Invisible Children, Inc. is an organization that has been plagued with numerous criticisms from various media outlets for years. One of its strongest critics has been the esteemed publication Foreign Policy Magazine which has released various reports detailing concerns with the organization’s operation practices. Other outlets have also expressed concerns about Invisible Children’s financial transparency as well as the way in which its funds are spent; the organization has been accused of directing too many funds towards administrative costs and filmmaking ventures. Its collaboration with the Ugandan government, which has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, has also come under a great deal of scrutiny.
Although all of these concerns are legitimate, I would like to focus on the recently released film KONY 2012 which has gone viral. As of this evening, March 9, the film has received over 58 million views on YouTube. While the initially response was positive, with millions of people (primarily under the age of 25) sharing the video through email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., criticism of the video is slowly emerging. And rightly so, in my opinion.
Perhaps most tellingly, I believe that the people that first drew attention to problems with KONY 2012 were Africans across the diaspora who saw inherent problems with the way in which the film furthered the longstanding Western NGO tradition of engaging in white paternalism, perpetuating the idea of the white man’s burden and oversimplifying the narratives of African affairs. These Africans, myself included, were immediately uncomfortable with the way in which Jason Russell, the film’s director and Invisible Children co-founder, portrayed the conflict as a simple story of a bad man named Joseph Kony to his cherubic, chubby-cheeked son. Are we, the viewer, as simple-minded as a small child? The issues surrounded the LRA and Joseph Kony are complex rather than the one-dimensional and straightforward as Russell would have us believe.
Despite the criticism that he has faced, Jason Russell does not seem to see the problem with the oversimplifications of his short film. In fact, in a New York Times interview, Russell states the following: “No one wants a boring documentary on Africa…Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool…We view ourself as the Pixar of human rights stories.” That story ends tellingly with Russell stating that producers “are getting in touch with the Academy Awards. They want this to be up for an Oscar.” These statements only highlight the fact that Invisible Children does not care about glossing over complexities as long as they are telling a juicy story, a literally black-and-white story in which the white Western saviors shall come to deliver the poor, suffering Ugandans. The film implicitly suggests that it is the white man’s duty to come in and civilize the “brutal African”. It reeks of neo-colonialism.
I believe that that narrative is extremely dangerous as it manipulates the identity of the Ugandan people. It exploits them. It paints them as victims when they are not. These children are not invisible. People know they exist and people have been fighting to help them for decades. This film and, at times, this organizations seems to suggest that this children become visible only when the West see them, a notion that robs them of their dignity. It suggests that the Ugandan people have done nothing to try to end this conflict. That only the West can save them - a viewpoint that is sorely misplaced.
KONY 2012 also occasionally seems out of touch with reality. It seems to be advocating a large-scale military intervention when President Obama has already commanded 100 troops to be sent to the Ugandan region to help with efforts to stop the LRA. Realistically, that is all that the US will send because it is not a large foreign policy concern as it does not directly affect us. As cynical as it may be, it remains the truth that the US government will not intervene unless American interests are at stake. Those 100 troops are the best we’re going to get and President Museveni would most likely not look kindly on an American invasion of his nation. There has been a dramatic reduction in violence in northern Ugandan in recent years, partially due to amnesty practices, and KONY 2012 is asking for us to bring in more violence in the form of military intervention, thereby disrupting the region’s fragile sense of peace.
Finally, let me correct some misconceptions that the film perpetuates or suggests. Firstly, the numbers of the LRA have dramatically dwindled in recent years due to the efforts of Ugandan troops and AFRICOM. The film gives the impression that Kony has thousands of troops at his disposal when, in reality, he has, at most, a couple hundred. Additionally, the film frames the fight against Kony as a fight centered in Uganda, when, according to several reports, Kony has not been in Uganda for the past six years. Rather, efforts should focus to his shift to the DRC where he, along with various other rebel groups, have contributed to that nation’s chronic instability and violence. We might better serve Uganda could also refocus efforts on other problems plaguing the region such as nodding disease.
Buying a KONY bracelet is a great way for citizens to feel good about themselves without actually doing anything. Sharing a video on a website is an excellent way to show your pity and your “concern”, only to forget about it later. I would like to see many of these new KONY activists who now profess to know everything there is to know about the conflict due to the video show us where Uganda is located on a map. If they can do so, then we may discuss what they can realistically accomplish.