I have refrained from making public comments about the very controversial KONY 2012 movie that shook the entire world early in March 2012, but with most of the world’s pent-up energy now spent, I’ll give a few of my personal thoughts on the documentary, Invisible Children and some of the critiques that have trailed the documentary.
The movie ‘KONY 2012’ is a documentary filmed by Invisible Children (IC), an advocacy organization, based in the United States, and operating in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). According to IC, the purpose of the documentary is “to stop the rebel group LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and its leader Joseph Kony”. IC also states on its website that “Invisible Children uses film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity”.
Having watched the documentary with close scrutiny, I have concluded that IC’s motives for releasing this documentary are: to raise global awareness of the LRA, Joseph Kony and the atrocities committed over a 20-year period in Uganda, and for the last 6 years in DRC and CAR; to persuade the American government to increase its military intelligence presence in central Africa to strengthen the mission of tracking Joseph Kony and his associates; and to ensure that Joseph Kony gets arrested in 2012.
In my impression, the documentary was a phenomenal success because of the following:
(i) Use of young voices (from London, New York, Mexico, Toronto and Sydney) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube),
(ii) Appeal to celebrities and decision makers (20 culture makers and 12 policy makers – playing with the symbolism of the year 2012). “They (culture makers) have a loud voice and what they talk about trends immediately” (23:25); “They (policy makers) are the ones that have the authority to see Kony captured; they decide if the advisors stay or leave” (24:46);
(iii) Incorporation of the voices of proven human rights advocates – Luis Moreno Ocampo, John Prendergast, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Ambassador Susan Rice and others;
(iv) Appeal to innocence and human values – using Jason Russell’s son, Gavin, as an image of a world to be desired. “He was born into a pretty complicated world and as a dad, I want him to grow up in a better world than I did” – Jason Russell (03.27);
(v) Appeal to simplicity – by focusing on Joseph Kony, the LRA and their activities, they dissociate from the complex problems in Uganda and central Africa and focus rather on “the dream – Kony arrested for the world to see, and the abducted children returned home” (22:39).
Invisible Children’s strategies
According to IC’s website, half of their programs (developmental) are carried out in Central Africa, while the other half (advocacy) are carried out in the United States. IC has intentionally chosen a three-pronged mission of awareness, advocacy, and on-the-ground development. IC devotes a third of their income to each segment. In 2011, IC spent 80.46% of her income on her mission, 16.24% on administration and 3.22% on direct fundraising. By producing several documentaries, touring them across the world, hosting the Fourth Estate conference in the US in August 2011, engaging in far-reaching advocacy initiatives to different levels of the US congress and government, reaching as far as the Chief Prosecutor of the International Crimes Court in the Netherlands, supporting 700 secondary school students and 250 university students through the Legacy Scholarship program, partnering to rebuild 11 schools, developing curriculums and training teachers through the Schools for Schools program, supporting 22 seamstresses through the MEND program, building the Early Warning Radio Network to alert LRA-affected communities of impending danger, producing and translating fliers into three languages to attract former child-soldiers home, and building a 250-person capacity rehabilitation center in DRC to provide psychosocial counselling, vocational training and family reunification services, Invisible Children seems to be fulfilling its three-pronged mission.
While this model appears on the surface to be a significant departure from conventional practices of devoting a large percentage to programs, because only 37.14% of income is devoted to programs in central Africa, IC actually spends over 80% of its income on programs (awareness, advocacy and development), which is actually not a rarity in the field of civil society organizations.
The activities of Invisible Children have been explained by Jordan and Van Tuijl (2000) as transnational NGO advocacy. Keck and Sikkink (1998) refer to transnational advocates as “people who care enough about some issue that they are prepared to incur significant costs and act to achieve their goals”
Critiques of the movie and Invisible Children’s strategies
Several of the criticisms levelled against Invisible Children and Kony 2012 include: directing their appeal to the US government; clamoring for increased US military presence in Africa; publicising Kony whose atrocities occurred several years ago; ignoring the Ugandan army which has committed many atrocities too; oversimplifying the problems in Uganda and not capturing the causes of the crisis; portraying Africa as a continent in need of help and America as the ‘white savior’; ‘commercializing’ the tragedies of Ugandans; employing no Ugandans on IC’s staff; awareness raising is useless – money will be better spent on programs and that the movie gets young people fired up about a crisis they cannot solve.
Are these critiques justifiable? Yes they are. According to Lisa Jordan (2011), “even if a group or community is not directly affected by the actions of an international institution, they may feel that they have the right to air their voices in the debate as informed members of the public who bring valuable experience and expertise to the table”. However, as Alnoor Ebrahim (2005) states, the sharp criticisms that have been directed at IC regarding their accountability, and the myopia of focusing only on the financial figures can impede the organization’s learning and distract from the process of improving their programs based on the feedback they are receiving.
Invisible Children’s response to critiques
Invisible Children has given a very comprehensive response to several of the criticisms on its website and in a video recording and I agree with their arguments. As a group of film-makers, it is reasonable that they spend a third of their income on film-making; as an advocacy organization, it is reasonable that they spend a third of their income on advocacy, and as a group working to rehabilitate LRA-affected areas, it is reasonable that they spend a third of their income on projects on the ground. The criticisms about IC employing no Ugandans on their staff are absolutely unfounded; on their website, they state that 95% of their staff on the ground is Ugandan. As regards painting Africa as a dark continent, I doubt that that was the intention of the film-makers; they were merely reporting the grievous situation as they saw it and calling for people to “not just watch”. The world has been equally appalled by the problems in Syria and across the Middle-East and people have responded with equal concern. As regards the call for increased military support in the region, Ambassador Susan Rice stated in the movie that the call was for military advisors to assist the regional forces to track Joseph Kony, not for the military to populate the area as people have falsely peddled. Furthermore, Senator John McCain has recently been calling for America to take the lead and increase it’s military presence in Syria, but nobody is calling him out for that; they are more concerned about 100 military advisors helping regional forces in Africa.
Of course, the movie oversimplifies the complex governance and poverty issues in Uganda, but IC has never claimed to be working to resolve the poverty problems in Uganda – it’s mission is clearly to seek the arrest of Joseph Kony (which is in line with the efforts of the International Criminal Court) and to work to rehabilitate LRA-affected regions, which is what they have worked to do since 2006. Of course, the Ugandan military, just like most militaries across the world (including the UN Peacekeeping forces and the American military – most recently in Afghanistan and Pakistan) have committed atrocities, yet they are still the most appropriate agency for ending the conflict. Finally, the criticism about advocacy and awareness being less important than on-the-ground programs is very weak – without the successful advocacy work that IC has done, it is highly unlikely that they would have generated the money which they have employed in their several successful development programs in central Africa. I am strongly in support of Invisible Children and their efforts, though I agree that there is a whole lot more that could be done, possibly by partner agencies and other concerned citizens. For their stated mission and strategy, I believe that Invisible Children deserves commendation, encouragement and support, not unending (and often false) criticism.
PS: These are my personal views. I understand that my views may not be widely accepted, but I reserve the right to express them.