Friday, March 9, 2012
The Darker Side of Invisible Children and Stop Kony
First off, I'd like to thank those of you that viewed and commented on my recent post and reshare of TheDailyWhat's views on the Kony video from Invisible Children. The response to that post and my short comment on it was much, much larger than I could have anticipated and with that attention came a lot of scrutiny into both sides. So, as promised, here is my take on the Kony campaign and Invisible Children. It's long, and it took quite some time to research and write, so I hope it's worthwhile.
In order to be as fair as I can, I'd like you to have access to the Invisible Children Inc.'s response to some of the major critiques raised against them since the Kony 2012 campaign went viral. I also urge you at some point to take a look one of the main articles, from 2011, that has been mentioned in regard to the situation in the region around Uganda and the U.S. military's involvement. The Foreign Affairs article is a much more realistic take on the situation facing South Central and Eastern Africa than most blog posts I've read with concerns about this movement out there, so I think it's a good place to start a discussion. I don't want to overload you right away, so whether you read those now or read them afterwards isn't important, but I wanted you to have those resources. I will also cite my sources as efficiently as I can as I go along (should you want to check the facts and the articles I'm talking about). For now though, let's get started.
Why do I take issue with Invisible Children and their Kony 2012 Campaign?
1. Financials: As you'll see in the response to recent criticism, Invisible Children is trying to make the way they spend their donations a lot clearer after being blasted by blogs and editorials for the relatively small percentage of their funds that actually make it to Africa. Some articles have reported that figure as 31%, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and go with the 37.14% figure they quote on their website. So what don't I like about this? A few things. First and foremost, less than 40% of the nearly $14 million they raised last year went to Central Africa programs. The second problem with that 37.14% figure is that all that money isn't actually spent on programs. You see, the financial transparency in their statements goes pitch black once the money hits Africa. This is not a unique problem with international charities that work with partner organizations, but it brings up two big problems. 1- Any money you donate will have a cut taken here for administration and expenses before any percentage of it actually goes to directly help citizens of Uganda, Sudan, or other Central African countries. And 2- Another cut for administration and expenses will be taken by Invisible Children's organization in Africa to cover their expenses there before it is ever put into a program as well, and we have no idea what the size of that cut is. I made a little chart here to show you how the money flows, at least as far as we can track it, at Invisible Children (this was made using their financial figures from their most recent annual report and their website):
My second complaint about their financials is how they get you to donate that money. The Kony film is very well made, and is a fantastic example of good marketing and achieving an emotional response. They try to turn that emotional response into the action of supporting them financially by getting you to either buy their $30 Action Kit, their $10 Kony Bracelet, or begin making donations to them on a monthly basis. They tell you that donating will "help fund our lifesaving programs" and that their donors "put their money toward their belief in all human life". Neither statement is false, but mainly because they're so vague that this short movie, filmed at great cost, may be considered one of their "lifesaving" programs. There may be some merit to that, but considering they talk about the programs to rebuild schools and put radios in Uganda for a rebel warning network before they start hitting you up for a donation, it is clearly not what they hope you're thinking about when you get out your credit card. Any organization that pulls at my heartstrings and tells me I'm donating to improve schools in Africa and give them radios to communicate, but then makes you work to discover that somewhere under 37% of whatever they receive in donations will actually make it to Africa is going to get a little skepticism from me. Another thing that should make everyone a bit skeptical is that their financials are anything but totally transparent, as they claim they are. Yes, they are a non-profit and non-profits have to report a lot of data about how they spend their money. So, sure, they show you what they're spending money on, but the titles of what they're spending money "on" really doesn't tell you what they're spending money on. Got it? There's also the murkiness of some lack of oversight concerns, a lot of concern about why exactly you spend about a million dollars on travel in one year making a movie that is 30 minutes long, and a heck of a lot of concern over why that 30 minute movie cost over two million dollars this past year alone to create. Invisible Children can correct this omission in their video by more clearly explaining their role in Uganda and what your money really goes to before they ask you to donate, and that would settle it for me. I don't agree with the way their funds are divided up where "awareness" becomes a continuously growing cycle as they spend more to create awareness and then take in even more in donations from that awareness to fund their awareness programs, while actual ground work is a tertiary priority, but being clear about that at least lets their donors know up front where their money is really going. That's all.
2. They're short sighted: Please read this before you jump to conclusions. Killing Kony (capturing him at this point is highly unlikely, especially considering the parties involved, but I'll touch on that in a second) will not stop the problems in Central Africa. I firmly believe that Invisible Children knows this and I am not suggesting that they think all the problems in that region will disappear if Kony is brought to justice. However, as their use of funds clearly shows, they are not investing as heavily in the long term stabilization and improvement of Uganda as they are in capturing or killing a single man. Yes, Joseph Kony is a very bad man who has done horrible things. Yes, the world would probably be a better place if he were no longer free to run his rebel army in it. But removing Kony will likely not stop the LRA, whose members are more likely to join an allied or related rebel force, or appoint a new leader, than assimilate back into society. Even worse than the fact that stopping this one man won't stop the movement he has been instrumental in driving are the methods that Invisible Children has supported, either directly or indirectly through omission of facts, in an effort to stop Kony. Make no mistake about it, through Invisible Children's silence and selective outrage, they aren't just allowing a new war to start, they're promoting it. They tell you that by supporting them you will join their "army for peace", but when you get down to it, Invisible Children is directly advocating for further and expanded military action in a region that is actually far more stable now than it has been in over 20 years. That's not to say things are good or that we shouldn't be striving to improve them, but I definitely don't think starting a new war or expanding a shrinking one in the region you claim to be helping is the best path towards stability and safety. It certainly hasn't worked for the US in the last 11 years, and I am highly skeptical we can coach African armies to do better than we did. Why not? That's next.
3. Their solutions are almost as bad as the existing problem: There are two huge problems here that should shock you as much as the Kony video did. The first is that Invisible Children has tried to help fix this before, and the involvement of groups like them, with good intentions, made things even worse. In 2008, Invisible Children was present in Juba to promote and document the peace talks with Kony, representing the LRA, and Uganda. They can be seen at that event peacefully posing for a "joke" photo with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, whose atrocity list rivals that of Kony himself here:
But other than being indirectly involved with another army with a laundry list of mass killings and rape, what's wrong with the peace talks the Invisible Children founders wanted to be involved with? They made things a lot worse. The peace talks didn't go well and ended up just giving Kony time to kidnap more than a thousand new children under the cover of a cease fire and expand and re-equip his army. This was even mentioned in their film, but their presence and interest in it wasn't. Worse yet, the Ugandan government, which remember from the film is who we're supposed to be helping to put a stop to Kony's atrocities, tried to convince the International Criminal Court (who plays a key part in the movie) to withdraw its indictments against Kony and other LRA leaders and let them take care of things themselves. You might think, sure, local justice seems reasonable, but guarantees and conditions were being made to reduce the punishments Kony might face as part of the peace process! Invisible Children failed to mention their presence at this process or what happened with the "peace" process in their film, instead leading you to believe that capturing Kony has been impossible so far and that we can only now bring a peaceful resolution to this. That is an omission of truth at best and deliberate twisting of the past at worst. Unfortunately when these peace talks fell apart, Kony and his now much larger army attacked the SPLA and killed dozens before going on a bloody rampage of attacks at the end of 2008 that left hundreds more dead. So although they won't come out and say it, Invisible Children knows that a peaceful solution won't work and they were there when it didn't work before. Obviously affected by this, in 2009 they and one of their favorite senators, Russell Feingold, were instrumental in the passage of a bill through Congress that authorized the US to plan for military action of its own in the region and work with these local "elements" against the LRA. They know how much worse the peace talks with a madman actually made things but they chose to only tell you a part of the story in their video, leading you to believe that we can bring this conflict to a peaceful end.
Another big piece of evidence that shows their interest in "peace" actually involves more war is that Invisible Children proudly claims to have been instrumental in getting Congress to send elite US soldiers to Uganda to help train the Ugandan army (the UPDF) with better tactics to combat the LRA. They advertise this as their biggest victory so far in their video. I'll ignore that the US was actually already quietly involved in the region before Invisible Children got involved and focus on what matters here. The US, validated by the support of Invisible Children, the Enough Project, and others, decided they could publicly send elite soldiers to Uganda to train their army. That would probably be fine if the Ugandan army could be trusted to use those tactics for good, but as objective news sources have repeatedly reported, that is not the case. In fact the Ugandan army, the army that Invisible Children is trying to support and use to stop Kony, has numerous child soldiers of their own. They do draw the line at the age of 13, something Kony doesn't do, and they promised in 2006 to stop using child soldiers, but the UN, Human Rights Watch, and the BBC have reported that child soldier recruitment, child and other civilian abuse, rape, arbitrary arrests, torture, and murders of civilians and children by the UPDF is still ongoing and is a particular problem against the North Ugandan civilians. So did you catch all that? Invisible Children, according to their video, wants us to support our government sending more soldiers or resources to Uganda to help the Ugandan army receive better training and equipment so they can "stop" Joseph Kony. We need to stop Kony, as you know, because he is an evil man who kidnaps children and forces them to fight in his rebel army and do all kinds of unspeakable things. He is the bad guy. The UPDF, the good guys that we're told to support and send after him, also use children soldiers that have been threatened or intimidated into joining their ranks, and they also have a very recent history of human rights violations including raping women and children, imprisoning, torturing, and killing the residents of the Northern part of Uganda. This may be one of those "lesser of two evils" situations, but that is certainly not how it is explained in the video, and is exactly the reason that some Ugandan leaders and columnists have been loudly calling for restraint and research into the anti-Kony campaign before it makes things worse for northern Uganda, especially since Kony isn't even in Uganda anymore and their citizens are trying to get back to some sense of normalcy with him gone.
Conclusions: Invisible Children's heart might be in the right place, but I can't support their charity, which functions as a marketing firm first and a supporter of Ugandan citizens second, and its Kony campaign. Stopping people like Kony is of course an important and worthwhile endeavor, and I do applaud them for bringing the issue of child soldiers and African violence into the global spotlight in a big way. They've reached tens of millions of people and obviously it's having a huge response. Seeing that make me hope that they've done some good and made our citizens more aware of the injustices in other parts of the world. That said, being aware of a problem and actually fixing it are two different things. With the way they want to "fix" things, I can't offer any support to them financially or morally beyond just applauding them for bringing the issue up. If I wanted to support long-term stability and reform in the region, I would donate to any number of Ugandan charities that put my money directly to work for Ugandans. I am also having a hard time trusting Invisible Children. Their video omits too many inconvenient facts about themselves, the groups they've chosen to ally with as their instruments of change, and the situation in the region for me to believe they want us to know the whole truth. As such, I find it difficult to trust their movement, no matter how good its intentions may seem on the surface, when I now know its past. There is no doubt in my mind that Invisible Children's Stop Kony movement would have us trade one oppressor and violator of human rights in the Uganda region for another, and that's just not a solution I can support in good conscience.