Using social media, Invisible Children (IC) has raised global awareness about Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and their atrocities committed across Eastern and Central Africa since 1986 (for my own extended take, see here and here). In only a few days, close to 40 million have watched a 28 minute film which calls on viewers to pressure the U.S. government to continue its military engagement and ensure the removal of Kony. The White House has congratulated the film makers. Critics of this most recent campaign against Kony have challenged the motives of the organization behind the campaign and also questioned the goals advanced by IC. Some of these criticisms miss the point entirely, while others should lead to a broader public debate that addresses the root causes of this conflict.
Many of the critics have made the point that Invisible Children in 2011 only spent 32% of its budget of $8.6m on direct services. This type of criticism misses the point on two counts. First, as an advocacy group, Invisible Children is not supposed to spend most of its income on service, but on advocacy. The last few days have shown that it has done that quite effectively, at least in terms of reaching millions. Which raises a second point: What primarily matters are outcomes and impact, not how much money the organization spends on activities relative to fundraising or administration. Charity watchdogs typically only look at efficiency measures, telling donors nothing about what actual impact an advocacy group has.
This then raises the final point: Is Invisible Children actually contributing to improving the situation in a sustainable way? Critics of the campaign have made some important points: 1. the atrocities have taken place many years ago; 2. it fails to highlight atrocities committed by the Ugandan army; 3. it fails to address the root causes of violence found in poverty and ethnic discrimination; 4. it portrays Africa yet again as a ‘dark continent‘ in need of our help (which typically only makes things worse); 5. it fails to reflect local views from the region; and 6. it mobilizes thousands of naive and uninformed people to sooth their guilt with money while creating dangerous and harmful outcomes. As one can see across the internet, the debate about these criticisms (a good summary at the BBC) has become more than ‘spirited’ and in many cases openly hostile (IC's response to its critics).
IC has, once again, raised awareness about Joseph Kony and the LRA. Yes, their ‘solutions’ may be questionable and some may even be dangerous, but the argument cannot simply be that things are ‘complex’ and that this won’t work. Those who criticize IC and claim to be experts need to formulate their alternatives and be willing to engage in the public debate in a proactive manner. To just say ‘no‘ won’t do it in addressing the atrocities committed by Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the age of social media, 'bad' ideas can easily turn into counterproductive campaigns and even worse policies.