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Invisible Children: Saviors or Sensationalists?

UPDATE: This was a really popular post this week with some interesting comments from readers. I thought people would enjoy the repost. Please weigh in with your thoughts. As I write, it looks like the Invisible Children Video (embedded below) will have been viewed on YouTube about 55 million times in 4 days. And, now, the Main Stream Media is jumping on board.

 

Ed note.  Invisible Children’s new advocacy video has caught the social media world by storm. There’s been nearly 2 million views on YouTube since it was posted two days ago, and a raging discussion on Twitter.  I (Mark) asked Alanna to for her thoughts on the video.  She is a fantastic writer and framed the post as “Invisible Children: Saviors or Sensationalists?” I don’t think she or I actually believe they are ALL one or the other, but it’s a great hook and I took the bait.

Alanna comes down more on the latter and I on the former. Have a look and let us know what you think.

Alanah Shaikh: More Sensationalists than Savior. 

Invisible Children, the advocacy group known for its cool-looking t-shirts and aggressive advertising, has suddenly reappeared in social media with a new campaign called KONY2012. Backed by a stunning video, the campaign calls for military intervention to remove Joseph Kony. There’s a website where you can donate, merchandise to buy, and the biggest trending twitter hashtag in the world: #KONY2012. It’s an impressive advocacy effort.

But is it actually a good idea?

I am not a Uganda expert. I’ve heard of Joseph Kony. I know of the LRA. I am not qualified to take on the question of whether Invisible Children is advocating for a useful solution. I am, however, reasonably familiar with aid and NGOs. When I look at the organization, this is what I see:

Their communications are heavy on shock value, light on content. How do they want to eliminate Joseph Kony? What does Invisible Children actually do? It’s so hard to find out that it seems as though they are deliberately obscuring it. The Unmuted blog states that Invisible Children has no Ugandans on its US staff or board of directors. On my first attempt, I couldn’t even tell if that was true. I couldn’t get through the flash-heavy website to find out anything about the organization. I could buy bracelets, though, no problem.

Eventually, I got around the Invisible Children’s front page by using a search engine and found the organization’s staff listing. As far as I can tell, Unmuted is correct. There are no Ugandans on the board of directors or the US staff. That is a big red flag for me. (They also don’t have any women of people of color on their board, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Percentage of funding spent on overhead is not a good way of judging an organization. That being said, based on IC’s own financials, as far as I can tell they took in $13 million dollars last year and 2.8 million of that went to Uganda. If they’re an advocacy organization, that’s fine. They should be spending their money in Washington and London and Brussels and Beijing, pushing for action.

But that’s not how they package themselves. They package themselves as a group that does advocacy and “gets their hands dirty.” Here’s what they say on their website “We implement and maintain education programs and economic initiatives on the ground in Central Africa. Recovering communities require stability when it comes to education and economic initiatives, but the ever-changing conflict demands innovative solutions and quick mobilization. Our initiatiatives (sic) attempt to meet the region’s need for both stability and flexibility.” But the IRS 990 forms are hard to read. Take a look at the IC form yourself – I may just be missing something here. (One more discussion for another day – when did Uganda move from East Africa to Central?)

Finally, there have been no shortage of efforts to kill Joseph Kony and end the violence in Uganda. The International Crisis Group has a good overview. They fail, and they often do harm. Why does Invisible Children think this is the best solution? Why do they think their approach can succeed where others didn’t? The KONY 2012 campaign doesn’t tell us.

Joseph Kony is a murderer and an awful human being. But there’s blood on the hands of the Ugandan army, too. This is not a conflict with a shortage of atrocities on any side. If Invisible Children wants our support, they need go beyond explaining why Kony is bad. They need to tell us what IC does, what approach they’ll take to removing Kony, why they believe it will work, and what happens after that.

Right now, they’re not giving us that. Right now, they’re giving us a dramatic video and some really well-designed accessories.

Mark: More Savior Than Sensationalist!

I don’t have any grand aspirations that this video will somehow affect whether or not Kony is captured and sent to the ICC.  Ultimately, I don’t think that’s the significance of this video (though the Invisible Children people would probably dispute that claim!) Rather, this campaign is potentially game changing because for the way it nurtures the burgeoning civilian protection/genocide prevention movement here in the United States.

We need to think about the long game. How do we empower a political movement that demystifies some of the tools we have available to prevent mass atrocity?  How do we make US government cooperation with the ICC as uncontroversial as using foreign aid to fight Malaria? How do we  make it so Congressional appropriations over paying US dues to UN peacekeeping are not long, drawn out political battles? How do we secure more funding for security sector reform? Ultimately, all of this requires changing attitudes of our elected officials — which in turn requires a mobilized electorate.

Laura Seay writes, “My basic premise is that the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.” In the short term, she is probably right. Over the long run, though, awareness of American college students can be one part of a larger effort to build a movement to empower our own government and governments around the world to invest in conflict prevention tools.

Campaigns like Invisible Children have an important role to play in this process.


  • Alex Zucker

    With all due respect, Mark, and thanks for raising the issue: You cite Bec Hamilton’s book in support of your argument, yet her book makes painfully clear how ineffective Save Darfur and GI-Net were when it came to helping people in Sudan itself. Those organizations’ focus on changing U.S. policy, even when successful, had little impact in terms of saving Sudanese lives. Their need to keep members and donors feeling good about what they were doing, feeling that they had an impact, was often a distraction from their stated mission(s) of ending violence. This is the challenge that every mass advocacy movement faces. It is a bind. And probably an inescapable one. 

  • None

    Back in 2007 IC had a nationwide protest, but when the protesters were quizzed on LRA and basic Uganda facts, they came up short.  IC seems to be best at marketing itself, not doing anything of substance.

    • Mabernethy

      quizzed? Obviously people should know what they are fighting for, but pop-quizzing doesn’t prove what people DO know, it proves what they don’t, and who can be blamed for not knowing something?

  • pdm in Melbourne

    So easy to find fault in others. Are you now seriously saying that they should shut up and NOT do anything? Seems to me that all those who didn’t have the idea find ways to bring it all down. Not good enough. I for one want my kids to be involved, to look into these issues, to make a judgement call.

    I would guess that not one of the millions of kids have ever read anything you blog – yet they are talking about this? So why cant you congratulate instead of being so pathetically negative.

  • TAD

    What is the significance of having Ugandan nationals on the staff of the organization. The point is to capture a man who is guilty of atrocities beyond human imagination. This is about humanity, more than just a single country. So shouldn’t it take any and all efforts to bring him to justice. It is not about the vehicle, but the destination, in this case. When Osama Bin Laden was caught and killed, nobody asked if there were any Saudi Arabian, Pakastani or other Middle Eastern troops involved in the mission did they? It wasn’t about who did it, rather that it was done.

    • akol sylvia

      thank you TAd, that was so strong.

    • mimi cherono ng’ok

      hmmm….let me think about this one..could it be because Ugandans are the ones who have to deal with the repercussions of any kony intervention. last time they tried to catch him, and FAILED, he went on a notorious rampage as as a response. Invisible children never have to deal with this situation long term, they get to come and go as they please, Ugandans do, so it would be fair that we consider their opinions.

  • Mandymerheb

    I completely agree with this article I myself have watched the video at Least 3 times and everytime I watch it I come up with new questions.
    I dont disagree that Kony is a bad man but how and what are IC going to end this. Once or if Kony is caught, how do we know if his right hand man won’t take over the role.

  • Guest

    As far as I understood the film, its purpose is to keep Kony in the public’s awareness so that 100 U.S. military advisors are not withdrawn from helping the local military in capturing Kony. As someone who’s dabbled in international law – that is not a military intervention.

    I would have loved more info on the facts, but the aim of this video was to make people care, and it definitely achieved that. It’s not a bad thing to tell people about this. When I searched the website of my country’s most important news show for Kony’s name, I got zero results, and that is wrong on so many levels. Here’s to hoping that people will be smart enough to do some research after watching the video to make a more informed choice on whether or not to get involved.

    • http://twitter.com/FaithAbiodun Faith Abiodun

      You’ve been a very wise commentator. I absolutely detest all these ‘experts’ who have complained about what these innocent young men have been doing in Uganda and DRC. Unmuted blog was so wrong about no Ugandans being on the staff and no women of color being on the team. The country director of Invisible Children in Uganda, Mrs Jolly Okot and the several others who are featured on their website obviously are not ghosts. People are too quick to criticize, without doing any research. What a shameless world we live in! 

  • Autumn

    Here is a link to their entire “team” (it can be sorted between US and Uganda employees-and it can be sorted again between departments). 
    http://www.invisiblechildren.com/our-team 

    What I notice is 9 employees devoted to the film department (other departments are smaller); Ben Keesey’s wife working as Director of Human Resources; 2/7 Board of Directors are from a copier company, which also sells equipment and supplies to I-C; 1 Board of Director operates a “church” that also seems to be selling itself through video (probably made by I-C film department?); 

    Talk about your 1%—! I won’t call the organization a total scam, but I will say it always amazes me how easily some people manage to build an empire out of nothing.

  • akol sylvia

    what joseph kony has committed are crimes against humanity,i was a victim of the LRA,and invisible children is doing  the right thing .its time for the whole world to know that one joseph kony the worst rebel leader exists and support his arrest by ICC.

  • Heather

    47,000,000 not two million as stated.

  • Asmallwood32

    this whole kony 2012 thing is a scam everyone who supports it needs to do their research. obama just wants to use this to make him self look good . there is a quot that says if u want to take the heat off yourself start a fire somewhere else,and thats exactly what he is doing. if we go to war its just gonna be another vietnam

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