Friday, March 9, 2012

Kony 2012, Invisible Children, and the LRA

This whole hubbub about Joseph Kony, Kony 2012, and the Invisible Children (IC) documentary videos from Uganda in Africa seemed to be reaching a fervent peak as millions of people suddenly tweeted, facebook-shared, dugg, and reddit'd the story in a deluge of "awareness-raising." At first glance the cause seems quite just, and one is swiftly ready to align him or herself with Invisible Children in the fight against the LRA. However, perhaps a bit of critical analysis of the group (as well as its goals) is in order before.

What appears to be the issue, initially, is that there is this horrifying organization known as the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA. The rebel group is at bloody odds with the current Ugandan government, led by president Yoweri Museveni, and its armed forces, the Uganda People's Defence Force (UDPF). At the head of the LRA is an infamous -- not famous -- hypocrite by the name of Joseph Kony, who apparently wishes to establish an Acholi state (starting in Uganda) where the laws are the Ten Commandments in the Bible.

Joseph Kony, the villainous leader of the LRA
A bunch of college students flew out to the Sudan area with their cameras at the ready to catch whatever they could about the African plight. Instead of the Sudan, though, they found their story in Uganda: two children who had been kidnapped, tortured, and pressed into service by Kony's LRA. Feeling the heavy strain of the White Man's Burden, these students returned with their new footage and shared it in a "documentary" that later spawned the eponymous cause -- Invisible Children.

So, the Invisible Children want to help the young boys and girls forced into rebel militias and being brutally abused by raising awareness. What is wrong with that?

Inherently, nothing is wrong with it. Raising awareness about the issues that plague the planet is a noble cause indeed, and few global problems have ever been solved without that awareness. However, taking a deeper look into the Invisible Children and their methods may reveal more than you expected about their true intentions, as well as the harm they are actually causing.

A Profitable Non-Profit

Invisible Children is touted as a non-profit organization that exists to aid the fight against Kony's abduction and rape of very young children, as well as the LRA, by extension. Invisible Children produces films about their cause and asks for the charitable donations of those who also wish to see the LRA's demise.

What the supporters are not told, however, is how Invisible Children spends all of that money -- a grand total of almost US$8.7 million (over €6.6 million) last year alone. Here is a quote from the "We Got Trouble" post of the recently huge Visible Children tumblr:

Invisible Children's founders in Africa
"Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal for an issue which arguably needs action and aid, not awareness..."

Is just 32% of their spending a justified amount to put towards direct services to aid the cause? Even more horrifying is that the rest of the spending went to the very thing non-profits are supposed to avoid as much as possible: personal expenditures!

To be perfectly fair, there is some justification in their spending. Invisible Children does state that one way they claim to help the cause is by "raising awareness" through their films, and these films do require travel and transport. The group could also easily claim that the staff salaries are necessary for the continued operation of the group -- after all, their constituents still need to make a living if they spend all of their time for the cause.

However, the fundamental basis of that argument is flawed, and that is where issue is taken with the IC. It has been about eight years since Invisible Children, Inc., was founded, and through those years they have distributed almost a dozen films in the name of awareness... but is awareness really what needs to be done anymore?

The cause has been everywhere: schools, homes, and now the entire internet. Everyone and their uncles knows about Invisible Children and "KONY 2012" thanks to the bombardment of posters and tweets on every social media site imaginable. It is evident that now is a good time to stop focusing a huge majority of their spending on awareness, and instead redirect that focus into direct action.

All is not so simple, though...

Money Does Not Solve Everything

Sometimes, action is more necessary for the successful elimination of such a huge issue than throwing money at it. It is a hard concept for many Westerners to grasp thanks to our immeasurable dependency on the dollar, euro, or whatever currency we may use, but it is true. Impoverished nations such as Uganda cannot make their problems go away with money -- in fact, they will usually perpetuate these problems for money, creating a dependency on Western aid.

When a Westerner wants to help some faraway African country, how does he or she usually imagine doing so? Nine times out of ten, it would be by charitable donation. We figure that so long as we provide the monetary support for the cause, somebody else will do the work for us. This is a common misconception that sociology has labelled diffusion of responsibility.

The popular poster going around
This diffusion of responsibility is exactly what we see in the Invisible Children cause, but it seems to have degraded even further than simply tossing a dollar their way. It would appear many of those people in a position to donate their time, effort, or abilities to the cause have opted instead not even to donate money, but to simply tweet about it.

After just tweeting about the cause for a few days in the name of awareness (there we go again with that empty buzzword that now exists to justify the self-gratifying first-world circlejerk), us Westerners figure we have "done our part." We feel as if we are now an agent of the cause; and in a small way (emphasis on small), we are.

Unfortunately, what happens in this case, though, is that everyone begins to think that they have also "done their part," and while everyone is now aware, no one is actually solving the damn problem! Invisible Children goes on making awareness films to boost their fame, line their pockets, and travel the world, while everyone else entrusts their hard-earned cash to them.

So what the hell are they doing to help the efforts against the LRA?

The Not-so-Lesser of Two Evils

Invisible Children is "coordinating" with the Uganda's People Defence Force, also known as the UPDF to save everyone a mouthful. This coordination, according to IC, should stop Kony and the LRA, because the two groups are dangerously opposed to each other (one being loyalist, the other entirely rebel).

Here are some pretty horrible actions: employing child soldiers (some as young as thirteen years old), pillaging/looting, rape, and enforcing their evil in other countries. Sound like the LRA? Well, it also applies to the UPDF, believe it or not. The official armed forces of Uganda, who have gained the support of the Invisible Children organization, are just as bad as the people they fight.

So what does IC have to say to this?

"Re: Ugandan government human rights record
We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army (UPDF). None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda or any other government. Yet the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments."
Invisible Children, stepping all over Africa

If that sounded incredibly contradictory to you, you are not alone. In the first half of the response, they say Invisible Children never gives money to the UPDF, at all. Then, immediately following, they also claim that the only way to solve their issue is to "coordinate efforts" with the UPDF. So that begs the question: what does "coordinating efforts" entail?

Invisible Children has not raised a militia with which to offer troops or military aid to the UPDF (as far as we know). The group does not give them money or funds either, apparently. Since giving them supplies, which cost money, would be akin to giving them funds, they must not do that either.

So what exactly does Invisible Children do?

That is the real question.

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