Kony 2012 Group Responds to Increasing Criticism

Yesterday's piece on why you should think twice before donating to Kony 2012 (or to any charity or non-profit, really) ruffled a lot of feathers: some people were happy we took a step back and analyzed the well-meaning but potentially misplaced and/or destructive intentions of Invisible Children, while others thought our criticism was one-sided. (However, no one disagreed that the founders looked pretty douchey holding those guns.)

A day later, even more critics have come forward to explain how Invisible Children is missing the point and hurting the cause, and the non-profit has also officially responded to some of the attacks. Here's a roundup of the major criticisms and Invisible Children's subsequent defense:

#1. The Campaign is Outdated

Everyone agrees that Joseph Kony is a murdering madman, but some, like former Foreign Policy intern Michael Wilkerson, now a freelance journalist and Ph.D. candidate at Oxford, points out that Kony hasn't been in Uganda for six years. "Unfortunately, it looks like meddlesome details like where Kony actually is aren't important enough for Invisible Children to make sure its audience understands," he writes in an excellent guest blog post, asking how "millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality":

Following a successful campaign by the Ugandan military and failed peace talks in 2006, the LRA was pushed out of Uganda and has been operating in extremely remote areas of the DRC, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — where Kony himself is believed to be now. The Ugandan military has been pursuing the LRA since then but had little success (and several big screw-ups). In October last year, President Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. Army advisors to help the Ugandan military track down Kony, with no results disclosed to date.

Here's some more history from Ugandan journalist Angelo Opi-aiya Izama, who told the Guardian that the film completely misses the point that "the actual geography of today's LRA operations is related to a potentially troubling 'resource war'":

Since 2006, Uganda discovered world class oil fields along its border with DRC. The location of the oil fields has raised the stakes for the Ugandan military and its regional partners, including the US. While LRA is seen as a mindless evil force, its deceased deputy leader, Vincent Otii, told me once that their fight with President Yoweri Museveni was about "money and oil". This context is relevant because it allows for outsiders to view the LRA issue more objectively within the recent history of violence in the wider region that includes the great Central Africa wars of the 90s, in which groups like LRA were pawns for proxy wars between countries. In LRA's case, its main support came from the Sudanese government in Khartoum and many suspect it still maintains the patronage of Omar el-Bashir, the country's president, himself indicted for war crimes by the ICC.

Arthur Larok, Action Aid's director in Uganda, told the Guardian that it's no longer effective to solely "appeal to emotions" because circumstances have changed.

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. There are conflicts in the north – several small conflicts over natural resources. Land is the major issue: after many years of displacement, there is quite a bit of land-related conflict. But many organisations and governments are focusing on this. We need to secure social stability, health and education. These are the priorities. This is what we're trying to focus on. Poverty is high compared to the rest of the country. That's the practical issue that needs to be addressed.

Invisible Children's response acknowledges that the LRA left Uganda in 2006, but says the Ugandan government's army is best equipped to track down Kony:

The LRA left northern Uganda in 2006. The LRA is currently active in Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Invisible Children's mission is to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA wherever they are and help rehabilitate LRA-affected communities. The Ugandan government's army, the UPDF, is more organized and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries (DRC, South Sudan, CAR) to track down Joseph Kony. Part of the US strategy to stop Kony is to encourage cooperation between the governments and armies of the 4 LRA-affected countries. The LRA was active in Uganda for nearly 20 years, displacing 1.7 million people and abducting at least 30,000 children. The people and government of Uganda have a vested interested in seeing him stopped.

The non-profit doesn't straight-out respond to assertions that buying the Kony 2012 bracelet and action kit for $30 bucks isn't really all that helpful, but they do detail about the work they do on the ground in the region, which includes an early-warning radio network program, scholarship funds, and economic growth initiatives.

#2. Sketchy Finances

As we reported yesterday, numerous critics have attacked Invisible Children for spending more money on administration and filmmaking than on their purported cause. The Guardian's John Vidal looked into the claims, and did not think highly of what he found:

They call themselves "a movement" seeking to end the conflict in Uganda and stop the abduction of children for use as child soldiers, but behind the slick website and the touchy-feely talk about "changing the course of human history", there's a hard-nosed money-making operation led by US filmmakers and accountants, communication experts, lobbyists and salespeople.

So far the organisation has released 11 films and run film tours across the US and other countries to raise awareness. In Uganda, it has given scholarships to 750 children, and helped to re-build schools there and in central Africa. The organisation's accounts show it's a cash rich operation, which more than tripled its income in 2011, with more than two thirds of its money coming from "general donations".

The accounts suggest nearly 25% of its $8.8m income last year was spent on travel and film-making with only around 30% going toward programes on the ground. The great majority of the money raised has been spent in the US. $1.7 million went on US employee salaries, $357,000 in film costs, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in "professional services" - thought to be Washington lobbyists - and $1.07 million in travel expenses . Nearly $400,000 was spent on office rent in San Diego.

Invisible Children responded by — naturally — releasing a snazzily-designed infographic detailing how their operations work. They say they spend roughly one third of their money on three goals: documenting and making the world aware of LRA, "channeling the awareness from informed viewers" into advocacy, and operating on-the-ground programs:

Financial statements from the last 5 years, including our 990, are available at www.invisiblechildren.com/financials. The organization spent 80.46% on our programs that further our three fold mission, 16.24% on administration and management costs and 3.22% on direct fundraising in FY2011. Invisible Children is independently audited every year and in full compliance with our 501 c 3 status.

Not to belittle the money they did spend on on-the-ground work, but I fail to see how their financial explanation really explains critics' concerns. Sure, they spent most of their money on their "mission" — but the importance of said mission is exactly the issue for many. Also, is it just me, or do their first two goals remind you of trying to bullshit your resume so that the few weeks you spent working in a food kitchen two summers ago become three lengthy bullet points detailing how you "channeled awareness" of socioeconomic issues? Let's call a spade a spade here.

#3. Lackluster Charity Rating

Many critics pointed out that Charity Navigator rates Invisible Children's accountability 2/4 stars, and that there are plenty of four star charities (we gave you a few yesterday) that would love your money. Invisible Children explained why they didn't get top marks:

Charity Navigator gives our Programs its highest rating of 4 stars. Our Accountability and Transparency score is currently at 2 stars due primarily to the single fact that Invisible Children does not have 5 independent voting members on our board of directors—we currently have 4. We are in the process of interviewing potential board members, and we will add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013. We have been independently audited by Considine and Considine, since the fiscal year end of June 30, 2006 and all of our audits have resulted in unqualified opinions on the audit reports.

#4. Why Focus On Kony?

Why make Kony the be-all end-all focus of the campaign? As Larok told the Guardian, "If the Americans had wanted to arrest him, they would have done that a long time ago." His army doesn't actually have 30,000 "mindless child soldiers" — Wilkerson explained that the figure actually refers to the total number of kids abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years — and Northern Uganda has been doing much better in the six years of peace since the LRA left. On his blog, Izama writes that the real invisible children face different issues in 2012:

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". Over 4000 children are victims of this incurable debilitating condition. It's a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.

So why the focus on Kony?

Invisible Children says their chief goal is to bring the warlord to justice so that "he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals. The goal of Kony 2012 is for the world to unite to see him arrested and prosecuted for his crimes against humanity." They say their campaign also wants "increased diplomacy to hold regional governments accountable to their basic responsibilities to protect civilians from this kind of brutal violence" and broader measures to help communities affected by LRA attacks. Their website asks for more constructive criticism but concludes by reiteratating, "Let's focus on what matters, and what we DO agree on: Joseph Kony needs to be stopped. And when that happens, peace is the limit."

#5. Are They Douches?

If you read our post yesterday, you know we think the Invisible Children founders are superficially obnoxious and that the self-satisfied tone of their video rubbed us the wrong way. "As the poet Ke$ha says, 'we are who we are,'" Invisible Children says in response to the douche-related claims, saying they'll "have to agree to disagree" if anyone takes offense to their "opinion, taste, humor, or style." Well, quoting Ke$sha, sarcastically or otherwise, is probably not the best way to sway our opinion, but whatever. I'm less interested in whether the founders are, individually, annoying and more interested in whether they should be applauded for taking millions of peoples' attention away from more trivial issues and toward Kony, who we all agree is a horrible, destructive person. "We have never claimed a desire to 'save Africa,' but, instead, an intent to inspire Western youth to 'do more than just watch,'" they say on their website.

Wronging Rights has a great response to this:

First, organizations like Invisible Children not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more intelligent advocacy. And yeah, this may seem like an absurdly academic point to raise when talking about a problem that is clearly crying out for pragmatic solutions, but, uh, the way we define problems is important. Really, really important. Choosing to simplistically define Congolese women as "The Raped" and Ugandan children as "The Abducted" constrains our ability to think creatively about the problems they face, and work with them to combat these problems.

Second, treating their problems as one-dimensional issues that can be solved by a handful of plucky college students armed only with the strength of their convictions and a video camera doesn't help anyone. These gets back to something very simple and very smart that Alanna Shaikh wrote a few months ago: "Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before."

Izama adds that "the real danger of the game-show type 'pornography of violence' that Invisible Children has made so appealing also has a dangerous hold on policy types in Washington DC whose access to information and profiles of issues is as limited... these campaigns don't just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it." At the end of the day, he says:

The Kony2012 campaign will not make Joseph Kony more famous but it will make Invisible Children famous. It will also make many, including P.Diddy, feel like they have contributed some good to his capture- assuming Kony is even alive. For many in the conflict prevention community including those who worry about the militarization of it in Central Africa this campaign is just another nightmare that will end soon. Hopefully.

There you have it. Go forth and make your own decisions.

Image via Invisible Children.