I remember reading gut-wrenching proposals for funding that came across my desk from Ugandan women’s human rights organizations working to end the extreme violence, kidnappings, rape, torture and mass murder perpetuated by Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers, ‘The Lords Resistance Army.’ They wrote of children kidnapped by Kony, forced to rape and murder their own family members. These children were then forced to take drugs and told that they had invisible shields of armor and were invincible to bullets. It was some of the most gruesome human rights violations I had come across. While the extreme violence was mind-boggling, I was reassured to know that there were many rights organizations on the ground in Uganda and other neighboring African countries that were addressing this issue.
This was nine years ago, 2003 (when Kony was actually in Uganda), but still towards the end of the 26-year timeline of Kony’s violent guerrilla movement which began in the mid 80’s. At the time I was working for an international women’s human rights organization providing grants to support the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. We worked closely with activists in Uganda who were creating incredible strategies for addressing the conflict and protecting the local populations from these human rights violations. Two years later, Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Fast forward to 2012. On Monday March 5, 2012 Invisible Children (IC) launched a 30 minute video entitled ‘Kony 2012’ on YouTube and Vimeo. The video pulls at the heartstrings by introducing the viewer to the murderous Kony, the children he’s victimized, and the change that can happen if we all use their grassroots toolkit to push for US intervention in Uganda to stop Kony.
When I first saw the video, I felt sick to my stomach. I already knew it was spreading like wildfire, and upon viewing was utterly disgusted by the blatant racism and neocolonialism it smacks of. I felt compelled to write about my analysis of the video and the race/conflict implications that it perpetuates. In the video, Jason Russell, co-founder of IC, introduces us to his ‘friend’ a young Africa boy named Jacob who is a survivor of Kony’s kidnappings. We hear the ordeals Jacob has endured through the over-sensationalization of Jacob crying in the dark while a white guy from the US (Russell) whispers 'it's going to be okay’/I'll fix it. We are thus introduced to the self-proclaimed role of the 'white savior' exacerbating the idea that white people from the US can fix other nations problems better than they can themselves. It simplifies the very complex issue of war and conflict and in particular disregards the historic link to colonization, control over natural resources, and grassroots work on the ground. I also find Russell’s use of his own son in the film concerning as he shows the toddler a picture of Kony and tells him that he kills people and is the bad guy and we need to get the bad guy. Daddy, the white guy, will take care of it, seems to be the message it perpetuates.
The New York Times reported that ‘[the video] attracted 50 million viewers and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on the first day alone and rocketed across Twitter and Facebook at a pace rarely seen for any video, let alone a half-hour film about rebels in central Africa.’ In fact, Kony 2012 has become the fastest growing Internet video campaign in history, now reaching at least 70 million views, about eight times the population of the country I live in, Sweden.
Sounds good right? I mean when is the last time a human rights issue dominated the internet on such a global scale. Sadly, to my knowledge, not even the genocide in Darfur garnered this kind of wildfire on the web.
Unfortunately, while the video is perhaps the best social network fundraising tool in history, it actually fails the people of Uganda, the ex-child soldiers, and all the survivors of Kony’s terror on multiple levels. Perhaps even more concerning is the blind faith that millions of people have demonstrated upon ‘sharing’ the video on Facebook and #ing it on twitter - urging everyone up to their senators and US President Barack Obama to find Kony and arrest him. And, even more horrific is the blatant proposal of US military intervention in Uganda.
Upon closer examination however, this instant following and motivation is likened to the fervor experienced at an evangelical church. While the video appears secular and doesn’t even mention religion, deeper investigation into who IC aligns themselves with, unveils a direct link.
Alternet reported that Jason Russell, co-founder of "Invisible Children,” while speaking at Liberty University Convocation Discussion in 2011, responded to a question regarding motivating apathetic Christians and others, with the following: “...The trick is to not go out into the world and say, ‘I'm going to baptize you, I'm going to convict you, I have an agenda to win you over.’ ‘Your agenda is to look into the eyes, as Jesus did, and say, ‘who are you? And will you be my friend?’ - Like he did to the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the fisherman.” He goes on to say that “...a lot of people fear Christians... they see us and they go, ‘You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want me to believe in your God. And it freaks them out.”
The problems behind Kony 2012 are easy to detect, yet the viewing masses don’t seem to be connecting the dots. I was shocked to see many of my socially responsible friends sharing the video with comments urging people to get involved. I couldn't’ help but wonder: was this video the largest evangelical sermon the world has seen? My niece who is 13 was engaged in discussion with me about it and I quickly realized the reach this video had. It was already being shared in classrooms. Classrooms! Angelina Jolie, Oprah, Rhianna, Justin Bieber, P Diddy and other celebrities have already given their endorsements - spurring an additional onslaught of interest and support for the IC and their campaign.
Soon after the video went viral, criticism also arose regarding IC’s financial records and their refusal of an external audit. Concern has been raised regarding the little amount of their overall budget that goes to their actual work in Uganda. While my experience working for a non-profit allows me an understanding and empathy regarding the difficulties in communicating overhead costs to donors, IC’s budget is concerning and clearly prioritizes advocacy, travel and movie-making above their actual mission, which only garners around 30%.
The video also fails to mention the many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground that have been dealing with the Kony (and ongoing conflict) issue for years; it invisibilizes the African human rights work being done and the strategies Africans have implemented (we funded some great grants towards this work specifically when I worked at Urgent Action Fund). And finally, it pushes the idea that US military intervention is the way to lasting peace and freedom (which in most cases has actually led to increased violence, rape, and displacement i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq and so on). Of course, the mission of ending child slavery, rape, torture, etc. is a great cause and I applaud the creativity/marketing used to get people energized and inspired - and in the end to raise money. I just have some fundamental problems with what was presented and the work being done.
Many Ugandans, from politicians to activists, have raised their concerns about the the video and the message IC is spreading. However, very few people are taking note of their perspective. Is it more appealing for Americans to hear African history told through the lens of the white man? Has IC made a believer out of you, or as they like to call it a ‘friend’?
Where do we go from here? How do we now educate the masses as to the deeper issues of the Kony 2012 video? What does this teach us about social networking, fundraising and social justice? How do we reverse this propaganda?
Why not listen to what Ugandans are saying about it and spread their words? You can start here: