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Catching Kony

KONY 2012: Now Playing


If “November is LRA month” then “2012 is Joseph Kony year.” On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children, the non-profit organization making headlines for its efforts to bring peace and justice to the conflict in Northern Uganda, launched KONY 2012, “a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Within 48 hours of its launch, KONY 2012 received more than 10 million views on YouTube – and that number continues to increase. The website which hosts the video crashed multiple times because the internet traffic was simply too much to handle. If the mission of KONY 2012 is “to make Joseph Kony famous” then Invisible Children is off to a good start.

Success is a funny thing though. After KONY 2012 began to circulate, so did accusations about organizational mismanagement and, unfortunately for Invisible Children, this isn’t the first time they’ve been criticized. And now, it seems the trending topic is not Joseph Kony himself but the way in which Invisible Children operates. This is regrettable.

Most of the criticism directed at Invisible Children seems to be based on three factors: 1) image; 2) internal operating procedures; and 3) the impact of advocacy on peacebuilding efforts.

Image, and the perception that comes with it, is important. An organization working so tirelessly to raise awareness about the LRA and their mass atrocities cannot afford to be photographed with – or taking the side of – an opposing army that is accused of equally gruesome acts. At the same time, conflict resolution is sometimes a dirty business and if peacebuilders refrained from working with less than perfect partners on the ground, there would be no peacebuilders.

As far as internal operating procedures are concerned, get the house in order. The end. Too many people have invested time, energy, and resources to see the organization falter because of a few missteps and/or technicalities.

Chris Blattman, a highly respected academic and authoritative voice on the conflict in Northern Uganda criticized Invisible Children (and others) in 2009, saying, “[t]he savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.”

Fair enough, but if the fear among academics and policymakers is that a single documentary can negatively impact the structure and strategy of peacebuilding programs (or military interventions), then perhaps the real criticism should be directed at those governments and international organizations designing the programs/interventions in the first place. After all, the conflict in Northern Uganda started as just that – a conflict in Northern Uganda. It has since experienced regional spillover and multiple failed attempts at peacebuilding. We’ve also seen repeatedly that even when the numbers are right, the conclusions we draw from them can be wrong. I would also bet more Americans – certainly young Americans – have learned about the LRA because of Invisible Children than because of The World Bank, UN, or other international organizations. Clever advocacy has its advantages.

The unpleasant truth, however, is that to be taken seriously (i.e. to be more than just a trending topic on Twitter) and to become a truly credible voice, Invisible Children will indeed have to continue strengthening its internal operating procedures – as do all organizations. Too often, well-intentioned but poorly run organizations crash and burn, along with the cause they so passionately promote.

The good news is that many people, including yours truly, are rooting for Invisible Children to succeed. Imagine what we would be saying about Invisible Children if in fact the organization’s proven ability to mobilize an otherwise lackadaisical demographic around a conflict based on moral imperative but lacking in national security sexiness did in fact lead to pressure so intense that Joseph Kony found himself in front of the International Criminal Court. Conflict resolution theorists might struggle to find an explanation.

The other criticism levied against Invisible Children is much more of a stretch – that the organization is intentionally misinterpreting/misrepresenting the complexity of the conflict. True, the conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda has spilled over into a regional conflict involving Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. This makes “the neighborhood effect” all the more precarious. True, the LRA represents only a small part of a much larger conflict and removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield will not resolve the entire situation. So what. Don’t bother? Tell that to the ICC which made Kony among the first to be indicted under the new norm of international justice.

To suggest that somehow the focus is all wrong or that because Invisible Children is not addressing the entirety of the conflict they are therefore making matters worse is as questionable as claiming that mobilizing social networks toward a specific end goal (i.e. “crowdsourced intervention”) will lead to disastrous results. On the contrary, Invisible Children should be praised for the work they did to create tools such as the LRA Crisis Tracker. The tracker is just one example of the burgeoning nexus between social media and conflict resolution. Yes, we should all view the data with healthy skepticism – but not to the point where we forget or ignore its utility. Even if we learn that the data is wrong, for example, we would then know the data is wrong. That’s a start.


UPDATE #1: See here for Invisible Children’s official response to questions and critiques about the organization.

UPDATE #2: Chris Blattman, quoted above, posts his initial reaction to KONY 2012 here.


(Photo Source: Invisible Children)

  • Jeff

    Great Article. Really on point

  • Jerry

    It’s not IC’s fault, it’s the masses of armchair activists that think they can make a difference. when in reality they just want to look caring and cool for their friends.

  • Gina

    You got a nice blog here, easy to scroll in and makes for pleasant reading without a lot of annoying pop-ups (or any) to clutter up the space needed to focus on reading. And your article is on the level too. What many of those who criticize IC’s video don’t realize, is that they themselves are in the spotlight now, IF they have anything valid to contribute to the problems or issues. On the Vimeo video made by Jason Russell to thank people for their response, a teacher left a comment which, no doubt, will make you nod yes yes yes this is what it’s all about too ;-) —> Joe Costello wrote: “As a high school social studies teacher it is not everyday that I get a group of students that BEG me to allow them to watch a documentary. . .it’s even rarer for the whole class to sit and watch it with NO ONE putting their heads down and have them actively engage in meaningful discussion over the topic. I was so moved by their compassion that I order a set of 25 posters for them. The thanks should be directed to y’all not us.”

  • Eric Johnson

    @Jeff and Jerry: Thanks for your comments.

    @Gina: I haven’t watched the video you reference, but I’ll try to take a look. Your points are well taken. You suggest that those who created such a furor over IC’s methods have also forced traditional methods of peacebuilding (not to mention aid, development, political science, IR, and economics) to come under the microscope. This is a healthy debate and ultimately a good thing for the field(s). The quote you include suggests that whatever flaws may or may not exist with IC’s approach in Uganda, here in the US, the organization has been highly effective in achieving its goals. The takeaway from all this, I hope, is that IC fine-tunes its organizational efficiency while gov’t bureaucracies and int’l bodies do the same.

  • Gina

    Hi Eric. Have also found your facebook page and understood that FPA is set to inform Americans about the world beyond the borders of their continent. And to inspire them. A good thing. I am from the Netherlands, and when I came into touch with Americans via the internet, somewhat longer than a decade ago, they were surprised that we, at our highschool, were taught stuff about other countries into depth, even. We had the United States as a subject for exams and learned a lot about their demographics (at the time, of course), history, people, states, laws, culture, religion, all kinds of facts and numbers, even the climate and what clouds you have hovering.

    But back to the IC and their video(s). The Vimeo video is just a very short 1:37 minute message from Jason Russell.

    A complaint I also often saw, was that people feel these white American hipsters want to help the poor black ignorant African. Their staff consists of 113 people, in both the States and Africa (Uganda). 39 white Americans (including an Asian/Japanese woman) in the USA, 74 people in Uganda, of which 3 white Americans, so 71 native Ugandan citizens. The majority of their staff is black. In Uganda is where their groundwork is done. Schools for Schools, mentors for the Legacy Scholarship Program. And so forth. So those who criticize these American hipsters know nothing about Uganda, should take the time to get familiar with the IC work so far.

    And I did’t really suggest IC has forced others to come under the microscope, I meant it in a positive way. Whoever is working in/for Uganda and was unnoticed by the public at large, is now out there posting videos, blogs, vlogs or writing articles (if even so mainly criticizing IC), garnering attention for their views or opinions. Amnesty International is very pleased with the attention the IC video has unleashed and shows their collected facts on their website once again. Human Rights Watch also shows for how many years they’ve been monitoring Kony and his army of child soldiers These are two organizations not condemning IC, because they realize what IC has done for them too. And that’s the spirit, if I may say so.


Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson

Eric received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware where he majored in International Relations with a concentration on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He is pursuing a Master of Science degree from The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) at George Mason University. Eric has managed a variety of international education and training development programs for students, teachers, business leaders, and government officials on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Defense, and various private sponsors. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East.

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