Over the past couple of days my Facebook, Twitter, and news feeds have all been inundated with people imploring me to watch a 30 minute film by the US charity Invisible Children, about the crimes of LRA leader Joseph Kony and the plight of the child militias in his ‘employ’. There has been the initial flurry of ‘activism’, the backlash, and the counter-backlash already. So, I wanted to investigate all this a little further, as there are a few things which I have found slightly jarring about Invisible Children’s campaign, and the support it has so far received.
Initially, it’s important to express that there are a number of heartening aspects of this sudden abundance of well-meaning concern. Firstly, it is endlessly important that attention is drawn to, and remains on, the critical and complex problems faced by the Central African people; and if there is one permanent result of this campaign, I hope that will be it. Secondly, I think it’s really important for me to state early on here that I fully support any efforts, from anywhere on the globe, to help eradicate child slavery and the use of child militias, as well as efforts to stabilise and aid unstable regions. Anywhere.
However, despite the undoubtable positive consequences that the KONY2012 campaign may have had thus far, there are a number of uncomfortable elements to this media storm which I’d like to discuss at further length. Pray, click ‘read on’…
1. To start with the most discussed criticism of Invisible Children’s campaign: their financial record. Invisible Children has been criticised for directing only 32% of their expenses to direct services for the organisation, whilst the organisation’s directors received salaries of $80,000. As distasteful as this may seem, it is important to recognise that as a not-for-profit organisation, significant portions of its income will necessarily be directed elsewhere than direct action (although the salaries baffle me.) Moreover, Invisible Children have in response, released a breakdown of their financial expenditure over the last year (http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html). Thus, the misdirection of expenditure to bureaucracy appears to me to be a relatively minor issue.
2. A much bigger bug I have to bear with Invisible Children’s financial management is the direction of their funds through ‘Central Africa Programs’ to the support of and co-ordination with other armed militias with more than dubious human rights records; namely the Ugandan Army and Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, who have considerable histories themselves of rape and torture of civilians. Whilst it is possible to argue that is necessary to support a lesser evil in order to eradicate the greater, I would contend that, diabolically atrocious as Kony’s program is, unfortunately, he is not unique in his evil. Therefore I feel distinctly uncomfortable working alongside other armed forces in which the same issues are perennial, and effectively legitimised through this co-operation. “But it’s the lesser of two evils!!” I’ve heard retorted frequently in response to this; however, to use the Bosnian War as a parallel, brutal realism and compromise is only a necessary and preferential option when enacted by peacekeepers, once all alternatives have been exhausted (Dayton Agreement is an example of this). Compromise doesn’t work when you’re paying £20 for a shirt and Museveni is spending that on bazookas.
3. The facts. The LRA has been in operation in Uganda, the Congo, the Sudan and (now) South Sudan, for almost 30 years. The LRA was itself driven out of Uganda in 2006, following a campaign by the Ugandan military following more than 20 years of conflict. The country itself has experienced drastic recovery in the 6 years following, however the LRA continues to operate outside of the country, in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, all of whom are little mentioned by the KONY2012 campaign. Moreover, the 30,000 children reportedly conscripted by Kony and his cronies, refers rather to the total number of children abducted by the LRA over the past 30 years; a misrepresentation I find to underestimate both the plight of the smaller number children currently enslaved, and the empathetic capabilities of the campaign’s audience. Although I appreciate the necessity of direct and targeted campaigning, having been involved in political activism for a number of years; such misleading factual content will do nothing but undermine the legitimacy of campaigning on the issue.
4. A long term and practicable strategy for the capture and punishment of Joseph Kony and the LRA is unclear in both Invisible Children, and the Obama administration’s programs. Russell, in the KONY2012 video, states he aims to ensure that Obama does not withdraw the US’s deployment of force until Kony has been captured and dealt with. As Michael Wilkerson has pointed out – this apparent threat of withdrawal is totally unfounded (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things). Moreover, such a simplistic and uninformed strategy is troublesome for a number of reasons. As Wilkerson again contends, the greatest likelihood for when US patience runs dry with Ugandan efforts, is the consideration of aerial strikes and military measures. But the implications of such an approach would be potentially catastrophic. What about the children of the LRA that will inevitably be the first victims of crossfire? Or the civilians lost as the collateral damage of conflict? Would, or how would the region be stabilised following the capture of Kony? Irresponsible withdrawal from a state with little recent democratic history would have far-reaching and devastating consequences not only for Uganda, but for the region as a whole; as it has recently in the Middle East, and as the irresponsible and ill-enacted decolonisation of an immoral empire did in the last century.
5. Thus in this respect, the consequences of such an exuberant public endorsement of such an organisation, are frightening to say the least. Attempts to define such a complex issue in such simplistic and misinformed concepts and language does not only do Uganda (and Sudan, South Sudan, DCR and CAR) a disservice, it is also dangerous, sidelining the critical, complex and current problems the region faces in addition to the operation of these militias. Principally, Uganda may barely be referred to as democratic; corruption is endemic, social services are limited at best, President Yoweri Museveni helped himself to his 4th term as president last year, and, as previously noted, human rights abuses by the government and its institutions are well documented.
6. Additonally, but no less importantly, as the Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama has highlighted, the young people who fled abduction at the height of war now face debilitating poverty and disease as a result of the destruction of infrastructures in the conflict. (http://thisisafrica.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/acholi-street-stop-kony2012-invisible-childrens-campaign-of-infamy/) Although Kony’s forces continue to wreak havoc elsewhere in the region, the nightmare facing Uganda’s youth today is rather more endemic, and less agent-led. 46.2% of Uganda’s inhabitants now live below the poverty line (http://thinkafricapress.com/uganda/youth-life-sidelines), youth unemployment in Uganda is estimated to be 80% (http://www.globalenvision.org/countries/uganda), and Gulu has one of the highest levels of child prostitution in Africa. Furthermore, “if six years ago children in Uganda would have feared the hell of being part of the LRA, a well documented reality already, today the real invisible children are those suffering from “Nodding Disease”.” (http://thisisafrica.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/acholi-street-stop-kony2012-invisible-childrens-campaign-of-infamy/) From this perspective, the misleading focus of Invisible Children’s campaign is confusing. Surely to educate the public on the realities of Africa both during and in the wake of conflict would only serve to sustain attention on the LRA nightmare, as part of this equally troubling context?
7. The danger of focusing solely on a ‘uniquely evil’ figure such as Joseph Kony, is that it risks the glamorisation of violence, and our crusades against it, and the neutralisation of more complex and nuanced problems to the status of a minor ‘B-Movie’, if you will. It is little wonder that many African critics of Invisible Children’s campaign have cried neo-colonialism. The simplicity of the campaign’s focus, and its reduction to a ‘Good vs. Evil’ crusade to ‘save the Africans from themselves’, is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s famous parody, the ‘White Man’s Burden’, and of “some of the worst excesses of the colonial era interventions. These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.” (http://thisisafrica.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/acholi-street-stop-kony2012-invisible-childrens-campaign-of-infamy/) Although the same could be said for a number of campaigns, the single-issue focus of KONY2012, and its resulting flow of money to the Ugandan government, may well worsen the situation, even if Kony is captured. If the situation is to be significantly improved, the voices of those directly affected by the conflict need to be central, and provisions need to be made for a long-term commitment of resources to the region. A video and a t-shirt just aren’t going to do it.
8. To end on a relatively insignificant point, I feel that the danger with such a social-media driven crusade is that, electronically oriented as it is, where does the real activism come from? The propagation of videos, and declarations of commitment to ‘the cause’ could be construed as painfully condescending and contrived. Much like the activism of my early teenage years, which was (rightly?) ill-received then, hence my bafflement at the proliferation of brand new activists who have taken over the internet since Monday.
However, in the same vein as this piece began, I have nothing but high hopes for the concentration of attention on the African region, an area of world politics which should be brought into the mainstream of global political discussion, to enable us to hear the voices of those involved. I’m not going to look down my nose at anyone wearing a KONY2012 shirt or sharing a video. I’m glad this is an issue for so many people. In no way either, do I doubt the honest intentions of Invisible Children’s founders. Despite this, I can only condemn an organisation which operates in such a dubious manner.
Also, KONY2012 sounds like an election campaign. Just sayin’
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