Visible Children – KONY 2012 Criticism

We got trouble.

Please note that posting date has been edited to keep this at the top of the page. Post written March 7, 2012. Updates follow below, more reading here.

I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.

KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m not alone.

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. But it goes way deeper than that.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. 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arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission.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.

Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “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.”

Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.

Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.

~ Grant Oyston

Grant Oyston is a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Please do not email me except to provide alternative causes, or with media requests, as I am no longer able to read emails (which I’m receiving at a pace too rapid to keep up with).

EDIT: Please read Invisible Children’s response here.

08 3 / 2012

Not alone.

I’m not alone in my criticism. Many others have shared their concerns, and I am pleased to see an explosion in the amount of ongoing discussion. A brief reading list for anyone who wants to understand what’s going on:

Joseph Kony and Crowdsourced Intervention – Jack McDonald, Kings of War – McDonald, of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, writes about the challenges of cooperation between states in Central Africa, and about what role public opinion should have in conflict management and military affairs.

Invisible Children founders posing with guns: an interview with the photographer – Elizabeth Flock, Washington Post – An interview with the woman who took the controversial photo of the founders of IC holding guns with the SPLA. Also quotes IC’s response to this photo.

Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things) – Michael Wilkerson, Foreign Policy – Wilkerson is a PhD candidate who has, importantly, lived and worked in Uganda. He’s concerned about the contents of the KONY 2012 film.

Stop #Kony2012. Invisible Children’s campaign of infamy – Angelo Opi-aiya Izama – Izama is a Ugandan journalist who says that to “call the campaign a misrepresentation is an understatement” and that the campaign is “disempowering” to African voices.

Kony2012; My response to Invisible Children’s campaign – Rosebell Kagumire – Kagumire is an award-winning Ugandan journalist and holds a Masters in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies from the University for Peace. In her video, she says: “The war is much more complex than one man called Joseph Kony.”

Joseph Kony 2012: growing outrage in Uganda over film – Mike Pflanz, The Telegraph – Pflanz sums up the Ugandan concerns about the campaign. He quotes Fred Opolot, spokesman for the Ugandan government, expressing the government’s concerns about the campaign.

Questions We Can Ask About Kony 2012 – Meg Nanson – I’m trying to keep my links to major publications, well-known journalists, and blogs written by those with expertise in the issues, but I feel that this is worth reading. Nanson is the founder of an NGO, and although her work is not linked to Africa, this post lists important questions that I’d encourage you to consider.

I’ll end with a long-ish quote from an interview Polly Curtis of the Guardian did with Arthur Larok, Action Aid’s director in Uganda:

“Many NGOs and the government, especially local government in the north, are about rebuilding and securing lives for children, in education, sanitation, health and livelihoods. International campaigning that doesn’t support this agenda is not so useful at this point. We have moved beyond that.

“There are conflicts in the north – several small conflicts over natural resources. Land is the major issue: after many years of displacement, there is quite a bit of land-related conflict.

“But many organisations and governments are focusing on this. We need to secure social stability, health and education. These are the priorities. This is what we’re trying to focus on. Poverty is high compared to the rest of the country. That’s the practical issue that needs to be addressed.

“I don’t think this is the best way. It might be an appeal that makes sense in America. But there are more fundamental challenges. Kony has been around for 25 years and over. I don’t think in the north at the moment that is really what is most important. It might be best on the internet and the like but, at the end of the day, there are more pressing things to deal with. If the Americans had wanted to arrest him, they would have done that a long time ago.
“At the moment I think the work of Invisible Children is about appealing to people’s emotions. I think that time has passed. Their reputation in the country is something that can be debatable. There is a strong argument generally about NGOs and their work in the north.
“The video would have been appealing in the last decade. Now we just need support for the recovery rather than all this international attention on this one point. Getting the facts right is most important for the international media. That would help the situation as it is.”

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07 3 / 2012

This is precisely the sort of information I was hoping they would be more up-front with. Please read this – it’s great that IC is providing this resource.

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07 3 / 2012


Your numbers are wrong.
I’m talking about the amount of money that Invisible Children spends on active aid, as opposed to advocacy. I understand that their mission is primarily advocacy – my question is whether this is what’s best at this part of the conflict.

They’re working on the CharityNavigator score
Great! I think Invisible Children does lots of great work. I wouldn’t know about any of this if it weren’t for them. All I want you to do is decide if an organization that focuses on filmmaking and advocacy is the best way to end the conflict.

They’re doing a good thing at their heart.
I don’t know, and I think you should think about that too. Invisible Children often talks about getting rid of Kony, but doesn’t talk about its implications or how it supports doing that. Killing one man isn’t likely to quash the entire organization, nor will it help his past victims. Certainly the world would be better off with him captured or killed, but what is Invisible Children doing to this end? It professes to speak against violence but uses fiery rhetoric like “STOP AT NOTHING.” KONY 2012 is trying to raise awareness of a war criminal, but what is this going to achieve? It’s similar with breast cancer – when we’re all aware, then what? This is film #11.

Please do not email me and expect me to read it. At this point, it’s not possible – I receive hundreds of emails each hour and I have many other commitments in my life as a full-time student.

~ Grant

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07 3 / 2012

What was my intent?

When I wrote this, there was almost no ongoing discussion of KONY 2012.

I am not an expert – there are flaws in my rhetoric, and I appreciate people taking the time to find them, just as there are flaws in Invisible Children’s. I’m a second-year Political Science student, not an expert, and the audience for this post was originally a group of approximately 30 friends whom it was emailed to originally. It has now received well over a million hits in less than 24 hours. This was not my intent.

The goal of writing it was to create dialogue. Given that the LRA is arguably on the decline, I wondered if spending hundreds of thousands on a polished awareness campaign was the best option, and if this money could be better spent in direct aid to victims, of whom there are many.

Is Kony fundamentally bad, and is IC fundamentally good? Yes, absolutely. Should you support IC? If you want to, sure. Personally, I feel that other organizations focused on active aid are more productive at this stage in the conflict, but that’s your decision. I just want you to talk about it. I urge you to meet with other concerned people in your community to discuss some of the articles I link to in my article and the KONY 2012 video and decide what you want to do. Thank you.

~ Grant Oyston

Please do not anticipate my being able to read your emails at this stage – I am now receiving hundreds of emails an hour, and cannot read them all. If you would like to talk about anything non-urgent, I respectfully ask that you email me in approximately a week.

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07 3 / 2012

Got a better idea?

A lot of people are bemoaning the perceived negative tone of my article, which wasn’t necessarily my intent. The article below is written to create discourse on issues I feel are important, and to a degree I am playing devil’s advocate.

People are looking at alternative ways to support Central Africa and those impacted more directly, with less focus on awareness and more on action. One preliminary list of charities comes from the Daily What:

Each operates in central Africa.