(In)Visible Children

International Rescue Committee staff distributes medicine to children in Uganda

A version of this post was originally published on March 9, 2012

Theory: (noun) a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles.

Action: (noun) the process or state of acting or being active; something being done or performed, and act or deed; an act that one consciously wills that may be characterized by physical or mental activity

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a phenomenon. My entire twitter timeline was flooded with #KONY2012, which I initially thought meant King of New York. When I finally reached a desktop computer, I got the chance to see what all the fuss was about. Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – which was based in Uganda some years ago – is the subject of the latest documentary by Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children. Through genius viral social media marketing, the short video went from having 30 hits on Monday, to over 36 million views by Thursday afternoon. The point of the film, according to Russell, is to make Joseph Kony “famous” the same way celebrities are famous. He hopes that in doing this, he’ll garner the attention of the International Courts and bring Kony to justice. The video, which is roughly 30 minutes long and quite emotional, focuses on the story of Jacob. As a young Ugandan boy, Jacob was captured by the LRA and forced to fight for Joseph Kony’s vaguely Christian agenda to maintain control in Uganda. The Kony 2012 Campaign relies on our emotions to generate sympathy for these young children. It’s important to take a critical look at these tactics.

While the film’s intention is to raise awareness, in less than 24 hours there was another hashtag that was beginning to gain popularity: #StopStopKony2012. African bloggers throughout the Diaspora rose up swiftly in unison to call the Kony 2012 movement a sham. They highlighted a few key points:

Invisible Children founders Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole posing with weapons and soldiers of the the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, taken in 2008 near the Sudan-Congo border. Copyright Glenna Gordon.

  • Joseph Kony and his “invisible children” aren’t anything new to most people in the region since Kony and the LRA has been in central Africa for over 20 years.
  • Invisible Children has raised about $8 million and given only a third of that money to support efforts on the ground in Uganda. The rest of these funds have gone to salaries and administrative costs. Charity Navigator, which grades the transparency and financial earnings of charitable organizations, gives Invisible Children a 2-star rating (out of a possible 4).
  • Unlike most nonprofit organizations, Invisible Children endorses violence. It supports military action by the Ugandan army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Similarly to Joseph Kony’s LRA, both of these military forces have been accused of rape and looting.
  • Kony and his forces moved from Northern Uganda over 5 years ago and is rumored to be based in the Congo or the Sudan.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Ugandans have cried out that the film perpetuates negative Western stereotypes about Uganda in particular and Africa in general as lawless places with nameless children. While these children may have been “invisible” to usfor years, in reality, Ugandan children have very real identities and communities that are not completely helpless. There is one African with a voice in the film.

    Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Campaign Poster featuring Joseph Kony, Osama bin Ladin and Adolf Hitler

While there are many issues people have with the Kony 2012 Campaign, it can’t be denied that Jason Russell’s film has succeeded in drawing awareness to the horrendous issue of child soldiers. People are genuinely concerned with the actions of the LRA. We can go a step beyond Invisible Children’s campaign and donate our time and money to organizations that have effective long term projects on the ground. Here are 5 organization that do significant work eradicating the use of child soldiers, resolving conflict in Uganda and empowering women in the region.

  1. The International Rescue Committee – With programs for former child soldiers in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Uganda, this international nonprofit organization provides immediate protection, health care and critical emotional support to children who have been demobilized or have escaped from armed forces. IRC programs in Norther Uganda have a particular focus on helping the girls who were abducted through access to education and vocational training.
  2. UNICEF – Since the 1980s, UNICEF has advocated and secured the release of children from armed forces in conflict-affected countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda. In Uganda, UNICEF focuses disarming child soldiers, ensuring children are not living in barracks and assist in the reintegration of child soldiers into their communities.
  3. School for International Training (SIT) – A program of World Learning, SIT’s study abroad program in northern Uganda allows college students to spend 15 weeks examining the origins of the conflict in northern Uganda. Specifically, students explore issues of identity construction in the Ugandan context, ongoing efforts by Ugandans to advance peace, community building, and reconciliation, and work in the areas of post-conflict transformation, peacebuilding, sustainable reconciliation, and community development.
  4. The Great Lakes Center for Conflict Resolution (GLACCR) – Established in 2008, GLACCR works to strengthen local institutions, provide opportunities for dialogue, and influence policy through research and advocacy in northern Uganda.  These activities have the aim of mitigating the impact of the the violent armed conflicts in the region and prevent future conflicts in Northern Uganda.
  5. The Women’s Refugee Commission – Though not specific to Uganda, The Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for effective programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict areas. Currently, The Women’s Refugee Commission is currently piloting projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to help identify the most successful ways for displaced girls to empower themselves.

by Folashade Kornegay

Update: We love this blog post by Brian McNeil on Not Even Past which explores the history of American humanitarian intervention, the dichotomy of good and evil, and the effect of George W. Bush neoconservative foreign policies on our moral imperatives.

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2 Comments

  1. Jasmine

     /  September 26, 2012

    I too had a similar experience with the STOPKONY movement/phenomenon, feeling as if it were something that seemingly came out of nowhere. On the one hand, there were many reacting to the video and “movement” by donating, re-posting and vowing to do what they could to “stop” Kony, there was also a section of people who reacted to the filmmakers’ and Invisible Children org as unethical, listing a variety of reasons but those that stuck out to me were the concepts of “neocolonialism” and the white man’s burden, terms that I had previously been unfamiliar with. This for me caused much self-reflection on my own feelings about race, identity and was a brief intro on activism gone awry; a movement that quickly spread internationally and fizzling out fairly quickly, especially with the mental and emotional breakdown of the founder and face of the movement, Jason Russell.

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  2. Malika

     /  September 27, 2012

    This time last year, most people would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate for Invisible Children (IC) than me. Working in the music industry, I was first introduced to the work of IC when a notable band that I met were avid supporters of the organization. At the time, IC embodied one of the few organizations that seemed to have mastered the perfect balance of integrating music, film, and social change to benefit one another. Unfortunately, as the organization evolved it seemed to steer away from its initial intention of contributing to the rehabilitation of the Northern Ugandan region and instead began focusing its efforts towards more political and militaristic gains. In short, IC began practicing what has been called “militarized humanitarianism” and, as a result, set their sites on defeating Kony, and thereby creating the Kony 2012 campaign.

    Now, as many argue, including Folashade in her blog post, IC has sensationalized not only Joseph Kony but also the hard facts of where his army resides today, and who is currently affected. Rather than criticizing Folashade’s post, for I actually agree with most of her points, I would like to offer a bit of perspective as someone who has been so closely linked with this organization throughout its evolution: I truly believe that IC and its founder Russell, who although set out to “make Kony famous,” never actually thought the whole world would be watching and, as a result, was shamefully unprepared for the consequences that came thereafter. Moreover, given the audience that the organization was aiming to garner attention from – American youth – the tactics they used were successful and their strategy in terms of amplifying a social message worked. Nonetheless, IC should have never called for US involvement in the form of militaristic action. Instead, IC should have remained focused on contributing to the development efforts in Northern Uganda post-Kony, and should have never meddled in political and militaristic affairs that were not their own. There are many lessons that one can take from the outcome of the Kony2012 campaign, and the subsequent backlash that came in the days following its launch, but I think the most important lesson is that any organization aiming to help people in a community that is not their own must be extremely careful when deciding the best way to communicate the intended message, with regards to both the medium that will be used and the individuals that will deliver the message.

    -Malika

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