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.