Kony 2012 and the Ethics of Activism

I’m sure that by now most readers know about this video and its main subject, LRA leader Joseph Kony. The nonprofit organization known as Invisible Children has undertaken a remarkably successful campaign to raise awareness about this brutal Ugandan warlord, for the purpose of eliciting donations and political action to stop him. It case you haven’t seen the now-famous video, click here; interestingly, it’s been less popular in Uganda itself.

Now all this sounds well and good, given what an undeniably monstrous person Kony is. He’s been responsible for a tremendous amount of suffering in the region, and as with most humanitarian crises, more people need to be made aware of it. But there’s a dark side to this video and its producers, and it reflects a larger ethical problem with our approach to humanitarian issues in general.

Grant Oyston, a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, posted a highly critical response to Kony 2012 on Tumbler. His scathing assessment is becoming just as viral as the video. He begins by acknowledging the good intentions of those involved in this project, as well as the genuine evil of the man they’re trying to expose. But he nonetheless follows that with some disquieting caveats:

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. 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, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they lack an external audit committee. But it goes way deeper than that.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them,arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.

Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.

If barely a third of your funding goes to the very cause you’ve built your organization around, then that should raise a red flag to your donators. However, I doubt most people are aware of this fact, we don’t generally think to scrutinize just how an aid organization goes about aiding people. It’s much easier to give them money and moral support, and be done with it.

The group’s misrepresentation of both the Ugandan military and the extent of the LRA’s crimes is problematic for similar reasons: rarely does it occur to us – yes, I too am guilty of this at times – to question the truth of the matter when it comes to these social justice issues. They invoke strong emotions, both by their very nature and by the marketing efforts of their advocacy groups. It’s easy to get swept up by and impulsively show support, with considering the facts of the matter.

Simply put, I suspect that for most people, there’s something unsavory about questioning the veracity of any claims concerning human rights efforts. What compassion person wants to second-guess an effort to help people? You may also ask whether the ends justify the means: is a little bit of dishonesty acceptable if it incites greater action? Not if the costs become greater than benefit:

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.

Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.

This raises yet another ethical dilemma: are we choosing the lesser of two evils in supporting this solution? Is it proper to even choose at all? Uganda has become increasingly more authoritarian over the years, and stopping the LRA has become the justification (using concerns about security to justify a suspension of liberty is nothing new, but that’s because it still tends to work).

Are we going to end up supporting one abusive and oppressive force with another? What happens once the group is defeated? Historical precedence isn’t very encouraging, especially with regard to developing countries that had a weak rule of law to begin with. Ultimately, it’s hard to say, and I don’t think there are any definite answers.

Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

As difficult as it may be accept, in some circumstances it may in fact be better not to intervene, no matter how horrific the issue. Often times, getting involved may only make matters worse, and there’s always an uncertainly principle as far as the unintended and long-term consequences – it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, especially when these issues are presented in such simplistic terms.

Yet that same counterfactual problem could lead one to wonder if taking action would be the better of two bad choices. There may be just as much uncertainty about what happens if we allow things to carry on as normal, which could make inaction just as risky. Or we may know enough about the worsening of a particular crisis to consider the unknown option to be better (the current situation in Syria comes to my mind).

Basically, there are just too many dynamics and considerations to take into, and too many nuances and caveats for each option. The response, if any, should vary by each individual case, not that it would make it any easier. That’s why we should be wary of armchair activism, of committing to a cause before exploring and coming to grips with the difficult reality of it.

We can only do so much given the obstacles we face, but I that should elicit even more caution on our part, so that we can do the least damage with what precious little we can offer. There’s already one proposed motive for IC’s encourage of the military and political route, and some have even accused the of being more concerned with an Evangelical agenda than a humanitarian one.

At any rate, Invisible Children has responded to this and other concerns, first in a Washington Post blog (since then, I’m sure several other sources have covered the controversy). It’s always vital to learn both sides of any story, and give the accused a chance to make their case.

Jedediah Jenkins, director of idea development for Invisible Children, called the criticism “myopic” and said the film represented a “tipping point” in that it got young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn’t affect them

#StopKony has been trending worldwide on Twitter since Tuesday, and, as of this writing, the video “Kony2012” has a combined 15 million views on YouTube and Vimeo.

Kony is undeniably brutal, and the World Bank estimates that under his leadership the LRA has abducted and forced around 66,000 children to fight with them during the past two decades. In October, President Obama committed 100 U.S. troops to help the Ugandan army remove Kony.

…Jenkins maintained Wednesday that the numbers the charity uses are not exaggerated, as they are the same numbers used by Human Rights Watch and the U.N.

Charity Navigator, a U.S.-based charity evaluator, gives Invisible Children three out of four stars overall, four stars financially, and two stars for accountability and transparency.

Invisible Children has two stars, Jenkins said, because the charity has only four independent board members instead of five. He said it is currently interviewing for a fifth position.

bill Invisible Children helped pass into law in 2009 has also been criticized. The bill is designed to support stabilization and peace in Uganda and areas affected by the LRA. Critics say it has strengthened the hand of the Ugandan president, whose security forces have a human rights abuse record of their own. The Enough Project, an NGO that fights genocide and human rights abuses, has said the bill’s bipartisan support showed people “come together for peace.”

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa,” said Jenkins. “If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

Human rights activists agree, however, that the abuses of the LRA are far worse than those of Uganda’s security forces. Over the past two decades, the LRA made it common practice to enter towns and kill the adults, take the male children as soldiers, and sexually abuse the female children.

Lt. Col. Mamadou Gaye, a military spokesman for a United Nations stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said recently that the LRA “has been weakened” by military efforts. The group is believed to now have only about 250 armed members.  Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said recently that Kony was no longer in Uganda.

On April 20, Invisible Children is calling on its supporters to stop Kony and the LRA’s campaign once and for all — by using the social media and viral tactics that have made “Kony2012” so widespread.

What do you all think? Is IC on to something after all? Is some publicity – however limited its effectiveness – better than none at all? Is the military approach really the lesser evil, given its apparent success? Is working with a corrupt government acceptable given that there is no other political alternative? It seems Jenkins and his colleagues were only trying to do the right thing given the constraints they were working with. Assuming that is the case, are they right to take this avenue?

“The film has reached a place in the global consciousness where people know who Kony is, they know his crimes,” Jenkins said. “Kids know and they respond. And then they won’t allow it to happen anymore.”

This is all part of an ongoing and heated debate with the humanitarian community: do these kind of viral publicity campaigns do more harm then good? Do people who express concern about an issue, but provide only cursory and symbolic support, really make a difference? Are they making the most with the resources they have, or are they making a farce out of activism by setting the bar low as far as doing more and having a deeper understanding of the issue in question?

For the record, IC has recently released a list of details responses to all the major issues of contention that have been presented. Read it for yourselves and make your own conclusion.

Frankly, I’m undecided in this matter. I don’t think engaging in meaningful change is mutually exclusive from going about it in a more passive way. People adjust their response based on the circumstances, the issue itself, and their own personal restrictions (money, time, distance, etc). Basically, we all do what we can…but can that actually be a bad thing? Isn’t some bit of good better than none? When we participate in these sorts of campaigns, are we cheapening what it is to fight for something, or are we simply being pragmatic?

Any thoughts and perspectives on this matter are welcomed.

One comment on “Kony 2012 and the Ethics of Activism

  1. Good breakdown, Romney. There is undoubtedly a danger that people will get excited by a sense of being able to ‘contribute’ when they see this sort of video, and feel they are doing good if they spread it widely. But it is essential that organisations using the net like this are properly checked out. And it is good that there has been a reaction of caution almost equally widespread.

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