Invisible Children

That need to do “something”.

When conflict or disaster strikes, often our first instinct is that “something” needs to be done to help those impacted. It’s an essential part of who we are as human beings, as a species with the capacity for empathy. But is this idea of just doing “something”– without serious consideration into the potential consequences that could arise from that “something”, “anything” to “help” mentality — unintentionally causing more harm on the very people we meant to help in the first place?[1] This does not speak, in the slightest to one’s dedication or compassion or intention towards any cause or action, or make them any less truthful or intelligent or meaningful or human for wanting to take action. It’s a good thing that people feel disgusted and motivated to want to take action, to do “something” about other human beings’ suffering—because that suffering deserves nothing less than disgust and motivation directed towards changing it.

The recent Kony 2012 campaign is great for one specific reason—more people hear about some important global issues. Hopefully, that will empower them to dig deeper into some of the root causes of this conflict and how many outside powers have ties to the violence. Hopefully, it will make them question the way their own purchases, and lifestyles, and governments, and corporations, and organizations, are impacting this conflict and adding unnecessary fuel to the fire. Be the change, as they say.

If we look at some of the different causes of the conflict—the political, economic, social, security, international, regional and local forces that are driving it; that are profiting from continued conflict; that have stakes in the conflict; that will keep conflict going in the region long after Kony is captured or killed—we see that the Kony 2012 narrative is incredibly simplistic. The region’s turmoil is not all in the hands of Joseph Kony. Nor will stopping Joseph Kony completely eradicate violence or child abduction/conscription in the region.

I will not go into the full analysis of all the many problems with Invisible Children’s video. They are widely available at the present moment. Some suggest it lacks context and nuance; that it demonstrates the privilege in the social justice world that enables this organization to be heard over other local ones or ones making positive drastic differences on the ground; that it misspent money or isn’t as accountable as it should be; its patronizing tone; the critiques of an all American Board of Directors, Directors of Programming, Executive Staff—basically all the people actually running the organization, despite claims of Ugandan inspired and led programming; of interviewing and using vulnerable children in their advertising against all good ethical practices; the “white man’s burden” messiah complexes; the way it paints human beings as “invisible” and voiceless; the excessive self-aggrandizing nature of those involved; the focus on Uganda, when the LRA has now moved to neighbouring countries; reducing Kony’s eluding capture to claims that “nobody knows” who Joseph Kony is, and that if they did–this would somehow magically change; how they ignore the voices and needs of Ugandans and those actually affected by the LRA and Joseph Kony; that those working for the organization are media professionals and not development professionals; how they call on supporting the Ugandan army, accused of massive abuses, as the best way to stop the conflict; how they push people to contact their government and encourage more international involvement towards intervention purposes, falsely claiming that the current American intervention is under threat; photos of the founders posing with SPLA members and weaponry; possible donor links to far-right, anti-gay groups; how one of their founders likened the organization to a business, a company over a non-profit organization or charity in an interview;  and going as far as claims of a grand international conspiracy, involving numerous players; of American chiefs conspiring to stop China from taking over the continent or of trying to cash in on oil deposits. What I will go into, are some of the potential consequences a campaign like this could have on the ground and why it is important to think about these things before blindly supporting a cause.

Some fifty percent of Uganda’s governmental budget has been cited to come directly from foreign aid.  The institutions involved in funding have not always ensured that this money has gone to where it is most needed or that it isn’t lining the pockets of leaders so that they can use it to further commit crimes against their own populations. The current President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni has been in his position since 1986, and is just beginning to serve yet another term in office after a highly controversial election where dissent was allegedly stifled and voter fraud was rampant. Bill Clinton once described him as the head of a new breed of African leaders. Uganda was labelled a “development darling” by much of the world under Museveni, and international money flowed in with very little accountability.

Accusations of Museveni and his government and army’s involvement in war crimes and other abuses subsequently ensued and international parties have at times, even assisted them by giving more weaponry, hardware and military support. [2] Transparency International has accused Museveni’s government, most specifically the Uganda Revenue Authority, [3] of widespread graft. Yet, our Western governments continue to provide more money and support despite these accusations.

Best estimates suggest that there are currently only between 200-400 LRA fighters fighting and by all recent reporting—those fighting are no longer even in Uganda and haven’t been for several years. Rather, they are in neighbouring countries that have all been battling in a regional war that has been ongoing for decades, involving numerous armed forces and militias in a highly entangled and complex conflict. A high percentage of the fighters in the LRA are children, and many of the regional governments’ armies, including the armed forces in Uganda– who Invisible Children advocates supporting as the “best” option to tackle the problem— have also been accused of conscripting children. The parties, in many cases, have been accused of using child fighters essentially as human shields. Any increased support for militarization in this area, as advocated by Invisible Children, means more armies potentially wreaking havoc on the population, as there is little keeping them from continued corruption and abuses. The LRA currently enjoys very little support in the region– and they are already scattered and on the run. Increased militarization risks ramping up their abduction drive to recruit more children into the LRA to better fight off those hunting them down, and actually increasing the level of violence and suffering for those on the ground. Sending in military to try to stop an armed force stacked with children also severely risks the lives of those child soldiers as battles ensue.

Killing or stopping Kony isn’t going to magically solve all the problems in the area, because the narrative is much more complicated than a simple “good guys” versus “bad guys” situation. In “bringing to justice” one man, you potentially cause and support massive human rights abuses by other parties. There are numerous other strategies to employ here that do not involve military intervention. That do not involve firing on human children. That do not involve supporting dubious regional players.

To stop violence, you must look at its roots, not at its manifestations. Why did the LRA take up arms in the first place? How did Kony get supporters and why do they continue to fight with him?

Many of the abducted children have been forced to do horrific things like kill neighbours or rape their own parents, so that they would be left with a stigma of never being able to go back to their homes, and incentive to stay with the army. They are also often drugged. The strategy to get them out of the bush then, is obviously very complicated. There have been many positive efforts at targeting the children conscripts via radio, via leaflets (which is more difficult since many don’t necessarily read) and other measures to try to dispel the belief that they can never go home after the wrongs they have committed. Amnesty programs have had some effect as well, and have resulted in several senior commanders coming out of the bush in previous years. There are numerous highly respected organizations working in the region that have other plausible nonviolent strategies that are worthy of being considered before declaring military options as the only resort left. Many are locally driven initiatives that know the full background, the context, the nuances, and they are making a real difference on the ground.

If we are all so suddenly keen to focus on justice in the region[4]— why do we in the west still prop up Museveni, and other controversial leaders’ governments? Why do we still make shady trade deals stealing away resources from the region for Canadian and American and other western consumption? Why do we still give the leaders assistance year after year, even when we know it is being squandered away to line the leaders’ and cronies’ pockets and to commit further atrocities on the populations? Why do our governments repeal laws banning military aid to those that arm and recruit child soldiers? These problems can be addressed without resorting to military action and are something the western world should be thinking more carefully on, because these are directly within the western world’s control. We can lobby our governments not to provide money or equipment or training or assistance to take part in abuses, instead of potentially causing further ones with increased militarization. These are things we CAN do without taking the lead in distant problems.

Even the best of intentions can easily go awry and wind up causing greater human rights abuses and violence. Doing “something” is not always better than doing nothing. Doing something, just for the sake of doing something– can kill people. Can cause death and destruction. Can make the problem worse. People don’t watch a 30-minute video of a surgery and suddenly think they are now skilled enough to perform surgery. That is a life and death matter. And so is the security situation in a foreign country or doing humanitarian work[5]. It is also a life and death matter. It is not something that can be easily directed by people with little knowledge or background or insight into cultural nuances and historical issues that may be driving it. Almost all the experts in the region are against this strategy for good reason. It takes up resources that could go towards more effective advocacy, and takes up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy. It will likely also actually decrease the amount of assistance that goes into Central Africa as people assume that by tweeting, watching, and buying, they have fulfilled their duty and are now absolved of all further responsibility. Many Ugandans in the field are also rightfully upset at the narrative that erases their efforts and relegates them to a position of dependence and victim hood, reliant upon outside forces.

The amount of consumerism in the campaign is also extremely troubling. It calls upon people to buy products to support the cause. Some of these products are made with metals. Some are made from polyester and rayon. Some are made with timber. There are tons of products for sale on their site, manufactured with tons of raw materials. None specify where they have come from, who made them, or what environmental problems or human rights abuses they may have caused or will cause along their manufacture, usage and disposal. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the metal on the Kony 2012 bracelet came from regional sources embroiled in conflict? How incredibly ironic that those tweeting and texting, and using electronics to pass the Kony 2012 message are also potentially indirectly supporting the regional conflict, other global conflicts and other significant human rights abuses to make these very gadgets that make it all possible!

And supporters are asked to “blanket every street, in every city until the sun comes up” with Kony’s face and the cause, with no word about the sheets of paper this message will be printed on; whether it will be taken as timber from somewhere on the continent, likely spurring land conflicts in its wake as the leaders we continually prop up steal ancestral lands from underneath their own people, sell off its timber and turn the rainforests into mono-field crops that enslave child workers. And what of my city this morning, that was littered with these falling posters, soaked by rain; likely to wind up filling a landfill somewhere shortly?

I don’t mean to discourage people from wanting to do good in this world, or wanting to be a part of something that is doing good– but that should never stop us from looking at things with a critical eye. We should not be so easily swayed by petitions or flashy campaigns outright without knowing the consequences of them. We could be doing more harm than good in the process, and none of us wants that.

There are TONS of good LOCAL peacebuilding programs that are worthy of support in the region. If you feel compelled to donate—why not take a look into what they are doing:

[1] Or others.

[2] A document released in 2010 by WikiLeaks revealed that the US allegedly told Uganda to let it know when its army was going to commit war crimes using American intelligence within the country, without dissuading it from doing so. They were already providing information and $4.4 million worth of military hardware a year.

[3] The law and enforcement sector, the health and education sectors have also been accused of bribery by the organization.

[4] Not to mention the rest of the world. One could easily make a case for several western leaders and their involvement in war crimes worldwide.

[5]After watching the film, I’d say I am now informed about the situation in Uganda.”


UPDATES: March 10:

UPDATE: March 16:

  • Interesting turn of events. One of the founders of Invisible Children was reportedly arrested last night for lewd behaviour for being drunk and masturbating in public and possibly vandalizing cars.


UPDATE: March 17:

  • Reportedly Jason Russel was not actually arrested, but rather detained and then sent for mental evaluation following the incident. Sorry for the error.
  • Also, this video came to light for me for the first time and raises some serious questions in my mind about Invisible Children spending so much on production values over on-the-ground programming. This one as well, and many others that have since been removed.