The Kony 2012 Debate and why I Feel Both Sides are Legitimate

On March 5, Invisible Children released a short documentary about the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, one that now pervades your newspapers and computer screens . What seemed like a well-organized and passionate endeavor to galvanize support for the capture of Kony, whom the International Criminal Court listed as one of the world’s most wanted war criminals, has turned into a contentious debate about the legitimacy of IC. Specifically, many critics point to the lack of transparency and the way it spends donations. Out of four stars, IC received two for its accountability and transparency. Additionally, people have reproached the grassroots movement for the staff’s salary – CEO Ben Keesey and the documentary’s filmmakers Jason Russell and Laren Poole each received more than $84,000 in 2011 (making up around 3% of IC’s total expenses).

Other criticisms reflect uncertainty about IC’s stance on military force and violence. One of the more circulated photos shows Bobby Bailey, Russell, and Poole holding weapons and standing next to members of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which has been accused of continuing to recruit child soldiers despite demobilizing thousands.

Because I do not have a history with IC, I cannot offer my unabated support to the way they finance and run their movement. It would be extremely naive for me to say “Because I am mortified by what I see in this documentary, I am going to follow IC blindly and become a billboard for their cause.” And I think that’s how a lot of people feel, especially as our society becomes increasingly more skeptical of viral campaigns that ask for our time – but especially of those that ask for our money. If we’re being real, I eat ramen, sandwiches, and Lean Pockets on the daily. It takes a lot for someone or something to convince me that my donation, while a short-term blow to my wallet and my dining options, is going be used toward fighting for the cause I was led to believe it would.

So where do I stand on IC and the Kony 2012 campaign? As with many things, it’s better to know the details of what you’re advocating. The merchandise (i.e. the Kony action kit) has been an effective way to pull people in, because we like things. We want to visually demonstrate our knowledge of current events and our activism. Of course that’s the problem many movements face, this very shallow support base, which is why I expect a lot of hype from this particular group will decline within two weeks or so. If the initiative is successful and those that hold the highest positions of power start discussing if and how we can track down Kony, then I’ll really be intrigued. Because what I want to know is how we can feasibly help the Ugandans capture someone as dangerous and evasive as Kony (because I’m not yet convinced it’s as easy as the documentary suggests). Another point of contention is that the LRA is no longer hiding in Uganda, which the documentary sort of mentions but skims over. In fact, they’ve been gone for six years and are now believed to be somewhere in Central Africa. So what I’d like to know is the connection between my donation and the Ugandan army and what is being done to help displaced victims who have no medicine, food, or shelter.

I’ve done a very small amount of research, I’m not even remotely finished. But here’s the thing: when I remove myself from the immediate skepticism, the hype, the critics, the fervent supporters, the bracelets, the graphs that show how much money goes here and there, I’m left with this: I fucking hate Joseph Kony. I hate what he’s done to thousands and thousands of families. He needs to be arrested. That’s all I know for sure. I still have too many questions about IC’s practices to put my full trust in their planning and implementation, but I do believe that our government can afford to discuss if and how we can contribute to those who oppose the LRA. If Kony 2012 is the best way to force those conversations, then so be it. But IC’s campaign of awareness can only go so far…

We are so privileged, the fact that we can debate, research, and decide things without fear. We have access to education. We generally feel safe. Out of all the people that have criticized the movement, I can’t think of a single person that has lost their child or parent to the LRA and can therefore offer a dissenting opinion despite having experienced the ruthlessness of Kony. If I discover that IC’s practices do happen to be unethical or misleading in nature, then perhaps I will reconsider how far I extend my support. But for now, I feel that the goal outweighs the politics.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding these organizations accountable for the way they spend your donations and I always encourage people to ask questions when something seems wrong. The documentary – the mission of IC – is inspiring as it does appeal to the empathetic nature of human beings. Don’t criticize people if they’ve immediately taken an interest in Kony 2012. But at the same time, don’t criticize people if they’ve already decided that this particular initiative is not something they feel comfortable associating themselves with. Supporting the removal of Kony through the means of this IC movement does not automatically make you more ethical or righteous than your friend who chooses to pass. But then, don’t let said friend brag about being less naive just because he or she has decided to support a smaller, “less shady” organization. Because it’s true, there is strength in numbers. The only way to be a badass and boast of your badassery is to do the research and make a decision that is independent from the influences of anyone else.

So, TBC…

Update: Invisible Children has released an official response to the flood of criticism surrounding its mission and finances. It’s worth taking a look at.

Update 2: For those interested, I wanted to include a list of charities that have a better track record than IC and provide actual aid (not just awareness) to Africans. Each allocates at least 75% of its funds to direct relief.

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