Anyone connected to social media yesterday cannot helped to have noticed the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign organized by Invisible Children, which released a half hour film yesterday detailing their background and strategy. The campaign aims to bring Joseph Kony of the Lords Resistance Army to justice. While I do hope that one day Kony will be held responsible for his crimes in court I am skeptical of the policies Invisible Children are advocating, and I like many others have concerns over their financial practices.
The film released yesterday is a good one. I had not intended to watch the whole thing but I found it surprisingly engaging. The first half of the film begins with the filmmaker and Invisible Children Co-Founder, Jason Russell, documenting the birth of his son, Gavin, and his first experiences in Uganda. The film goes on to document the growth of an Invisible Children campaign that eventually succeeded in convincing policy makers to send American military personnel to assist the Ugandan military in tracking Joseph Kony. Unsurprisingly, Kony has since changed his tactics and has now left Uganda, focusing his efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
The second half of the film explains the next step, which is to put pressure on twenty public intellectuals and celebrities, as well as twelve key policy makers to push for more foreign intervention in order to track Kony. Policy makers such as Condoleezza Rice and Senators John Kerry and Harry Reid have been targeted, as have celebrities such as Rihanna and Oprah. What the region needs, the film argues, is more intervention and military assistance. With a wide reaching viral campaign, Invisible Children hopes to pressure the U.S. government to further escalate its assistance.
What the film does not explain is that it is suspected that the U.S sent troops to Uganda as payback for the soldiers Uganda killed in Somalia fighting elements of Al-Qaeda, not wholly in response to the Invisible Children campaign. This is important to point out not to denigrate the Invisible Children campaign, but to point out that the U.S. government might have motivations other than humanitarian concern, and as such the effectiveness of this particular Invisible Children campaign is hard to measure. The film also fails to explain the atrocities committed not only by other militia groups in the region fighting the LRA, but also the Ugandan People’s Defense Force that the U.S. is supposed to be assisting.
Foreign policy aside, it is also worth examining the financials of Invisible Children, especially if you are considering giving the charity money. Of the 2010/11 expenditure, a little over 30% was spent on charitable activities. The remainder was spent on salaries and travel expenses. Charity Navigator has given Invisible Children a 3 star rating, in part because their financial books have not been independently audited. Invisible Children has published a blog post in response to accusations of financial mismanagement.
I will be fascinated to see how successful the Kony 2012 campaign will be, whatever its successes or failures it is implementing an interesting strategy. April 20th is the day when we should apparently be expecting to see a full-blown viral campaign step up, with banners and posters popping up around the world. Unfortunately I think the campaign has focused too much on one element, Joseph Kony, in what is a very complicated situation, and it is advocating the wrong policy. There is no guarantee that the arrest or death of Kony would have a noticeable impact on the numbers of people affected by violence in the region. Nor is there a guarantee that those that will be assisting any future American adventure to central Africa, local militias and the UPDF, will be any less violent or unpleasant. Western intervention in Africa has a sorry and bloody history, and there is no reason to think that the policy Invisible Children are arguing for will be any different, no matter how well intentioned.