Kony 2012: Encouraging social change or oversimplifying a crisis?

Kony 2012, the much-discussed short film about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, has received more than 100 million views in one week, making it the most viral video of all time. The film, created by Jason Russell and released by American charity Invisible Children, aims to increase awareness of Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), responsible for mass atrocities in Uganda since 1987, including wide-scale abduction of children for sexual enslavement and fighting in the LRA. With their film, Russell and Invisible Children aim to encourage policymakers to put an end to Kony’s atrocities.

The video and the ensuing debate have put the issue of child soldiers back into the headlines, a development that many, including Child Soldiers International director Richard Clarke, embrace. Clarke tells The Guardian, “For us and the UN, it’s never gone away, but looking at the media, there’s been less and less on the issue than there was five or six years ago.”

But Kony 2012 has also been met with harsh criticism, including claims that the facts are outdated by several years and that they misrepresented the current state of affairs. Kony and the LRA have not been active in Uganda for five years, in fact, and are known to have fled for the Central African Republic.

Some question Invisible Children’s oversimplification of the situation and wonder if such awareness-raising campaigns lead to ill-conceived efforts to change the world. Yale political scientist Chris Blattman wrote in 2009, “One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures.”

Questions have also arisen about the charity’s finances, which largely go toward the group’s operating expenses. And there is the question of Invisible Children’s motives for advocating American military intervention in Uganda, and for offering assistance to the Ugandan army when Kony and LRA are not presently a threat there.

Can campaigns like Kony 2012 offer a legitimate tool for effecting social and political change, or is this a superficial diversion from a group ill-equipped to handle a complex humanitarian crisis? To expand upon this topic, HHR turns to Orla Kelly and Lauren Bateman, both research coordinators at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

HHR: Critics of Kony 2012 say that the film is drastically oversimplifying the situation with Kony and the LRA, relying on old data and presenting a potentially inaccurate portrayal of the current state of affairs in Uganda. How much does this matter if you are raising global awareness of a crisis that is not often in the headlines?

LB: I have a problem with the oversimplification and the outdated information, because it presents the situation in a way that makes people think that the solution is very simple, that it’s very direct. And it’s not. It’s much more complicated than the film portrays. The problem is much larger than Kony and it needs to be addressed — not by American soldiers and American politicians, but by regional actors, by local communities, by international courts. Not portraying the situation in that larger light does damage to the larger goal.

OK: This movie is an entry point into larger issues, many of which have been completely neglected. The issues in Central Africa are not high on many regular college students’ agenda in the US, or in many counties around the world. This video helps to get young people to feel the activism behind the Arab Spring, to unite through social media, to get involved in a movement. I agree that it is oversimplified, but should everyone have to be completely versed in the political, economic, historical details of an issue to get engaged? I think that’s exclusionary. You don’t get people involved through moral superiority, or a history lesson, and that is the way the world works; people have a lot on and most are not going to engage 100% on these issues if it’s not their job.

But Kony is like a figurehead, and maybe people need it to be simplified so that they can see that there is a “bad guy” as a start. Unfortunately the tradeoff is that it can do damage to the entire issue, but for some people this video is a first step; and soon they’ll Google, “Where is Uganda?” People regularly refer to Africa as a country! Why not use this spirit of getting involved, of participation? I think it goes beyond America, too; there are people in London and Sydney that are engaging in it, young people. It is also bigger than objectifying Kony as a terrible man, which he is. But maybe it is a starting point to getting people involved in a simplified way.

HHR: Critics of the movement are saying that it’s easy to get people to support the concept of changing the world, but a different thing entirely to effect real change. They’re calling it “slacktivism,” saying that it’s not enough to get people to read about Kony on Facebook or watch a video on YouTube. Is a campaign like this likely to precipitate real change?

OK: I think the Kony campaign goes beyond “slacktivism.” I mean the whole idea that they are trying to galvanize people to “take the night” on the 20th of April. Now, obviously, it’s going to be a tiny fraction of the people that watched the video that do this. But even if one thousand people take that step and do get up and become more involved in these issues, like first-year college students, isn’t that great? This isn’t just a video; as soon as you go on the site it says, “Donate here.” They want you to send money so they can send out bracelets and activism packs, so you go beyond just engaging in a very superficial way to getting more involved.

I think real change is happening through Facebook and social media. How many views did it get? I think that is change. The first step is awareness. People are not going to go from not knowing anything and not being in any way engaged in the issue to dropping their job and donating everything to a well-run organization, or becoming activists. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re not an expert at something you shouldn’t be involved, in the right way of course.

LB: This does have the potential for ramifications downstream, however, when you try to get people involved in a more sophisticated way. If this organization tells the world that the problem in Central Arica is Joseph Kony, what happens if he is arrested and the problem continues? They haven’t built any bridge to this as the first step to handling the major problem. Kony is a symptom of a larger problem. If the Kony 2012 supporters see that the problem continues after his arrest, or if they see that he’s not arrested, will those supporters get behind other attempts to solve the problem, maybe at a more grassroots level, or targeting other players? So I’m concerned about the other aspects of the problem in the region.

HHR: How does a campaign like Kony 2012 impact the work of organizations that are better versed in the complexities of dealing with Kony and others like him, and have been doing more informed work in this area? Does it undermine them?

OK: Invisible Children, though, aren’t just an online organization. It’s not just a guy who has made a video. They do have community outreach and work on a whole range of issues at a grassroots level. I haven’t taken an extremely in-depth look at their organization or done a forensic analysis of what they’ve spent every dollar on, but the point is this video is aimed at raising awareness of a broad target audience. If we were to ask their program manager for Uganda, who is likely a Ugandan person, to come talk to us, they could tell us more about the issues than anyone here. But unfortunately for the world, some guy giving a talk at Harvard on the nuances of the issues isn’t going to reach the same amount of people, as this video. So it’s balancing details, and I agree that they should have put in more details, but it is a fine line. This is not for the experts; this is for everybody. This video is for a broad audience, so you take a different tack. I do take the point that they could have also added in a few points about the complexities of the issue and how the organization plans to continue their work in the county, if Kony is brought to justice. Lauren’s point on keeping the momentum going is a fair criticism, but that doesn’t undermine the entire movement in my view.

LB: The biggest impact on organizations working on the same issue or similar issues is that if they are taking the stand that they are going to educate donors on the complexities of the situation. Invisible Children, like many other NGOs, is playing off the shorter attention spans of younger generations, and playing off of a desire for a simple solution. I’m worried that other organizations that take a more nuanced approach in their marketing and awareness-raising are not going to be able to get anyone’s attention because the donors will think, “This other guy has a much simpler solution.” So they are going to give their money to this guy because this guy says all we have to do is wear a bracelet and all we have to do is arrest a guy. We don’t have to look at community economics, education structure, family dynamics, local-national politics

OK: I agree. Using these mass marketing strategies, there is also an onus on you to use the money in an informed way and in the best way possible. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can reach the masses, and the donors need to be somewhat educated, but they don’t need to know, for example, cultural barriers to access to certain services. If they’re interested, the information should be there. But the reality is, people don’t have the time or the inclination to be that engaged. If they were, the world would be a different place. That’s a fact. So you accept that. You have different levels of outreach, you have different information available, but of course you can’t be reckless.

If you do galvanize enough support, you have to have a long-term strategy of how you are going to keep that going, and so on. Addressing the complexities with the money you raised — that should be extremely nuanced. Absolutely, this includes hiring the best people for the job, mobilizing grassroots; all the things that we know to be effective. But getting people’s attention and mobilizing resources at the mass level is difficult; and too much detail will lose a lot of people. Obviously, you can’t just create a bad guy; it has to be representative, and that’s very important. But I don’t know about bringing in all the complexities — people will feel that there’s no hope, and they just won’t engage. And if no one engages, the issue just goes out of the public domain.

HHR: There’s criticism around the way Invisible Children is using their funding — that they are not spending enough on the victims of the conflict and that their finances lack transparency. The group spent $850,000 on production costs in 2011, largely for DVDs, bracelets, and travel. The CEO released a follow-up video defending their spending decisions, saying that it’s necessary to “plunge funding into mass awareness campaigns in order to galvanize support for the mission.” Is this a valid use of funding? Should they be more transparent?

LB: Donors need to be educated around the fact that organizations need overhead. They need production costs. They need to pay their staff. They need to have these things if they are going to do things like awareness raising, and even traveling to their sites. I think the larger issue is what they are selling themselves as. If they are selling themselves as an awareness-raising organization, then absolutely they should be using that money to raise awareness. In their video, they mention, for about 30 seconds, the actual work they did on the ground. You need to be clear to your donors where this money is going. Its good stewardship; there are all sorts of guidelines around use of funding. If you’re saying that x amount goes to your programs, I would actually be concerned about how effective those programs are, not just the dollar amount. Their theory of change in the video is, we get to politicians, politicians get [American] soldiers to Uganda, Kony gets arrested. If that is their theory of change, then they should be using their money on advocacy, and on targeting politicians, and on demonstrating the impact. Asking, “Is this making a change?” If they’re not sure about that theory of change, or if they are not sure if it’s working, then yes, there is a problem.

OK: They need to promote fiscal transparency, and that is a problem across the industry.  I think Invisible Children does also engage in grassroots and have programmatic work. So they have to demonstrate the effectiveness of that; and for donors, they need to show what money is going where. Donors also need to understand that a lot of overhead is needed, and that’s where you lose people.

The other side is that if they made a simple video about, “We built this school here,” I don’t think they would have gotten the same traction. It’s about the balance of attracting the masses and the appropriate communication strategies you have to your stakeholders.

HHR: There was a photo published in Uganda’s largest independent newspaper of the filmmakers holding assault rifles and posing with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The paper said that this was evidence of a “neocolonialist mentality where the white charity worker comes off as the long-awaited savior.” Should Americans be engaging in this issue or should we be supporting resolution by those in the region?

LB: Everyone needs to be aware of what is going on in the world, and people from every country should take action and contact politicians and organizations when something is happening that concerns them. I mostly agree with what the Ugandan paper said. I have a slightly different bent on my criticism: If you’re doing humanitarian work, which I think Invisible Children would classify themselves as doing, you have to be conscious of what you do when you are in the field. And if you are a humanitarian worker, there are all these principles you are supposed to follow around neutrality and impartiality. Yes, they are an advocacy organization, but they are advocating for the end of a conflict, and if they go around posing with guns, that sends a really mixed message. Are they really against the conflict; do they think that this is a joke? I am not saying this to besmirch the Ugandan army, but it is a conflict where things have happened on both sides. If you are allying yourself with a specific faction or a particular armed group, it can be dangerous for yourself and also for the people you are helping. So I was really disappointed not only that they took that picture but also that they defended it as something that did as a joke.

OK: I haven’t seen the newspaper article, but of course it’s very disappointing and damaging to their campaign to be reckless like that. It is part of a broader issue of proper training for people who are in the field. It’s about being thoughtful when you’re in the field, abiding by a code of ethics and a set of standards which may need to be addressed as being industry-wide for NGOs and humanitarian workers.

But I don’t think you should be excluded from wanting to engage with something because it doesn’t happen inside your borders. I don’t think someone should be excluded because of their nationality, because that perspective is not in anyone’s interest either. We don’t want a case where people’s intentions are good, but they don’t feel justified in getting involved in any way because they of a different skin color or they are not from a certain country. It cannot be exclusionary. There needs to be more standards and training about how best to engage in these types of issues, but we don’t want to get to a point where people can’t feel empathy or identify with someone else because they are not of that nationality or from that country.

LB: There’s a really thoughtful blog out there called “Good Intentions Are Not Enough,” written by a woman who focuses almost exclusively on educating donors about what donating practices can be harmful and what are the most helpful. She educates people, for example, about how sending shoes over to Africa probably isn’t the most helpful thing to do, and she is really trying to figure out a way that donors can have the most impact and not cause any more harm. You can cause harm as a donor without realizing it if you’re not educated about the issues.

HHR: Thanks to you both for sharing your views.

– Jessica Moore-Kaplan