section I’ll address spaces for dialog, Africa as a ‘country,’ and Ugandan empowerment.
Space for dialog:
One way I think IC could improve it to promote and offer more spaces for dialog around the issues they’re talking about. While I understand the necessity for simplicity and a clear message in the context of the video and campaign, I think fostering dialog on the issues would create more well-rounded supporters. Undoubtedly, some of these discussions come up at screenings and such, but intentional settings for diving deeper would be great.
Africa is not a country:
Africa is not a country. The video refers time and time again to ‘Africa’ rather than specifically Uganda, DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. I think dumbing down Africa as a homogeneous place is somewhat destructive as each ethnicity, country and region have unique attributes to them. Uganda is different from Tunisia, which is different from Somalia, which is different from South Africa. Obviously, IC know there are differences between these countries, but have chosen to speak in this manner for whatever reason.This reference to Africa as a whole is not uncommon, but changing this is a way in which IC could elevate their rhetoric.
While IC has empowered Ugandans in many ways, I think that more could be done to include Ugandans in IC’s process and development, such as adding Ugandan board members. This hints at the notion of doing things with others rather than doing thing for others. That said, IC employs mostly Ugandans for their in-country programs.
I will conclude by addressing the debate around it being better to do nothing rather than something in some cases.
I absolutely agree that blind good intentions are not enough. The reasoning goes that if someone does not fully understand a situation and how to properly address it, then the unintended consequences of their actions could be worse than if they did nothing at all. I have read some blogs that make this case against IC. The problem is that the desire for endless knowledge in fully understanding a topic can forever debilitate someone to inaction. No matter how much knowledge someone has on a topic there will always be some form of unintended consequences, both positive and negative, as a result of their actions.
Since those unintended consequences are inevitable to some degree, I’d prefer that we err on the side of pursuing justice in all realms of life. Yes, we must educate ourselves. We must equip ourselves to make the utmost positive social impact, but we cannot stay there. We must be willing to step out and risk for the sake of humanity. Because, if we don’t, someone else will, and they might not be risking for justice. We must take action, but always be willing to learn from our inevitable mistakes, and grow. I believe that IC is doing just that.
That’s why I stand with Invisible Children.