Think Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012, the Charitable Meme du Jour
I admit that I instinctively hated the Kony 2012 Campaign as soon as I watched 15 seconds of the effort's new viral video, produced by non-profit Invisible Children, which pledges to make extremely evil Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony famous, "not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice."
Okay, to be perfectly honest, I was skeptical before I even pressed play, since no less than 15 of my Facebook friends had posted about the video, beseeching everyone to "stop tweeting" and pay attention to the video's 30 minute message. Fine, I thought, clicking on the video and wondering why the people who usually bombarded me with cat memes and status updates about getting high and eating McDonalds were suddenly fervent supporters of Ugandan children.
"Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come," proclaims the video, which was uploaded yesterday and already has over four million views on YouTube. That idea is to make Kony, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, into a household name. The video profiles Jacob, a Ugandan boy whose brother was killed by Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, which routinely abducts children and turns them into soldiers — but it also cuts away from his story to scenes of non-profit members showing adorable blonde kids photos of "the bad guy" to make sure Americans don't get too bored with the facts.
The video is upfront about being an experiment in viral media — the directors are actively taking advantage of the fact that "there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago" and that "humanity's greatest desire is to belong and connect." But the self-satisfied voiceover and slick editing reminded me of the most obnoxious Kickstarter-funded documentaries I've been asked to support. Is that truly a reason not to get behind a worthy cause? Not really. Still, I was glad to learn that I'm not the only person who wanted to understand the issue more thoroughly before donating to the non-profit or even sharing the video around. Invisible Children's critics — all of whom are, thankfully, more informed than I am about Kony and the LRA — all agree that Kony is an evil man and that those involved with Invisible Children have good intentions. But here are some reasons to be skeptical that go beyond hating the video's conceit:
From "Visible Children":
"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, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven't had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that.
From Foreign Affairs magazine:
In their campaigns, such organizations [as Invisible Children] have manipulated 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.
Support for Military Intervention
From "Visible Children:"
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.
From Yale Professor Chris Blattman:
"[The video] feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it's about the filmmakers, and not the cause. There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That's the argument that was made after the first film. It's not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it's time to start acting like grownups.
There are a few other things that are troubling. It's questionable whether one should be showing the faces of child soldiers on film. And watching the film one gets the sense that the US and IC were instrumental in getting the peace talks to happen. These things diminish credibility more than anything.
"Invisible Children is staffed by douchebags" (A woman after my own heart.)
"Now when I first watched the Kony 2012 video, there was a horrible pang of self-knowledge as I finally grasped quite how shallow I am. I found it impossible to completely overlook the smug indie-ness of it all. It reminded me of a manipulative technology advert, or the Kings of Leon video where they party with black families, or the 30 Seconds to Mars video where all the kids talk about how Jared Leto's music saved their lives. I mean, watch the first few seconds of this again. It's pompous twaddle with no relevance to fucking anything."
Look: I wish I knew more about what's going on in Uganda, and I don't want to hate on Kony 2012 just because I'm a cynic. But it took me about the same amount of time to read up on this criticism as it took me to watch the video itself. That's still under an hour, about the same time it takes to watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. I recommend doing the same before you get behind any cause. It's awesome to hear my Facebook friends say they feel "empowered" by sharing the video — but remember that charity isn't really about you feeling empowered, is it?
If Kony 2012 inspired you to donate money to the region, check out these charities, all of which received four star ratings on Charity Navigator: AMREF USA, Doctors Without Borders, and Water.org.