KONY 2012… raising what exactly?

As everyone is now aware, Invisible Children released their 11th video on Joseph Kony and the LRA a couple of days ago:

and the controversy over Invisible Children and their movies has multiplied. Several sources (for example) have noted that almost 70% of IC’s funding goes towards staff salaries, travel, and film production, leaving only about 30% for services, and that Charity Navigator gives them only two stars for transparency and accountability.

As a lot of people have pointed out though, the criticism of 70% “overhead” doesn’t really make sense since IC’s main goal is awareness-raising rather than service provision. The cost of movies and other marketing at least should probably not count as overhead. And as you can probably tell from your facebook or twitter feed, they’ve been extremely successful at the awareness-raising and advocacy game. But this raises the more important criticisms: what exactly have they been successfully marketing?

  • The KONY 2012 film claims that the problem is that Kony “isn’t famous enough”, but as Justice in Conflict points out, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. As the film itself notes, Kony is already officially “wanted” by the ICC and the LRA is one of the most well-known armed groups in the world. This suggests that the problem isn’t unknown, just difficult to solve.
  • But IC, apparently believing that this is an “easy but ignored” problem, logically advocates for the “easy” solution: kill the bad guy. Unfortunately as Visible Children argues  this solution isn’t so simple for several reasons. First, because the Ugandan army, which IC thinks should be supported in order to facilitate the capture, is accused of various crimes including rape and looting (and never mind the fact that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda since 2006). And second, because the US Africa Command has in fact sent several missions after Kony, but they have been extremely complicated both because he uses children as bodyguards and because each failed attempt has provoked retaliative killings.
  • And finally, even if Kony were killed, what then? IC seems to think this is a one-man problem but the reality will be much messier. Foreign Affairs argues that the LRA is “as much a symptom as a cause” of the violence that has plagued the region since the mid 1990s, and that even without Kony LRA fighters would likely morph into another group. And of course as many of the perpetrators are also victims  (child soldiers) it will be hard to find black-and-white justice for anyone.
A lot of sources have also criticized not just what IC advocates but how. In particular that the films (like IC’s board of directors) lack any Ugandan or even African voices (with the exception of the victim Jacob), present Africans as defenseless and passive, present Americans as saviours, and generally focus much more on the greatness of IC’s founder Jason Russell than on the issues. Elliot Ross at Africa is a Country has written a particularly cutting piece on this, arguing that this “awareness raising” is doing more harm than good:
To ask people to climb down from the soaring heights of “Kony 2012” (remember how we fall down into Uganda from the heavenly realms of Jason Russell’s Facebook page?), a place where they get to feel both sanctified and superior, and truly descend into the mire of history and confusion is simply too big an ask. It would be boring and difficult and it would not be about Facebook or Angelina Jolie or coloured wristbands or me. When the euphoria evaporates and the Twittersphere has dried its tears (probably by the end of this week), all that remains will be yet another powerful myth of  African degradation beneath Western power–and Jason Russell will be famous and rich.
The question of the day comes from Joshua Keating: “what are the consequences of unleashing so many exuberant activists armed with so few facts?”
But then again, maybe that’s selling everyone a bit short… the film may be misleading but if people are critical enough to go out and actually find out about the LRA after reading it, then maybe it’s all for the best. Or is that wishful thinking?

**Update** An excellent video response to the KONY campaign from a Ugandan blogger and reporter. Really worth six minutes:
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About marisa burton

graduate student, masters of development studies, IHEID, geneva
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7 Responses to KONY 2012… raising what exactly?

  1. sabivoicu says:

    1. Great idea for a post
    2. Here is Invisible Children’s rebuttal of some of the criticisms brought up against it http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html (not that I agree with it, but someone posted this link so I thought it may be useful)
    3. http://i.imgur.com/6Cuws.jpg

    • marisa burton says:

      Yeah I’m not particularly convinced by most of the rebuttals.

      In particular, I think saying that some oversimplification was inevitable because the film is only 30 minutes is nonsense. You can’t use this excuse after you give a five year old significant airtime and spend about ten minutes on a nonsensical and unrelated introduction that’s mostly about facebook for some reason.

      And as far as the saviour complex goes, while it MAY be true that they don’t put this attitude into practice in their own programming in Uganda, the overtones of the film have to speak for themselves here. It’s not ok to say racist things just because you “have black friends”

  2. sabivoicu says:

    Invisible Children campaign aside… every article I’ve read in criticism to it just comes to the conclusion that, well, the LRA (and other similar problems in that region of the world) are problems that need to be solved, but the situation is very complicated and there are “no easy answers.” No one comes close to coming up with even a vague idea for how we should solve these problems. Criticism is important, but if nothing constructive comes out of it, then no issue will ever get resolved. I almost have more respect for people who come to the conclusion that these problems are endemic to the region and us becoming involved is simply not a solution. At least there is coherence and integrity in this mode of thinking.

  3. marisa burton says:

    Semi-serious thought: what if this movie is awful on purpose? Maybe presenting this as a black-and-white issue to be cured by wristbands was the perfect combination: appealing to a lot of people who make it go viral, and annoying to a lot of other people who then set out to explain to all the internet why it’s terrible. This one awful video has now spawned a lot of good coverage in important papers/blogs/etc, which means a lot more people have read about some of the real complexities surrounding the LRA. (And its sparked a lot of discussion about savior complexes and representations of Africa as well)

    Depressing thought: If Invisible Children had just released a good documentary in the first place, would anyone have listened?

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