Armchair Activism Won't Capture Kony

The Founders of Invisible Children. Fighters of...peace? CreditGlenna Gordon
I know I'm a bit late when it comes to criticizing the Invisible Children (IC) Kony 2012 video, but I just wanted to put my thoughts out there, for what they are worth. 

I'm ashamed to admit that a little over a year ago I would have been one of these college students re-posting the Kony 2012 video, calling all my fellow students to buy a t-shirt to 'save Africa!'. A year ago, I almost believed that me buying a t-shirt was going to stop children getting abducted. A year ago, I was in shock when my humanitarian aid professor said 'these children aren't invisible!'. Thankfully, now I've grown...critical. 

The response to this video over the past 3 days boggles my mind. I checked the video at 11:20am this morning and it was at 4 million hits. It's now 9pm and at 11 million hits. This would be a huge success, if it was actually doing something.

I'm not at all saying that the issue of Kony should be dropped. It shouldn't. He, among others, has committed horrific acts of violence and is among the many other war criminals that the world should focus on catching and prosecuting. But donating a few dollars, buying a t-shirt, or watching a movie isn't going to do it. Even if every person in the world knew who Kony is, that isn't going to bring him to trial. If it didn't work for catching Bin Laden for a decade with thousands of troops out looking for him, it sure isn't going to work with 100 American troops dropped in the middle of the East/Central African bush. 

The response from my fellow college students shocks me. Never before have I seen one cause posted and re-posted so many times in one day on Facebook with no real knowledge on the issue at hand. But before I go into what they are saying, let me explain what I see wrong with the video.

My Beef with Kony 2012 (in no particular order)
1. Remember that poem called the White Man's Burden? Remember how it justified colonialism by saying it was the West's noble responsibility to "civilize" those in their colonies? Well, if you thought we were past the times of discourse such as this, think again. The Kony 2012 video leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it re-enforces these white noble/black savage identities that are colonial constructs. The IC video portrays the fact that these poor black African's need us, white college students, to save them. News flash: They don't. I think Lusa Mnathali from AfripPOP magazine says it perfectly:
[It's] crazy in that once again Africans are being made to look like they need saving by yet another White person with a saviour-narcissist complex.

2. Let's be frank, they weren't invisible...they were ignored - there's a difference. The LRA has existed a long time (before 1990s) and so has the conflict. Do a Google search if you want to learn more about Kony or the LRA, but I want to briefly explain even why the conflict started: British colonialism in Uganda politicized the various 'ethnic' groups under its control, making the northerners pastoralists and less developed than those in the south. Inevitably, the north got pretty pissed off at the disparities, and the first Prime Minister of Uganda, Obote, tried tipping the scale in favor of the North.  This angered more people, like Idi Amin, who then staged a coup. Several actors were involved in the conflict that followed, one being the Holy Spirit Movement, which claimed to want to revitalize the idea of Acholi (a group in the north) identity by cleansing the government. Enter Kony - who claimed to be the cousin of the founder of the Holy Spirit Movement and was then elected head of the LRA. He promised to install the 10 commandments as state law. Ironic when he was waging a guerrilla war in the north. What was the rest of the world doing? Nothing. We ignored it for 2 decades. The rest is history. I can't help but to think this whole movement, which is now gaining so much ground when the war (on the larger scale) is over, is a way for us, as guilty white rich folks, to feel better about our failure to care when it was actually happening. But doing something too late is better than doing nothing at all, right? No. So, like I said, these children weren't invisible, they were ignored, even by those who are now making these kids 'visible'. Eric Ritskes at Wanderings says what I'm thinking far better than I:
Part of this is the centering of our Western vision and logic. The very idea of ‘Invisible’ is ludicrous – these children were never invisible to their communities and families – only to us. It harkens back to the ‘unspoilt’ land of the new worlds where ‘no one had ever been before’ and which completely ignored the lives and realities of the Indigenous people, the Africans who had lived there for centuries before – who knew everything there was to know about this ‘untouched’ land. It is the re-centering of the West and the glossing over of those whose lives are being impacted most. We need to learn: It’s not about us. Race does matter for this reason, because of how it is constituted by history and continues to shape how we view the world.
Solome Lemma at Unmuted also says it very nicely:
It’s because they’re visible that young people, including returnees from abductions, started Concerned Children and Youth Association. They’re visible to the people that matter, but apparently not to IC. The language we use in social change often denotes the approach we take, even if subconsciously. Since the children appear to be invisible to IC, then perhaps it’s clear why they’re represented as voiceless, dependent, and dis-empowered.
3. The video grossly oversimplifies the conflict. I know that IC can't create a video on the history of Uganda and all that lead to the creation of the LRA and the conflict (for that simply wouldn't lead to the donations and press!), but simplifying the entire issue to "good vs. bad" does more harm than good. The video claims at one point (12:01) that the LRA wasn't supported by anyone- that's a lie. The Ugandan conflict was/is part of the larger East/Central African conflict system, which involves Sudan, CAR, and DRC. The Government of Sudan supported the LRA in order to destabilize Uganda and the SPLA supported the Ugandan army. For all actors involved, an unstable region was beneficial. So the claim by IC that the LRA was not supported by anyone is a blatant lie and once again simplifies a very very complex issue. A proxy war between Sudan and Uganda simply cannot be simplified into a "good guy vs. bad guy" discourse. 

The explanation given by the founder of IC to his young son is ridiculous. For one, the thought of even trying to explain the situation to a three-year-old is a bit much for me. Two, the founder claims that if Kony is caught, it will change history. Yes, it'll do some good in the region, but it most definitely won't change the world. I'm going to defer to Solome Lemma:
[Uganda is] a long socioeconomic and political conflict that has lasted 25+ years and engaged multiple states and actors has been reduced to a story of the good vs bad guy. And if a three-year-old can understand it, so can you. You don’t have to learn anything about the children, Uganda, or Africa. You just have to make calls, put up flyers, sings songs, and you will liberate a poor, forgotten, and invisible people.
4. The video also makes it seem like the contribution of the 100 U.S. troops to hunt down Kony is a big success. Well, no, it isn't. Firstly, 100 soldiers is nothing. Secondly, Obama says that he did so because he believes that "deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy". Anyone bother asking what geopolitical interest the U.S. has in the region?" Sam Mgbele (@honestlyabroad) notes, "The U.S had over 20 years of chances to help catch Kony on Ugandan soil. Why now? To extend their Africom presence in DRC." And therein lies the truth.

5. Lastly is my issue with the organization as a whole. They feature hipster college students in their video, holding up peace signs, sticking up posters, and wearing IC t-shirts. What good is this doing? Nothing for those in Uganda. Sure it's raising awareness in the U.S., but that isn't doing anything tangible. Buying a bracelet, t-shirt, DVD is not saving a 'poor African', most likely the money is going to be spent towards creating a video, much like the one you just watched. hiiDunia asked, "Will rapid success of  lead to NGOs racing to produce high-octane slick videos and simplifying causes & effects to gain funding?" My answer: I sure hope not. 

So What?
So, in response to my fellow college students saying things like: "When you're given the opportunity to change the world, you have to take it." and "this nasty dude named Joseph Kony [is] stealing children and turning them into soldiers. Let me give him a piece of my mind..I swear......but anyways. Invisible Children is a WONDERFUL organization so WATCH THIS & SPREAD THE WORD!"and for those changing their profile pictures to the IC icons/ads - I suggest doing some research into the organization you so fully support, because what you might find if you look past the the deceiving video might disturb you. But then again, most who support this are trying to feel good about themselves (they are saving Africans!!) and not being put out any more than skimming a 30 minute video. So go ahead, pat your back, turn on Jersey Shore, and forget about the problem within an hour like I know you will. 

For those of you wondering, "So wait, if buying a bracelt won't stop children from being abducted, then what do I do?" I would agree with Scott Gilmore on this one: "Do me a favor. Donate, tonight, to an org that is actually helping. MSF, anyone."

For a full list of critiques about the Kony 2012 campaign and IC, check out Whydev.

And now, I leave you with a wonderfully cynical and sarcastic tweet by @paulclammer"Have decided to form my own NGO. Unsure whether to call it One Million Invisible Children, or Three Cups of Kony."

Now, I leave with the infamous video. Please, don't watch it unless you are going to play this Kony 2012 drinking game while doing so, because you will need a drink in hand. 

Ps. Africa is a Country hit the nail on the head with this post.


  1. Anonymous8.3.12

    I think I love you.... You have encapsulated what is wrong with every in vogue noble cause. I don't get it, Kony is not really at the height of his powers and the night children (as they were called last time the world was upset at this) are now the invisible children and the re-branding of this long running civil war continues.

  2. Thanks, Al! Yes, precisely! Not that what they are striving for is wrong, like I said, catch Kony - that'd be great! And I don't think anyone is saying he shouldn't be caught. But the problem is that don't 'brand', as you said, these children as 'invisible' because it hides the fact that they too are doing much in response to the violence that happened there. It isn't always necessary for us to do it 'our' way.

    And all these attention just comes so late in the conflict too, when right now, not enough people are standing up to what is happening in Syria, DRC, S.Sudan, etc.

    Also, I went to one of the meetings at my university once and they showed another 20-something minute video, where about 5% was about the conflict (and it didn't mention that it has died down) and the other 95% were about the founder or about one of the members who got killed in the Kampala world cup bombings by Al-Shabaab. Although it is very sad that he died, there is no denying that, it had nothing to do with the cause (because IC isn't involved with Al-Shabaab) and I think it was very very misleading and self-promotion-y...you know?

    Thanks for agreeing/commenting!


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