Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why I don't support Invisible Children or Kony 2012

You know that scene in a movie when someone is about do release the tiger (for example) and another character is shown in slo-mo saying "Noooooooo!" but can't get there in time? That's kind of how I feel watching the video for Kony 2012 go viral.

Invisible Children, a San Diego-based organization, has launched a huge campaign to support the arrest of Joseph Kony, the head of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda.  They have a video called Kony 2012 that they posted 2 days ago that now has almost 37 million views.  I watched it and was appalled. Just appalled.

I posted something yesterday on my Facebook page in hopes of slowing down the virus, but by the afternoon at least three of my friends had rapturously shared the video and I'd gotten an excited text from someone saying, "Wouldn't this be great for youth group?" Nooooooo!

And I'll tell you why, in four parts: my personal experience, what others are saying, my observations, and some questions to ask yourself.

My personal experience
In 2008, I went to Uganda as a Kiva Fellow.  The first organization I worked with had offices in Kampala (where I was) and Gulu, in Northern Uganda, the main city near where the LRA was operating.  One day, I went with one of the loan officers to the Kampala offices of Invisible Children to talk to someone there who had received a loan.

I found out from the loan officer that when the head of Invisible Children first arrived in Gulu, they had begun a partnership with the loan officer's organization.  But as time went on, IC (according to him) reneged on their original agreements and partnership, poached workers and donors and allies, and generally made it harder for this organization to do its work in Gulu, which it had been doing for years.

Now, I have to say, this organization also had its problems.  However, it also sounded like Invisible Children took help when they needed it and then discarded locals when they had the resources to carry on on their own.  *Please note this lack of respect for local organizations and abilities! This theme will return.*

The Invisible Children compound was in the most beautiful and wealthiest suburb of Kampala.  That still doesn't mean what it means in the US, but it was strikingly different from any other NGO (Non-governmental Organization) office I saw.

There, about a half a dozen people were being paid to create bracelets to send to donors.  These bracelets were not like anything I saw anyone in Uganda wear.  They were a kind of hip accessory to go with an urban American outfit.  It seemed to be a gimmick, at best, to get my money and make me feel I had done something.  It's hard to convey exactly what it was like, but I was overwhelmed with the sense that this was a cash cow for the founders with a dollop of Good Deeds on top.

I left there feeling jaded, used, and angry.  Although I hope they were doing good things on the ground, what I saw made me feel that they were at least as interested in perpetuating their organization through continually whipping up donors than in solving the problems that needed solving.

I am very grateful to Invisible Children, actually.  It was seeing their organization in Kampala that opened my eyes to the fact that not all aid organizations are the same.  At first, I was so disgusted by the disjunction between the messages of aid organizations and how they operate that I stayed away for a while.  But I also began to learn more and (I hope) become more savvy, with the help of a lot of other people, to whom I'd like to introduce you.

What others are saying
First off, this article gives some more information on what is actually going on in Uganda today--much of which recasts (to put it kindly) the information in the Kony 2012 video including the fact that (as the headline says) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda.

The posts I think are most important for us to listen to are the ones by Ugandans themselves.  Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, posted her own video response to Kony 2012, outlining how the video simplifies the situation and denies Ugandans their own voice about their own circumstances. In comparison to IC's 36 million views, Kagumire has 301.  If life were fair, at least as many people would listen to the local perspective as that of someone recent to the situation.

TMS Ruge, also a Ugandan who works with those directly affected by the conflict in Northern Uganda, wrote a powerful post at Project Diaspora called Respect My Agency that deserves to be read in full.  But here is one thing he says about IC and similar projects:
They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem. 

Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
Yeah, he's ticked. Please read the whole thing.

I won't go into detail about others, but on Twitter you can check out the hashtag #stopIC.  Other articles of note:

How matters
Invisible Children and Joseph Kony
On Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign (particularly even-handed and good, I think)
Why You Should Not Donate to Invisible Children/Kony 2012
Visible Children tumblr

My Observations
I watched the Kony 2012 video.  Here are my problems with it:

1. It's all about what we can do, not how we can support those already doing the work
Early on, the filmmaker says to a boy whose brother had been killed by the LRA,"We’re going to stop them."   But "we" never seems to include Ugandans themselves. Throughout this video, I never hear him asking Ugandans, "What is being done about this? What would you like us to do to help?"  Instead, Invisible Children is going to come in and fix this. The West comes to the rescue of the poor benighted Africans. I'm sure they appreciate that.

2. It oversimplifies and distorts the situation
"Who is the bad guy?" the filmmaker asks his young son.  Really? That's the information we as viewers need to respond to a situation that's been going on in Uganda for 20+ years? Who is the bad guy?  It skips over any changes in the situation over the past 10 years, including how things have improved in Northern Uganda, how much less influence Joseph Kony now has, and what is currently being done.  And it makes it seem as if it would all be better if only Kony were brought before the ICC.

3. It removes the Ugandan leaders from the equation
Invisible Children petitions the government...but just the U.S. government.  Why did they not interview the Ugandan president or members of Parliament?  Why not the African Union or United Nations? Invisible Children wants to involve culture and policy leaders...but not African culture and policy leaders.  There are no Africans on their list of influencers.  Justin Bieber? Really?  Rather than have young Justin, there, tell the world that Joseph Kony is the bad guy, why not have Americans hear about that from Ugandan artists?

4. It is promoting ad hoc, a la carte military actions as justice activism!
Really? This is what we want to be promoting in our churches and youth groups?  Really?  We want to support putting pressure on the U.S. government to keep sending military advisors to Northern Uganda?  That's what we think will help?  That's what will solve the problem?

I could go on.  I will just leave you with

Some questions to ask
If you watch the Kony 2012 video, ask yourself:

1. How are Africans portrayed?
Are they victims, villains, or heroes?  Do they have power or are they powerless?  What do they get to say for themselves?  What actions do they ask others to take?

2. How is the West portrayed?
Again, victims, villains, or heroes?  Do Westerners have power or are they powerless?  What do they get to say about Africa?

3. Who gets to speak?
Pretty self-explanatory. But also note in what role people are cast when they speak and who gets to interrupt whom.

4. How does this video appeal to your emotions?
What techniques does it use to heighten emotions? When does it speak to you directly? What does this video tell you about you?

5. What does Invisible Children get out of this?
Not assigning any motives here, but what does this organization get if people participate?   How does this campaign benefit them?

OK, I'm done now.  Here's the video if you want to see it.  If you do, please watch the video by Ms. Kagumire, which is immediately below.


Anonymous said...

Wow -- informed and informative. Powerful witness

Chris said...

True, ive checkd on the background info of the group and turns out they've been gettyn alot of criticism regarding their aim and their funds.
And Joeph Kony has infact been missing, as its claimed by the U.S General of the African Command.

JR said...

I'm glad to see someone saying what I always say - "Ask questions, don't just take anything at face value". Just because Lord Bieber and Queen Oprah tell you it's a good thing; you don't know what research THEY'VE done. It's not terribly different from the (red) movement. "Oh, Bono said I have to do this" said the slackivist hipster...

I'm going to share your post. If you get a chance, take a look at Snarky, but I also like to poke holes in things.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for linking to Here's my follow-up post today:

LKT said...

Jennifer: thanks for the follow-up.