Joseph Kony & Invisible Children Top the Charts

What is responsible advocacy? That question burns behind the controversy surrounding Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. And readers at this site might also wonder about the appropriate role of educational institutions – teachers and professors, along with their students – in addressing, considering, or contributing to advocacy for social justice.

A Quick Recap: Invisible Children is an advocacy organization founded in 2003 when three young men from Southern California made a film about child soldiering in Northern Uganda. They swiftly found themselves at the center of a US youth-movement to raise awareness about Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (culpable for child abductions, forced soldiering, and rape). Throughout Invisible Children’s existence, the organization has been astonishingly effective at drawing attention to issues that seasoned human rights and social justice advocates have worked to get on the agenda for decades. Their most recent, half-hour Kony 2012 video is no different. Since its Monday release, the video has been viewed 7 million times.

The campaign is in the midst of astonishing success. As of Wednesday, March 7, 10:15 pm (EST):

  • Worldwide Twitter Trends indicated #4 was “#stopKony,” #8 was “Invisible Children,’ and #10 was “Uganda”
  • On YouTube, Invisible Children became the most-subscribed charity-related channel of all time
  • At the Washington Post, the #1 and #5 most popular articles related to Kony and Uganda
  • On 5 of the 5 most-read articles related to Uganda
  • A November 2011 Foreign Affairs article, “Obama takes on the LRA,” topped that site’s list
  • And, of course, Facebook feeds exploded with Invisible Children testimonies, certainties, and proclamations.

Critics have called into question Invisible Children’s finances, fundraising, development model, and suggested solution, among other concerns. Those who wish to view the video may find it here.

As an educator, I’m interested in the opportunity for learning that comes with this sort of controversy. I’m also interested in trying to harness deeply felt moral outrage (that so many of Invisible Children’s followers exhibit) on behalf of informed and thoughtful public policies, personal behaviors, or development interventions. Just as I argued last year that Greg Mortenson’s narrative of hope and attendant fall from grace forces consideration of the important challenges of representation, service, development, storytelling, and advancing human rights, criticisms relating to Invisible Children raise similar questions:

  • Are Invisible Children’s finances and Charity Navigator rating a concern, as one of the first critics (“visible children”) suggested, or is Invisible Children operating responsibly within their stated mission and purposes, as suggested in their published response?
  • Does the video’s narrative construction perpetuate negative stereotypes about Africa, imply colonial and racist attitudes, and vastly oversimplify the conflict and possible solution?
  • Should Invisible Children have been far clearer about those nettlesome facts mentioned in a related Foreign Policy blog post, “1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”

Then again, I live and work in the following reality:

  • Roughly two-thirds of college-age Americans cannot locate Iraq on a map and one fifth believe Sudan is in Asia
  • Before I introduced the topic and reviewed his history in my class, none of my current students had ever heard of Mobutu Sese-Seko, the tyrant and quintessential strongman who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965-1997, all the while receiving US funds, backing, and support, including visits to the White House under Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and H.W. Bush
  • Particularly in respect to global issues, many Americans feel they cannot make a difference; they are powerless; there is no hope for change.

It is in that environment – working with a young public, raised on cynical detachment, with relatively little historic and geographic knowledge – that Invisible Children has been so wildly successful. For their ability to do that they deserve some measure of respect; yet if they (1) keep their public (and they clearly have a mighty public) in positions of relative ignorance and (2) emphasize themselves over the populations they purport to serve, then they are – at best – under-capitalizing on their truly profound capacity to make positive change with their narratives.

I do not intend to send a message of cynicism. On the contrary, I know that international advocacy and development organizations can make profound and meaningful differences in people’s lives – and I even know that Invisible Children’s programs have done significant amounts of that work in Northern Uganda (I even visited and saw it with my own eyes). But I don’t know that international advocacy and development can make a difference because I take Invisible Children’s word for it. I do my best to keep up with international news and content related to human rights and development.

That’s why I know of the following major developments this week:

  1. The UN Millennium Development Goal for drinking water is being met, which in concrete terms means that 2 billion more people have received access to drinking water since 1990. 2 billion. That is amazing. The linked article and the Millennium Development Goals more broadly demonstrate that we can do what we say when we set clear, measurable goals on a specific timeline – and actually allocate some funds toward meeting those goals. Even more important, the next step is to achieve the sanitation goal. 3,000 children die from preventable, water-borne diseases every day because of lack of access to proper sanitation and water sources. In one month, in other words, lack of access to water and sanitation kills more children than even the highest estimates suggest Joseph Kony has killed and abducted during the last 20+ years.
  2. It is now International Women’s Day. Girls’ and Women’s rights are profoundly important, and the NGO The Girl Effect has done a great job creating informative and inspiring videos to draw attention to the situation and give viewers the opportunity for advocacy and giving, as they choose.

We are seeing excellent progress on advancing development and human rights. But so much of that comes when we are extremely careful about being humble, supporting local development organizations, and empowering the individuals who are the intended target of any advocacy. Looking squarely at the challenges in development, international justice, and rights-promotion, Invisible Children now gives us an opportunity to “teach the controversy” to a generation of students that – amazingly – have heard of Joseph Kony.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts.

Post by: Eric Hartman. In addition to being a co-founder of this website, Hartman holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches at Temple and Drexel Universities. He visited Northern Uganda, and the Invisible Children offices there, in 2006. Since that time he has returned several times to East Africa, but has not revisited Gulu.

This entry was posted in Advocacy Campaigns, Africa, Invisible Children, Smart Philanthropy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Joseph Kony & Invisible Children Top the Charts

  1. Pingback: Teaching Resources: Responsible Advocacy, Kony 2012, Invisible Children, and Humility | Building a Better World

  2. Pingback: Stopping Kony, or stopping video activism? « Dochasnetwork's Blog

  3. Pingback: Teaching Resources and Lessons: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 as Teachable Moment | Building a Better World

  4. Alanna says:

    But then when I get up on my global justice/development soapbox I can never help but to hear in the back of my mind… “Pick up the white man’s burden…” I hope you are right, Eric, when you suggest that humility is key.

  5. Alanna says:

    I have my mixed feelings about the Kony 2012 campaign but I have decided to endorse it for the time being for reasons other than the fact that the video brought me to tears. The main factor in my decision is the one to which you are pointing and that Michele references in her post: those of us who study development, global justice rights issues, etc. had to start somewhere, and this could be a starting place for many young people. To me, this is more important than the contents of the message itself. My starting “ah-hah” moment so to speak was the shock of the favelas in Rio de Janerio juxtaposed against five star hotels and movie start flats. Most, however, do not have the good fortune or interest in travel until much later in life if at all, and in that case social media becomes a space of visibility for global justice issues. I think that it’s a beautiful thing that your son is ready at this young age to give the small amount he earns in recognition of his power to influence the well-being of others in our global community. I also think that it is absolutely necessary that my generation learns to live with this kind of perspective if we are to survive, and that positive reinforcement with the potential success of this campaign (if it is successful) could contribute to a general awakening of interest in global justice issues.

    In terms of activism, people often argue that “clicktivism” is killing social movements, and there is some real truth that signing an online petition is simply not as empowering as attending a rally or meeting with a senator. On the other hand, I learned last semester that in 2006 tens of thousands of members of the Latino community held rallies in cities around the western United States and it received virtually no national media coverage. I wonder, then, it is young activists who are wrong in turning to social media, or are they recognizing that “old fashioned” activism is in itself becoming invisible due to lack of public interest or media corruption or both. When it comes to raising awareness I think it’s important to understand that you have to meet people where they are in terms of consciousness and literal geography and to be strategic in the kind of information you present at the outset. Education then becomes their responsibility. If Facebook is where people are, I don’t see any harm in adapting to tactics to move issues like the conflict in Uganda into a space of visibility.

  6. Eric, Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. Last night my 19 year old son asked that I meet with him and a friend who wants to direct some of his earnings from DJ work toward house parties and events that promote the Kony campaign. As a part of our meeting, we looked at the Charity Navigator ratings as well as the some of the spam claims. I am glad that what I advised these young guys is on point with your comments–that an important goal for their efforts needs to be raising critical awareness about international issues.

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