reflections on kony 2012
UPDATE: I have decided to put this post up again since a number of people have asked for it. I have retained my last update, found at the bottom, where I explained my reasons for removing the initial post. A fair amount of time has now passed since #Kony2012 and I would probably nuance a few of the views expressed here. Nonetheless I will refrain from changing the original post.
Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.
In the past 24 hours thousands of Australians, particularly young Australians, have shown their support for Invisible Children’s newest campaign, Kony 2012.
I write this post with great trepidation for at least two reasons:
- Literally hundreds of people I know have shared videos on Facebook about Kony and have expressed a keen desire to support Invisible Children in this project.
- I work for another NGO, and any criticism I make could be seen as bitter in that light; I hope that people see this is not the case
When Invisible Children initially made its way to Australia I supported the organisation. At points I have even used The Rescue (film) in Scripture classes as a thinking point for justice issues. A number of years on, however, and I’ve learned a lot about about development and international issues. At this point I cannot support Invisible Children and Kony 2012.
I do not in any way intend this post to take away from young people speaking up for the oppressed. I hope and pray that this becomes more widespread. I know that everyone who has supported the Kony 2012 film has nothing but good intentions. But good intentions are not enough – we must also be educated on what it is that we are supporting.
Before any criticism, I would highlight some positives about IC. They have obviously used film and social media in a highly successful way, and this is admirable. Their ability to shoot high quality films and distribute them far and wide, getting their message out to the public, is amazing. Their success at highlighting issues in Uganda is worthy of praise.
Yet I have a number of serious concerns about IC.
These are complex, and writing them all down in detail would take a long time. Fortunately others have written on this topic and I will frequently link to them rather than explain every detail.
The organisation is far from accountable and transparent. The mission to “stop Kony” is not given much in the way of explanation. Moreover there are serious questions around IC’s financials. One writer has claimed:
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.
(This quote does not mention that the IC score at Charity Navigator overall is 4 stars, which is great. Still the accountability question is significant.)
IC reports 80.5% of their funding going to programming. However, as this writer correctly argues, according to the IC 2011 financials this includes filmmaking, and other NGOs do not consider this as counting to their programming expenses, but to their fundraising expenses. Ultimately the filmmakers are passionate young people who experienced the problems first hand, but do not have the expertise in aid, development or international affairs to judge the best way to solve the problems or spend the millions of dollars they are earning.
There are also concerns about the accuracy of IC films’ portrayal of the situation in Central Africa. Militias have attempted to stop Kony many times before, but have not been successful. In the end, however, he is not the only or even main problem in Central Africa. Disease, malaria, poverty, education – these are all bigger problems. In fact it is doubtful Kony would even be a problem is there was not such widespread poverty in the regions in which he operates.
But the solution of IC is not to deal with any of these complex factors. Rather, IC sets out a very simplistic solution to Uganda’s problems – Stop Kony!
This is a noble idea, and Kony is certainly an evil person who needs to be stopped. But how will this come about? The solution seems to be both to bolster the Ugandan military and encourage more American military intervention.
It should be said that the Ugandan military is in many ways as bad as Kony. One writer says:
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.
American military intervention is not much more desirable. Any attempt to kill Kony will result in the deaths of child soldiers who guard him. Moreover injecting more violence into the region will only perpetuate it in the long term. There is a logic that says some American-led violence now will stop Kony, put an end to the LRA and bring lasting peace. But this is far too simplistic – the problems are structural, though IC talks about them like they are superficial. Poverty is, as always, a huge factor. Killing Kony will not end the war; in fact it may cause more violence.
Despite the failure of other American military interventions this method is still trumpeted as the solution. This of course plays right into a narrative of White superiority – the Ugandans (and other Central Africans) cannot solve this problem themselves so we must intervene. The idea that the children are invisible is flawed – every Central African knows who Joseph Kony is. Indeed, he is an international war criminal. The truth is that most of us Westerners don’t know who he is. The narrative goes that if we get educated and make Kony famous then this will lead to a solution. But most of us know/knew other dictators or violent leaders; it has not necessarily led to a solution to the problems associated with them.
Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, has written:
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.
In truth there is already peace coming to the region in question. Sure, it’s a slow process, and it will take time. But it is African-led, and this is far more likely to be long-lasting. You cannot impose peace, nor can you bring it about with more violence. One writer says:
Incredibly, there is no mention in the film or the campaign that northern Ugandans are currently enjoying the longest period of peace since the conflict began in 1986. Virtually every single northern Ugandan I spoke to during my own field research believes that there is peace in the region. While sporadic violence continues, particularly as a result of bitter land disputes, there have been no LRA attacks in years.
‘Kony 2012′, quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves. Some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’. Many continue to support the Ugandan Amnesty law because of the reality that it is their own children who constitute the LRA.
The point here is that people here in Australia (and in other Western countries) need to know what they are supporting before they sign off. If you are willing to support dubious American military intervention, and other issues I and others have raised, then all power to you.
I suspect that most people who get involved, however, have not engaged with the cause beyond a desire to see Kony stopped. This is admirable, but ultimately insufficient. In Australia we need to do more than click our computer mouse – we need to really understand what is going on in our world and act on the basis of sound judgement. Good intentions are not enough.
I hope you read this understanding that I am by no means criticising the efforts of young people to advocate for the oppressed – I myself spend my life doing this! I simply want to see us think clearly about the issues and act in a way that will actually bring an end to these very, very complex problems. If you want to stop Kony, great, but what’s the plan? Do you even know?
In the end I support stopping Kony (and any other oppressive dictator or regime), but I cannot support Kony 2012. Something is not always better than nothing.
If you are interested in reading more about this there are some fantastic blogs, some that I have already linked to:
http://visiblechildren.tumblr.com/post/18890947431/we-got-trouble http://ericswanderings.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/invisible-children-and-joseph-kony/ http://ilto.wordpress.com/2006/11/02/the-visible-problem-with-invisible-children/ http://justiceinconflict.org/2012/03/07/taking-kony-2012-down-a-notch/ http://securingrights.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/lets-talk-about-kony/
[UPDATE: Perhaps the best article of the lot – http://davidsangokoya.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/selling-old-newspapers-shouldnt-be-profitable-invisible-children-and-kony-2012/]
[UPDATE 2: Some more articles:
From foreignpolicy.com (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things):
“It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”
From the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/get-kony-goes-viral-questions-raised-about-charitys-social-media-blitz-20120308-1ulnk.html)
From the King’s College Blog (http://kingsofwar.org.uk/2012/03/joseph-kony-and-crowdsourced-intervention/):
“Joseph Kony deserves to be put in cuffs and dragged before the ICC. Raising the profile of the heinous nature of the guy’s crimes is awesome. The idea that popular opinion can be leveraged with viral marketing to induce foreign military intervention is really, really dangerous. It is immoral to try and sell a sanitised vision of foreign intervention that neglects the fact that people will die as a result. That goes for politicians as much as for Jason Russell.”]
[UPDATE 3: The Invisible Children team have responded to criticisms, and it is only right and fair to include that here – http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html. Good on them for wanting to do good in the world and for being so passionate. The responses do in fact answer in a small way some of the critiques that have been expressed around the web today, though some of the views I have expressed here have not yet been addressed. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think.]
UPDATE: I have decided to remove this blog for the foreseeable future. I apologise for any inconvenience, and I wish to warmly thank those who respectfully engaged in discussion.
Up until two days ago this blog was read by people who, by my best estimate, were made up of 30-40% people I knew personally. Since posting my Kony reflections this dropped to about 3-4%.
I never really intended this blog to reach beyond people that I have met personally, and to be honest I am not particularly fond of the attention given to a blog post that does not really represent in any meaningful way what this blog is actually about. In fact I wish the things I normally write about were viewed with as much interest, because in reality they are far more dear to me.
Moreover the personal attacks I have received, along with the implicit emotional pressure, is sufficient for me to retire on this issue. I appreciate more than ever the pressure that comes on people much, much more well-known than myself. I wish that everyone would play the issue and not the person, and for most people this isn’t a problem; unfortunately for others it is not the case.
I recognise that Invisible Children has responded to a number of the critiques that have been put forth in recent days (and years). These responses are a step in the right direction, particularly in regards to questions around financial accountability – IC is not yet in an ideal position, but they are working to get there, and I welcome this effort.
My point was always to encourage people to think about what organisations/movements they support, and not to be uncritical in issues as complex and important as those related to social justice and international development. I never once set out to condemn any particular organisation, but to raise critical concerns around how we can achieve lasting justice. My concerns are ultimately around methods and outcomes. It seems that many people who have had no experience in international development assume to know what is best in regard to these complex issues – I urge people to consider listening to those who have a background in such areas.
Though I have expressed serious concerns about IC that have not yet been fully addressed, I nonetheless pray for good outcomes for their organisation. I do ask, however, that IC supporters do not show others the same amount of condemnation that some have shown me when they decide to support one of the thousands of other organisations around the world. As a wise person said to me last night – we are all necessarily selective in who we support, why must a small but vocal minority of IC supporters condemn those who do not share their choice?
I will leave the comments section open, though I may reconsider this if things become unsavoury. Thank you to those who have supported me, and to those who have disagreed but done so in a respectful manner.
My greatest hope is that we can work together toward sustainable global justice, which is hard, long-term work. Nonetheless it is the most worthwhile cause I know of.