Why Invisible Child’s #Kony2012 Campaign Gets No Applause From Me

In short: #Kony2012 #StopKony misrepresents N. Uganda, spreads misinformation abt Kony/the LRA, denies Africans’ agency and is imperialist. It raises the perennial question of “Who represents Africa?”

For example: This tweet (one of many prime examples) succinctly exemplifies all that I critique in this piece:

In fact, it reminded me of my post-colonial readings of Karl Marx. Reading this quote from his “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten werden” spurred me deeper into my anti-colonialist, post-colonialist fervor. Literally translated from German, “Those who cannot represent themselves must themselves be represented,” the quote revealed to me just how insidious the narrative of “saving” and “speaking for” the subaltern is.

HOW DOES THIS TIE INTO Invisible Children’s #Kony2012 CAMPAIGN?

If “awareness” is the payoff for paternalistic, imperialist, “white man’s burden” NGO campaigns, I don’t want it. (Just the name “Invisible Children” denies and co-opts the agency of Ugandans- many of whom have organized to protect child soldiers…). I stand by this: if you’re more comfortable talking about Africans than you are talking to an African person, you really should not be in the business of representing Africa. Furthermore, if you cannot find an African nation on a map, let alone acknowledge Africans’ agency, you should not be providing “solutions” or “aid. Certainly, if you think that Uganda is in Central Africa, you should not be disseminating (mis)information that could have implications on policy.

Presumably, this campaign is supposed to raise awareness in the international community of Joseph Kony and lead to his arrest and/or death. The assumption is that taking down the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army will eliminate the problems. Thing is, Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army are symptoms of corrupt governance. Invisible Children’s video strangely omits Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s complicity in the horrors of the conflict that began in the late 1980s in Northern Uganda at the beginning of his (prolonged) presidency. Clearly, the international justice community is aware of Joseph Kony, because his name has been on top of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s “most wanted” list for nearly a decade. Not to mention the fact that the United States armed forces have made several attempts at fighting the LRA and killing Joseph Kony, all of which resulted in the displacement of Sudanese and Congolese civilians as the LRA scattered about Central Africa.

[Also, I suggest a little light research into Invisible Children’s spending practices.]


I’m not going to pretend that the Lord’s Resistance Army does not have a track record of egregious abuses that includes labor and sex trafficking, child soldiers, looting, murder, rape and other crimes. However, in the conveniently binary framing, Kony is depicted as the “bad guy” while everyone who fights against him is “good.” Never mind that the Ugandan Army, UPDF has been accused of rape, looting and land grabbing. Amid the hasty generalizations, one small forgotten detail is obscured: Joseph Kony and the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army fled from Northern Uganda to the Congo, and the Central African Republic over 6 years ago.

Also, let’s talk about how Northern Uganda’s Acholi people face a second genocide w/ US military involvement, and land grabs for oil deposits. Remember, Northern Uganda has oil deposits. Companies in China & the UK already tried to claim some. Now the US wants a turn. The same thing is happening in Southern Somalia. The UK has been baldfaced about their desire to claim the oil there. This is, of course, in keeping with the idea of a “resource curse”- where a region’s resources are valued more than its people and their rights.

I also urge you to pay attention to where military intervention by “western” nations on the continent of Africa occurs. It’s usually where the resources are. I addressed the United States’ increased military presence in Northern Uganda in the context of the 2009 Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in an article entitled “The Greater WE: Military Interventions in a Globalized World,” excerpted below:

“What are the implications of President Obama’s decision to send military advisers to Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Can we learn from the United States armed forces’ forays into Africa? Can we look at the First (1993) and Second (2006Battles of Mogadishu (Somalia) and Operation Lightning Thunder (2008) and learn from the resultant civilian casualties, displacement and heightened risk of hunger and famine?

Billed as a strategy to force Joseph Kony (head of the Lord‘s Resistance Army) to sign the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) (a peace agreement that even the Ugandan government has refused to sign), Operation Lightning Thunder destroyed the Lord‘s Resistance Army (LRA) base camp and scattered the LRA over the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). Tens of thousands of Congolese and Sudanese were displaced in the December 2008 military operation, comprising a percentage of the 200,000 displaced.

In the DRC, citizens either fled to major towns or across the border to Sudan. Thousands of Sudanese left their villages along the border and sought shelter and security in major towns. However, in towns, it was unclear whether the army was providing security. Other factors, including the rainy season, lack of food, housing, medical care, exacerbated the plight of those displaced by the fighting.”


I recommend you send your donations to the following community-based organizations in Northern Uganda:
Concerned Children & Youth Association (CCYA)
Art for Children Uganda
Children Chance International, founded by Kenneth Odur
Friends of Orphans


“… They’re [Invisible Children] essentially a well-funded production company that makes slick documentaries. Noble intentions aside, they aren’t doing charity so much as they’re playing charity.

Then of course, there’s the project founder, Jason Russell. Read this interview where he says, “If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.”

“…The thing is that Joseph Kony has been doing this for a very, very, very long time.  He emerged about a quarter of a century, which is about the same time that Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power.  As a result the fates of these two leaders must, I think, be viewed together.  Yet, though President Museveni must be integral to any solution to this problem, I didn’t hear him mentioned once in the 30-minute video.  I thought that this was a crucial omission. Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora.  It didn’t ask its viewers to seek diplomatic pressure on President Museveni’s administration.”

“I am writing from Pader, Uganda, because I believe the recent conversation about Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Invisible Children is not including the voice of those that matter most– the people of Northern Uganda. I know more than I would like to know about the LRA, not from watching “Kony 2012” or reading insightful accounts of the conflict, but because personally I have seen it, have lived it, and have been in it. I was one of the now-famous “child soldiers.” …”

9 thoughts on “Why Invisible Child’s #Kony2012 Campaign Gets No Applause From Me

  1. This post does a great job of informing readers. However, while I agree with your assertion that the video should have included a focus on Ugandan agents on the ground working for change, we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees here. The fact is that Africa (as a continent) has been largely off the radar for most Americans (not to mention other nations as well), and this campaign is doing a great job of shedding light on this crisis to millions upon millions of people who were previously unaware. And the fact that the campaign is being pushed by an organization that has a 2 star rating out of 4 with respect to transparency really doesn’t (to me personally) take away from the fact that a much greater good is coming out of this. Further, Invisible Children has done MUCH more for displaced children in Uganda than I ever have, and for this, I really don’t have the moral authority to bring them down. Ultimately, it is a young organization that has lots of future potential, and I think that due credit should be given to them where it is merited.

  2. I’m not going to pretend I completely agree with your post, but I did find your perspective on the issue rather eye opening. You make several valid points, most of them common sense and those who do not blindly follow like sheep should be already aware of these items.

    While I respect everything you are saying, do you truly believe that the IC and TRI are not playing a crucial role in solving this crisis for the people of Uganda? Press, word of mouth, the use of modern technology to educate people on a world-wide front has to account for something.

    All in all, I found your post to be truly insightful. I thank you for this take on IC and what they are/are not doing for Uganda.

  3. the issues that the kony campaign has raised really deserves a full critique – looking at both those for and against. i wish i saw more criticism of those opposed – whose affiliations are very rarely revealed. the tendentious nature of all of the critiques frankly make me suspicious of the motives of the criticism. i sometimes suspect many experts on the issue probably resent that a group of young hip-looking kids have invaded their territory. and the critiques are coming from people who, ironically, are trying to speak for northern Ugandans while decrying that IC is trying to speak for northern Ugandans. so the question becomes – assuming that northern Ugandans don’t have a way to speak for themselves – should anyone try to help northern Ugandans or bring the world’s attention to their issues? who has a “right” to do that, who has an “obligation” to do that? if people are not paying attention to a human rights abuse, should anyone say anything at all? should we stand by and say nothing? i’m not being rhetorical here. these types of questions have not been raised in any of the columns i’ve read (though of course i’m sure they are being discussed). what i’ve seen is very polarized tendentious comments, snark and ridicule. i have yet to see any kind of constructive approach proposed. the IC kids, if you will, are actually part of a human rights tradition that goes back hundreds of years – to the anti-slavery movements in the u.s. and u.k. in king leopold’s ghost, that tradition is held up for praise. it’s odd to see it ridiculed, to say the least! yes, there are differences but there are essential similarities. i would have wished IC had more sophistication and more expertise involved with their effort. they simplified a narrative to make it accessible, to be sure. but in doing so they actually made it accessible, obviously. this surely deserves some consideration. they have some talent that should be acknowledged. they used emotional appeals to emphasize urgency, they naively (imo) thought that making people aware of something bad happening somewhere justified any means to do so. in short, they are young and unexperienced. they certainly did not understand how cynical many people in the world are today, who instantly assumed the worst intent of their effort. very few seemed to serioulsy say, wow, these guys quite honestly concerned about this issue (they had been working on this for 9 years, for 20-somethings that is a f’ing lifetime). rather than being criticized mercilessly and seen as colonialist and imperialist aggressors (if they are, surely that is because of their own ignorance, not of willfull intent – there is a difference), where were other advocates to co-opt their approach, to add to it and repair it as they thought it should be? the world is full of imperfect approaches to complicated problems – why were IC advocates, as self-righteous as they surely are, not invited in to debates and discussions on what to do about this? why wasn’t their personal passion given some credit? if nothing else, the fact that more than 100 million people watched a 29-minute video on the internet is amazing. in working with advocates in the past, it seems impt to acknowledge the positives as well as address the negatives. how these guys got so many people worked up to the point that they were hated and dissed is distressing. it seems as though an opportunity was missed in the rush to so easily ridicule and berate them. and, as i say, i have yet to see any kind of outreach to them in any form except to hate on them. what is the point? the idea that people in other parts of the world should simply ignore or not care about injustices in other parts of the world (it’s important to note that the IC people did not invent Kony as the villain – the ICC has him listed as the most wanted of its long list of international criminals) strikes me not only as immoral but as completely unrealistic. 100 yeas ago no one traveled much, today it’s as common as watching TV. 100 yrs ago we could safely ignore what happened pretty much anywhere beyond 100 miles of our homes. was that better? while i agree with the ideal of people speaking up for themselves, i see no evidence that that will happen for everyone at any point in my lifetime. this is why we have advocates. and if we didn’t, poor, exploited and/or oppressed people everywhere would suffer even more than they do already. let’s not attack advocates – they play an important role. why not instead use their passion and interest and, yes, funding to address problems? sorry to write so long but this whole thing still has me scratching my head at why people did not take this kind of approach with IC. in NYC, where i worked as a housing advocate, we used to say “it’s ok to use the devil’s money to destroy the devil” when we accepted funds from the state to do anti-eviction work. and i still cannot understand why a similar tack was not used here.

  4. Reblogged this on Uncertain Outcomes and commented:
    Having spent 9 months in Uganda, I would agree more often with this post then with the popular Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign. Do you really get all the issues and history behind Kony2012 or are you just a fan of a “well-funded production company.”

  5. Thanks for this post, and specifically for the links to organizations in Uganda. Not everyone has offered alternatives as part of their criticism, and I think it’s a good thing to try to do whenever possible; but it takes some effort. I credited you for those links with a special thanks in my blog post today on practical ways to help Central Africa and areas affected by the LRA. http://joannacastlemiller.com/2012/03/28/ways-to-help-central-africa-and-countries-affected-by-the-lra/

  6. Thank you! When I tried telling people here [Hong Kong] that they really ought to question the video before instead of just blindly accepting what was given to them I was called an African radical. Not enough people these days question what is being fed to them by the media. I kept giving the side-eye to the people who claimed to be “social activists” because they reposted the video.

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