We’ve all seen Invisible Children’s “Make Him Famous” campaign, attempting to bring war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to justice. If you somehow missed it, here’s the video again.
However, the situation is far more complicated than the video makes it appear, and I can’t help but feel that for everything this video does that’s right, there’s two more things wrong.
It is, of course, vital, good, and ultimately laudable that Kony be “made famous” (or infamous) by this viral video — Kony is undeniably a monster, kidnapping children to populate his army, kidnapping women to be their wives, and mutilating dissenters and opponents. This video certainly made Invisible Children a good deal richer, directly benefiting Africa — donations totalling at least fifteen million US dollars richer. But the skeptical community among others quickly mounted a counter-initiative calling into question Invisible Children’s spending practices.
This push-back includes a local-to-me poli-sci student creating a Tumblr blog called Visible Children which outlines the charges against IC and demands more transparency. IC replies with some poorly designed pie charts that don’t match the numbers (try it yourself in a spreadsheet program!), and an FAQ that emphasizes that they are not an aid organization, that they primarily put their donations right back into awareness campaigns. Justice in Conflict has what could be the single best primer for how exactly the Kony 2012 campaign fails to comprehend the scope of the situation in Uganda, and how any pressure the campaign can bring to bear will almost certainly be misapplied. Our Lady brings up the coltan problem, reminding us all that the situation in Africa might, like many other situations in the world *coughMiddleEastcough*, have a significant problematized component that came into being thanks to Western interference. And Crommunist does what he does best, which is jotting down a few scattered thoughts that happen to be everything I wanted to say on the situation and more, with the kind of keen insight and laser-sharp focus that I actually have to work at.
So, the Invisible Children campaign is not without its issues. They put more money into awareness than they do toward African aid programs, so most of your money is not directly benefiting Africans. The campaign itself focuses on Uganda, though Kony’s long since moved on. The campaign woefully underrepresents the real victims of Kony’s atrocities, seemingly focusing more on the co-founder Jason Russell’s (white) five-year-old son than on his friend Jacob who survived Kony’s campaign. The video gives everyone the impression that the hundred troops Obama sent to Uganda to advise the Ugandan army somehow improved the situation — when the Ugandan army is not, in actuality, the “good guy” in this passion play, especially if Kony isn’t actually there any more, and where any strengthening of the Ugandan army might have ripple effects in the region.
And to the cynical, this has every appearance of an excuse to put US military presence in the oil-rich country — much like the push toward war in Iraq, when bin Laden was most decidedly elsewhere. I have to admit, this view makes an excellent point. Western policies already have huge impacts on the region, as evidenced by our need for coltan for all that technology we use daily — mobile devices, GPS, and, well, pretty much every computer ever. The irony of the call in the IC video for help with raising awareness, training the Ugandan army to use new technology provided by the West, and even the very substrate that this video had to go viral on being built on the back of the coltan mines, shows just how complicated the situation is and how unilateral action by the US is decidedly not de facto helpful. The very recent discovery of oil makes it a US interest, and it would be a horror piled on a travesty if Uganda becomes another Iraq with Kony as the scapegoat.
Another problem, which might be one of cultural insensitivity by Jason Russell, comes from his recent talk at Liberty University suggesting very strongly that either Invisible Children is a Christian evangelical advocacy group, or that Russell is simply willing to use the language of the religious to encourage them to go after Kony because he preaches the wrong religion, the wrong Christianity. Remember, Kony’s movement is called the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Rush Limbaugh once attacked Obama on this exact point, suggesting that Obama was only sending those troops to wipe out a branch of Christianity. (Yes, Rush defended Joseph Kony.) If Russell’s in it because Kony’s a bad person, that’s one thing. On the other hand, if he’s in it because Kony’s a bad person AND A BAD CHRISTIAN, as suggested by his “impacting the world for Christ” line during this presentation at Liberty, then supporting IC is tantamount to supporting Christian dominionism in a nation where Christianity must needs have been an import in the first place.
The pushback is even coming from some very mainstream media in Al Jazeera, and The Globe and Mail. Both pieces show how many projects initiated even with the best of intentions can utterly fail to address the actual underlying problems, attacking symptoms instead.
Ultimately, getting people involved in learning about the situation in Africa, in learning about the West’s role in how those situations have come into being, in listening to and preferring the victims’ voices to the voices of the white activists, in recognizing that sometimes the victimizers and the victims are one in the same, and in surmounting the “slacktivism” problem where a slickly produced video elicits a trained response to open your pocketbook, is the best approach. It is multi-pronged and it demands far more engagement by the viewers / readers. It puts the onus of responsibility on all of us to learn what’s going on, and to take the right action, not to take the first action offered by the first person to put the meme in your head.