human rights, ICC, international justice

Why I Don’t Support #Kony2012

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you have seen your Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds blow up with reposts of Invisible Children’s (IC) new viral social media campaign, “Kony 2012,” intended to make Joseph Kony, the rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, infamous worldwide — so that the international community can bring pressure to arrest him in order to bring an end to his abductions of child soldiers. After watching the video, I realized how so many young Americans could be moved by Invisible Children’s message again and again, and be truly compelled to take action. IC is the prime example of how effective non-profit marketing can be, and how viral campaigns can reach middle- and upper-class people in the Western world, shake them out of their comfort zone, and join a cause. IC is an expert in movement building, so I want to say that I understand why so many of my friends have been drawn to this cause. Unfortunately, having studied the situation in Uganda (though I have not visited) I have to say that I must join many other bloggers in saying that I cannot support the #Kony2012 campaign. Here’s why:

The facts can be misleading:

Why should we trust a campaign when many of the facts underlying the campaign are actually problematic?

  • First of all, Uganda is not in Central Africa, but in Eastern Africa. The fact that the video has not been…well…rigorously fact checked at the more basic level is certainly disappointing to me.
  • The filmmakers do briefly acknowledge that the war started by Kony has spread out from Uganda and into neighboring countries, but this is too short a discussion of a truly important point.  Kony has largely moved from Uganda to nearby countries such as the DRC, Sudan and the CAR. In fact, Kony has not been in Uganda for the last 6 years. Northern Uganda is now in a very different place, politically and economically, since IC created its first film; while it is more peaceful, the larger problems in northern Uganda remain issues like lack of healthcare and unemployment. Thus, the focus of the video should not have been Uganda at this point but should also have discussed the issues in the DRC, Sudan, and the CAR. This very important fact should have been addressed in much more depth in the video. As it is now, it creates a false impression for viewers of what’s actually going on in the region.

The solution is unclear – and will it work?

  • Obama has already deployed 100 troops/’advisors” to help the Ugandan army in bringing Kony to justice. So what exactly is the goal of this campaign? Steps are already being taken by the U.S. government, and I suppose we could have other countries also deploy further troops/advisors to help in tracking down Kony. This does seem to be an area where perhaps more can be done.
  • However… the solution of bringing one individual – Kony – to justice is not the only thing that needs to happen. Many other issues in the region must be dealt with, and as Ugandans will point out there are larger issues of unemployment/lack of health care/reintegration of child soldiers, etc that must be addressed. Yes, I do believe that it is important to bring Kony to justice, but there is already a campaign for this underway as he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. By no means is he “unknown” as many, many people throughout Central and East Africa are indeed aware of him. Ultimately, I am not sure whether simply raising tons and tons of awareness will solve the problem, as there are many deeper rooted issues of poverty and justice in the region that must be addressed for the long-term.

The video reeks of the “white savior complex” and little agency/voice is given to citizens of Uganda, Sudan & the CAR and their solutions to the conflict.

By the end of the video, I realized why I was feeling so uncomfortable: the rhetoric was all about empowering US – young and privileged Americans – to take action! A lot of young people were interviewed to talk about how they felt empowered by this cause to finally take action and make a difference. However, who should we really be trying to empower here? The video was all about empowering Western activists to become do-gooders, but I believe Americans should not be the primary actors in this story about Uganda. Ugandans should be! The solution should lie in listening to Ugandan voices and empowering Ugandan people (or those affected by the conflict in the DRC, CAR, and Sudan) to take action and begin solving the problems they see in their communities. And the truth is, people are already organizing – but local leaders and activists are not recognized or honored by Invisible Children. Instead, privileged Western activists are primarily those who are praised, put on the pedestal, and in the spotlight in this movement. That, to me, is an incredible flaw in this movement. #Kony2012 is more about US – how western activists can feel warm and fuzzy about doing something good & how privileged Americans  can feel empowered – not really about the people we’re trying to help here.

I do acknowledge that a few Ugandans are interviewed, but this is simply not enough, compared to the number of Western activists who are portrayed and extensively profiled. The main Ugandan voice we hear is Jacob, but the majority of the time he is portrayed as sad, depressed, helpless– even to the point of seeming suicidal. We do not hear the voices of many empowered Ugandans talking about this issue or potential solutions. We do not hear any debate, actually, about what the solution might be (and believe me, there has been a ton of debate about peace v. justice in this region). We do not talk about many other victims of Kony’s war or their families, and we do not hear their opinions. In my view, at least 15 minutes of this video should have been dedicated to talking to victims of Kony’s war and their beliefs as to what should be happening next.

To sum up this critique, here’s a quote from an excellent article “Taking Kony 2012 Down a Notch“:

It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.

It isn’t hard to imagine why the views of northern Ugandans wouldn’t be considered: they don’t fit with the narrative produced and reproduced in the insulated echo chamber that produced the ‘Kony 2012? film.

‘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. Once again, this issue is barely touched upon in the film. Yet the LRA poses a stark dilemma to the people of northern Uganda: it is now composed primarily of child soldiers, most of whom were abducted and forced to join the rebel ranks and commit atrocities. Labeling them “victims” or “perpetrators” becomes particularly problematic as they are often both.

Indeed, if you ask Ugandans what their priorities are, here’s what they responded according to the ICTJ’s research note on attitudes about peace & justice in northern Uganda (2008 – so be aware this is outdated):

The main priorities for respondents at the time of the  survey were health (45.2%), peace (44.1%), livelihood concerns (including food, 43.2%; agricultural land, 37.2%; money and finances, 34.8%), and education for the children  (30.5%). Only 3 percent of respondents mentioned justice as a top priority. However, more than two-thirds of respondents (70%) said it was important to hold accountable those responsible for committing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in northern Uganda. Half the respondents said the LRA leaders should  be held accountable, and 48 percent said all of the LRA. Forty percent said the government should be held accountable.

When asked if they favored peace with amnesty or peace with trials, 80 percent of the respondents chose peace with amnesty. The figure may reflect the fear respondents have that trials would spoil the peace process. […] The vast majority (95%) said a written historical record of what had happened during the war in northern Uganda should be prepared, and 89 percent were willing to talk openly about their experiences in a court or public hearing. Over 90 percent supported the establishment of a truth commission. Coupled with figures on  priorities and accountability, the data suggests that the vast majority of respondents do not want the ICC to jeopardize the peace process. But, given the chance, they would like to have some form of accountability for past crimes.

Certainly, this illustrates there is clear support for accountability, but we also need to pay attention to issues such as health, livelihood and education.

Invisible Children’s finances are worrisome:

You can check out the organization’s finances here for yourself. As quoted from this blog post (an excellent Tumblr called Visible Children):

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.

 Ultimately, there are many more blog posts about this topic, so I’m not sure I’ve shed light on anything new at this point. However, I hope that some of my readers – perhaps family and friends who have not read any critiques of this campaign up until this point – may take away something valuable from this post. I don’t believe we should sit aside and do nothing while children are being abducted cruelly into a war. I do believe that action is necessary; that’s why I work so hard on raising funds for non-profits I believe in particularly with the goal of empowering local leaders to change their communities. I do, however, advocate looking at a potential advocacy campaign such as this from all sides to gain a deeper understanding of the actual situation at hand, and how we can best work together with local leaders in partnership to come to a solution. I simply don’t think that we, Americans, can singlehandedly solve an intractable problem like this, and I believe in partnership as the best way to arrive at solutions that will truly satisfy the victims of this conflict. Thanks for reading!


12 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Support #Kony2012”

  1. forrest says:

    Fueling controversy while missing the bigger picture. 

    1. Akhila says:

      My intent was not to fuel controversy but to simply weigh in on this debate. I do see a lot of value in what IC is trying to do but unfortunately, I wish their marketing efforts could be done in conjunction with Ugandans. Right now, this campaign is all about making US feel warm & fuzzy inside and that is the main problem I have with it.

    2. eld0 says:

      Not controversy, discussion. Your constructive input is welcome.

  2. eld0 says:

    I agree with many of the critiques you listed above, but just wanted to point out one or two things:

    – While their finances reflect a small percentage going to direct support, I think that their mission is about raising awareness, rather than directing money specifically to Uganda. Their movies have been their primary awareness tool, therefore, that is going to make up a huge chunk of their expenses.
    – Their Guidestar rating reflects the following (taken directly from their website): “Our Accountability and Transparency score is currently at 2 stars due to the fact that Invisible Children does not have 5 independent voting members on our board of directors–we currently have 4. We are in the process of interviewing potential board members, and we will add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013.”

    Given the above, if those factors bother people, then simply don’t donate to them. HuffPost Impact ran an article with 7 other organizations doing related work in Africa with child soldiers:

    In the end, despite its shortcomings (and I acknowledge that there are many, especially those you explained very eloquently), we have to ask if being cynical about a viral awareness campaign is doing any good for the children in Uganda, or if the fact that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people, especially young people, now knowing that these atrocities are happening are doing more harm than good? We shall see.

    1. Akhila says:

       Great points, thank you so much for illuminating the issue re: finances for me. I agree that they portray themselves as primarily an advocacy/awareness organization so I suppose it makes sense that most of their funds go towards film production. I do think that people who want to donate should be aware that they are primarily donating to more film production/printing of posters, etc, and not really to education/health/finance programs on the ground in Uganda.

      I don’t know if it does more harm than good, but I think to truly be effective we should be working to amplify Ugandan voices, or the voices of actual victims of the LRA. What rubbed me the wrong way was not really the focus on Kony (I do think it’s good as he needs to be apprehended somehow – maybe this will push the UN/US government to ramp up their efforts to locate him… I don’t know.) but I think it was the focus on white/Western activists and empowering them. I mean, the people who need to be empowered are those who have been victimized by Kony, not us western advocates. I guess this tone is really my main problem with this whole thing.

      1. eld0 says:

        You make a great point about capacity building. Kind of like the “teach a man to fish” quote, if we don’t empower Ugandans to fight to bring this man to justice, is it really okay for Westerners to do it instead? I will admit, I don’t know enough about the history of the situation or of Uganda to know for sure if the Ugandan people have organized to fight for justice for the child soldiers, nor have I ever worked/volunteered in Africa so I wouldn’t know how to facilitate capacity building or organizing. I think people like us, readers of this blog, writers, and millenials working or volunteering in the nonprofit sector are hypersensitive to paternalistic tendencies of people trying to do good and help others, not that we haven’t been guilty of it ourselves at some point in our lives. I think I wouldn’t be so quick to criticize something like this if I wasn’t a little cynical or jaded in the first place.

        1. Akhila says:

          I agree, I guess I am slightly cynical about the impact this campaign can legitimately have. But I am hopeful that ultimately this awareness of Kony and the issues in central/eastern africa can lead to some sort of positive change, particularly a greater effort to apprehend him. but i worry about movement building too- as we see from the darfur movement, what was the result? not much on the ground, unfortunately. but still i am glad more people are thinking about this, i just wish there was more accurate reporting on the situation on the ground and better highlighting of local leaders. you or i may not know the local activists in uganda or central africa but if IC has worked there for 9 years, they should know a lot and should highlight their voices!

  3. Sam Davidson says:

    As usual, you’ve written a smart, well thought out post. I appreciate it. I’m working on a post to go on next week.

    I agree with you that missing a real, practical solution (working with Ugandans) is worrisome. I applaud the overall marketing juggernaut that IC has become. They certainly have gotten a lot of people to care. But, they may have misled their audience into thinking there’s a quick and simple solution.

    I don’t have as large a concern about their finances as others do. They need to have an external audit done, but many people not from the nonprofit world who have seen their agencies grow quickly often overlook this. Hopefully they’ll correct it, add a board member, and get an audit done.

    Thanks for writing this, Akhila.

    1. Akhila says:

       Looking forward to seeing your post on this topic, Sam! I agree that IC has become excellent at marketing, but they may be misleading about the solution. I think my main beef is that they don’t really seem to portray as many Ugandan voices about the conflict. And a lot of this information is outdated- there has not been war in Uganda for 6 years. It’s kind of strange that they focus on Uganda when the conflict is in neighboring countries instead.

      About their finances, now that I think about I tend to agree. They clearly say they are an awareness organization, so I suppose their finances concentrate in that area. However, I do feel that supporting actual programs could be extremely beneficial in the region as it’s the main problem in Uganda (education, healthcare, etc other programs).

      1. Sam Davidson says:

        Good points. I also think the info needs to be up to date, especially if you’re trying to keep people in the know.

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