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Monday, March 12, 2012

Let's Talk About KONY 2012

By now, most people have seen, read about and/or formed an opinion on Invisible Children's latest documentary, KONY 2012. From strictly a marketing perspective, the film was an absolute smash out of the gates, netting 72 million views and $5 million in donations (and counting) within a week. I can't remember seeing anything in the non-profit or charitable organization world garner that much exposure in such a quick amount of time.

Because of the meteoric impact of the film on popular culture, I feel like I have to address it. The Benevolent Beard has a bit of history with Invisible children - the first iteration of this project was to raise money for IC, in addition to Doctors Without Borders. As I touted on my web site, I initially chose these organizations because of their both their positive work and their financial transparency and the percentage of their funds that went to programs. In all, my Beardamaniacs donated $4,000 in the name of The Benevolent Beard to Invisible Children over the course of nine months. During these months, IC was able to convince Obama to pass the LRA bill in 2010, giving US aid to the Ugandan hunt for Joseph Kony. I felt it was a real win, and really all IC could realistically do from their position, and in turn the organization would begin to focus on the ground intiatives in Uganda and issues like education, rehabilitation, and grassroots activism.

Invisible Children did, to some extent, but it came with the release of KONY 2012 that they were actually focusing their attention elsewhere. This surprised me. When the video first hit, every celebrity I could think of was talking about it, from George Clooney to Justin Beiber to Landon Donovan. I have no idea how they were able to get such a viral impact, hitting seemingly every corner of American popular culture with the message of the movie. The message of the movie, which is done very well as most of their films are, is that Kony needs as much attention as possible to become International Public Enemy #1 in order to be stopped, so that Uganda can resume its daily activities without fear of kidnappings, rapes and murders.

It seems noble enough. Kony is a terrible man that has done terrible things and deserves to be captured. I don't think anyone can disagree with that, whether you are a fan of KONY 2012 or not. The only issue is, however, that the message of the movie is entirely misdirected and inapproriate. The people that need to know about Kony and his atrocities - people like the Ugandan government and militaries, the UN, etc. - have known about him for 25 years. And in terms of dealing with him, well, they have already done that, too. In 2006, Kony fled Uganda and is rumored to be less than 200 soldiers strong (though the one mention of Kony's fleeing is mentioned as an afterthought in KONY 2012, and even left a bit unclear as to whether or not the LRA was fleeing or in fact spreading). In 2010, as I mentioned before, 100 US agents arrived in Uganda to aid in the search (which is a whole separate ethical and conspiracy conversation on its own). Kony is scared, is no longer a threat, and is no longer in Uganda.

So why are millions of people calling for his immediate head on a platter all of the sudden? The simple answer is because they don't know any better.

Invisible Children's model of outreach has always been inspiring to me. Making movies, using art and media to drive awareness for a cause that needs it (side note - many people throw out the number of 31% of financials being put to programs, and to an extent, it is true. When asked about it, IC's PR flak responded on the web site that 90% does and always has gone to programs as part of a three prong approach... it just happens to be that 2 of the 3 prongs are the moviemaking, traveling and marketing aspects of what it takes to do the organization's mission, thus leaving the 3rd prong, and about 31% of financials available to their programs. I hope that is clear). It was fresh, innovative, and sustainable. I watched their movies, I felt connected with the children in the movie, and I even got to meet some of them both in Texas and in Uganda, when I was there in 2011. But, now, as I see with the misuse of KONY 2012's impact, I can see just how powerful and potentially damaging the model can be.

Justin Beiber, he who has millions of followers on Twitter, (mostly adolescent girls that swoon for him and call themselves "Beleibers") staunchly advocated for #stopkony and #kony2012 on the day of the movie's release. While already skeptical of his knowledge and experience on writing love songs, I am pretty positive he knows nothing about Uganda, foreign policy, or the ramifications of what he is advocating. In turn, millions of teeny boppers retweeted their idol's pleas and, combined with other celebrity interactions, you have 72 million movie views and even more incensed Twitter and Facebook status updates parading KONY 2012.

What are the consequences of this? I am glad I asked, because there are several. In addition to the obvious issue of foreign policy, you have more subtle ripple effects like "white burden", colonialism, racism and ultimately, violence.

I've read a number of anecdotes about Ugandans fearing the repercussions of KONY 2012. Some think that the increased attention will actually make Kony stronger by attracting recruits to him. Some thing it will scare him into action. But all seem to ask the question, "Why?" Since the LRA was contained in 2006, Uganda has been rebuilding, and even flourishing in some parts. That being said, it is a developing country and still remains a work in progress, but the important thing is that Ugandans realize this and are working to make that happen organically. Many of the victims of Kony and LRA in the 1990's and 2000's are now older, but still homeless and in need of intervention and a stronger development in rural areas. How does KONY 2012 help them?

When I was in Uganda, I was amazed at Kampala, even during protests, and how "well put together" the city is. The number of educated people, in Kampala, Jinja, and Masaka far outnumbered those in Tanzania, where I lived for a year (granted these are all Southern cities). In fact, I could even see the difference in infrastructure and attitude within 10 km of the Tanzanian-Ugandan border. Lilian, one of the girls featured in Invisible Children's documentary "GO!", met with me in Kampala and we talked at length at the improvements within Uganda, Gulu specifically, since 2006. I was a bit apprehensive about going to Gulu because of the Invisible Children films I had seen, but she allayed my fear and told me that Gulu is safe now, and people are thriving and it is beautiful, and I had nothing to worry about.

Unfortunately, I ended up going to Southern Tanzania to work and didn't make i to Gulu this time around. But, can you imagine if a 27 year old pre-Kony Invisible Children supporter that had been living in Africa for a year still had trepidations of my imagery of Gulu, and compare that to the effect that a sensationalist endeavor like KONY 2012 has on the Western perception of Uganda? The film makes Uganda (which really has little to do with Kony at this point in time) seem like a war torn, rebel-filled, dangerous place where you are as likely to get raped or abducted as you are of growing up and being successful. And as many Ugandans will tell you, that is not the case at all, and it is actually pretty offending to have their country portrayed as so.

White Saviors
Another impact this campaign has, whether it is conscious or not, is that Uganda cannot take care of its own problems, and it needs as much help as it can get in the form of donations to Invisible Children and social media support. I have myself been victim to the feeling of the White Man's Burden. This is not at all positive - that because we are exponentially wealthier than Africans, that it is our duty to "bring the savages up". It is these sort of sentiments that led to colonialization (which destroyed Africa, but that is another conversation as well) and stunting of development in the form of reliance on another people for problem solving. It is the pictures you see from a number of organizations, pulling at heart strings because a little African child is fending for herself in a cruel world without your help. KONY 2012 is a prime example of that - a movie 100% targeted to Westerners to expand that feeling of "being moved" (which, I concede, many documentaries aim to do).

If there was an immediate problem (which there isn't), believe it or not, Ugandans have heaps of brilliant, educated people to figure it out without the help of Americans, English or Germans.

What Does It Mean?
So the movie has come out. We talked about my perceived impact, how they did it, and what its about. But what is the next step? What does it hope to accomplish? According to Jason Russell, one of the head folks at IC, KONY 2012 is about doing whatever it takes to bring justice to Joseph Kony. In this case, it means fighting violence with violence. Essentially, from what I can understand, IC will be funding the Ugandan government and military to make it happen. Is it in the place of a foreign non-profit organization to meddle in the military affairs of not only Uganda, but also its own country of the United States? Every "like" on Facebook or $1 donated to Invisible Children in result of KONY 2012 is a resounding yes, and that is a scary thing.

I don't think the intentions of all of this were bad. I have heard conspiracy theories about AFRICOM and oil in Uganda and ties with the Sudanese governments and the US military wanting control in African countries, and I am not sure I buy them (but as with everything, I am open to hear about it). The intentions of the Justin Beibers of the world are also good. But the important question is, "What good can come of it?" It is a blind, popular vote following something that very little people have researched or thought more than 3 minutes about. And, conversely, I do believe that the large amount of backlash of the KONY 2012 campaign is from the people that did take the time to say," Hey, wait a minute!", and not just from "haters", as I have seen the dissenters called.

Again, I love what Invisible Children has done in the past, and I think they could be a huge positive force in Uganda if they moved themselves in a thoughtful, non-sensational and more subtle direction. I also think that getting so many millions of young people to talk about charity, help and something outside of their own country is a feat in itself. However, KONY 2012 could be a very dangerous thing, and I just hope that supporters of both Invisible Children and the film have the presence of mind to digest the magnitude of the movement they are supporting before they hit the "Retweet" or "Donate" button.

*Here is a response video from Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children


  1. Thank you for putting so much thought in to this article. I have many responses, but being short on time, I will just say that what your article does not mention is that there is still an immediate need. People of Congo, CAR, and Sudan are still being attacked by the LRA. Invisible Children has a crisis tracker that shows all of the recent attacks.

    And even though simply watching Kony2012 does not directly help those recovering in Uganda, going to their website and getting involved in their campaigns can. That 31% that goes to programs on the ground makes a powerful impact. It brings millions of dollars to efforts like building schools, providing mentorships, and setting up radio towers in remote villages to warn them when the LRA is in the area.

    You made many good points in this article though, and I am so glad that you care enough to speak out. THANK YOU! :)

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I think one of the things I allude to is that though the LRA is a very bad thing, and attacks are still happening, they are nowhere near the magnitude of the other problems Uganda is facing, and that is my main concern with the video (read: it is misdirected).

      I think the thing a lot of people have to realize with financial percentages of larger organizations is that though 31% is a very low number when compared with other orgs, it is still a HUGE amount of money (I think around $2.9 million?) that is being used. So you have to take the good with the bad. On one hand, you are only giving $2.9 million instead of $6 million, but on the other hand, the money spent on everything else is what got the organization to have those kind of funds.