By Andi Enns
If you’ve been online over the last couple weeks, you’ll have heard about the Invisible Children campaign against Joseph Kony, war criminal and terrorist. For about three decades, he abducted nearly 30,000 children to be soldiers and sex slaves in his rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army, known as the LRA.
There is no one arguing about whether or not he’s a terrible human being. He is. I’m sure there’s a special place in hell reserved for him after what he put those kids through.
But the movement, a viral Internet campaign aimed to “spread awareness” about Kony’s crimes and advocate for his capture and execution, seems misguided and outdated. For one, the charity talks a lot about Uganda, the eastern African country Kony terrorized for decades. The problem? Kony isn’t in Uganda. He hasn’t been for years. It’s been at least six years since he was suspected to be in the country. He’s somewhere else – maybe the Congo, maybe the Democratic African Republic. No one is really sure if he’s even still alive, since no one has seen him since 2006.
“The circumstances in the north [in Uganda] have changed,” said Arthur Larok, director of the non-governmental organization Action Aid in Gulu, Uganda, according to a report from The Guardian. “Many NGOs and the government, especially local government in the north, are about rebuilding and securing lives for children, in education, sanitation, health and livelihoods. International campaigning that doesn’t support this agenda is not so useful at this point. We have moved beyond that.”
Kony’s army is no longer made of tens of thousands of troops, like the video suggests. That number only exists if you count all of the children he abducted and assume they all served at the same time – current estimates put his support in the very low hundreds, scattered around the region.
These are some of the ways the Invisible Children video has exaggerated the claims of Kony’s current threat. If you want to argue he did unspeakably terrible things, everyone will agree. But to use drama to enhance the message – what’s the point? Why use an adorable blonde boy to lisp “Kony was a vewy vewy bad man” when the message speaks for itself? Isn’t forcing a child to kill his own parents, a girl to sell her body to grown men, and blowing limbs off of pedestrians with landmines dramatic enough? Why do they need to dress it up with a Facebook motif, horrified American children, and flashy shots of overpriced merchandise?
Maybe they want to dress it up because they are advocating starting a war. The video from Invisible Children is calling for U.S. intervention in Uganda, for soldiers to find, capture, and “bring to justice” Joseph Kony. The video says “at all costs.” Really? Is capturing Kony really worth “all costs”? Imagine the literal impact of the statement!
Besides that, the U.S. already has troops in Uganda. They’ve been there for nearly six months, and haven’t managed to find evidence of Kony. It’s not the first time the U.S. has tried to help, but historically, an American military presence in Uganda makes the terrorism worse.
At best, advocating for military intervention is a huge oversimplification of international justice and foreign affairs. At worst, it’s a gross misuse of resources. Killing Kony will not improve the lives of Ugandans.
Invisible Children has said the Ugandan military needs money, weapons and training to capture Kony themselves. While it may be true, the Ugandan government’s military has been known to exact the same forms of terrorism as Kony’s army. Empowering one tyrant to take out another? Why don’t we go reflect on arming Iraq during the Gulf War and see how well that strategy worked out?
We can’t trust Invisible Children to manage the donations, anyway. You can donate directly or buy merchandise, but over 70 percent of the revenue goes to compensating staff members, plane tickets, and video production. Only about a third goes to Uganda. And if they’re giving it to military intervention, then there’s no point – it won’t get to the people who need it.
The video suggests the organization is hands-on. It shows blueprints, jars of money, and care packages. It doesn’t disclose these are manufactured images. His movie says they want to help Uganda rebuild, but in reality, his organization’s goal doesn’t have anything to do with development.
“I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food,” said Jedidiah Jenkins, founder of Invisible Children, according to Good Magazine. “But we are an advocacy and awareness organization. We are not an aid organization, and we do not intend to be.”
What does all of this mean? It means your dollars to t-shirts, coffee mugs and trendy bracelets is most likely funding airline tickets and production of more merchandise. Maybe your classmates will think you’re “an advocate of awesome” wearing “the ultimate accessory” like the Invisible Children Web site promises, but it’s not going to help Jacob and the other former child soldiers get an education and therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not helping the families still living in internally displaced persons camps without a source of water. It’s not helping Uganda, period.
Being aware of the atrocities happening abroad is important. If that awareness was all Invisible Children wanted, I could stand behind the message. But when they step into advocating for military action in an area that just wants to forget the carnage, I can’t support that. When their version of activism is sharing a video and buying a bracelet, it seems overly simplified.
If you really want to help Uganda, it takes more than retweeting a YouTube video. I know – I’ve been to Uganda, and I’ve seen the towns still being pieced together. They aren’t afraid of Kony anymore, they just want to send their kids to school and have clean water.
To help those people, to really make an effort towards peace, to heal the damage Kony caused, find a reputable aid organization and donate to them. Give a water source to a village, an education to a former child soldier, or a prosthetic leg to a landmine survivor.
But for the love of Uganda, don’t just buy a t-shirt.