StopKony? No. #StartReading.

I wrote an opinion piece earlier this week for OpenFile Otatwa (see below).

It got a staggering 4,000+ hits and over 1,400 shares.

But more importantly it generated some heated discussion in the page’s comments discussion. Good to see at least some people are questioning Invisible Children’s blinkered message.


With 32 million views and counting on YouTube, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 mini-documentary underlines the power of social media.

Used responsibly, I believe tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can be wielded to increase awareness about pressing international issues.

Therein lies my beef with Invisible Children.

Their saccharine, MTV-esque 30 minute-long video replete with fist-pumping and peace signs is manipulative, ill-informed and overly simplistic.

Perhaps that’s why the white son of Jason Russell, the narrator of the piece, features so prominently in the video.

Look, even my toddler understands that Kony’s a baddie.

Now, let me lay out some disclaimers before anyone labels me as a nihilistic pessimist.

I’ve lived in northern Uganda. I’ve worked with Ugandans. I’ve interviewed women formerly abducted by Kony’s LRA. I’ve spoken to non-governmental organizations who are trying to help these women reintegrate.

Yes, Kony is a bad man. Yes, he needs to be brought to justice.

But the video has tweeters in the ether baying for blood seduced by slick editing and a black and white view of a 20-year conflict. It’s a thoughtless call to arms.

Where to start?

1. The video leads you to assume that there are still children commuting nightly to avoid abduction.

Not true. The LRA hasn’t been active in Uganda since roughly 2006. The video shows a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it map showing the movement of the LRA into the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic.

2. The video implies that the LRA is still active in Uganda.

Wrong. Not for the last five years, since the ill-fated Juba peace talks in 2006.

3. The video says he has no motive beyond staying in power.

Again, this isn’t strictly true. Kony argues he’s defending the rights of the northern Acholi.

4. The video states the LRA abducted, raped and mutilated thousands of civilians.

There’s no denying this happened; sadly, it did. But the video fails to mention that soldiers of the UPDF, the Ugandan army, also raped male and female civilians in the Internally Displaced Person camps during the conflict—the very civilians they were supposed to be protecting.

5. The video reinforces gendered stereotypes, saying girls were abducted as sex slaves and boys as soldiers.

Wrong again. Many of the formerly abducted women I interviewed were trained to kill. Boys were also raped.

All of these points contribute to the conclusion that Invisible Children is guilty of misinforming the public.

But I’m also baffled by the underpants gnome logic of this campaign.

The argument is thus:

Step 1. We’ll make people aware about this issue and blanket the streets with posters.

Step 2. ???

Step 3. Kony will be brought to justice. The all-important middle phase is conveniently passed over, as is the fact that Kony and the LRA haven’t been operating in Uganda for the last five years.

And what of the task force of U.S. advisers that Invisible Children claims to have single-handedly mobilized? Five months on, and still no Kony.

Another of my pet peeves with the video is its unapologetic branding of the conflict. It offers young privileged westerners, perhaps feeling guilty over their own consumerism, to redeem themselves as well, without having to change their own lifestyles. In fact, they can save Africa by indulging further in consumerism and digital entertainment.

It’s a triumph of advertising over information.

The very first Invisible Children video screened in 2004 used images of child soldiers from Sierra Leone and portrays them as Ugandan. Evidently all African children look the same—victims in need of a rescue.

And the organization is opaque in its fundraising. What is the money being used for? How much of it goes to the people it claims to be helping in Uganda?

Looking at the organization’s financial statements from last year, the answer is very little:

Only 32 percent of over $8.5 million went to direct services. The rest went towards staff salaries, travel and—you guessed it—film production.

So buy that action kit, but how much of that money actually helps a Ugandan? How will that money bring about Kony’s capture?

I actually visited the Invisible Children compound in Gulu last summer and was sickened to see a fleet of brand new motorbikes sitting in the driveway. To me, that’s money that could have gone towards helping the war-affected communities of the north.

Sure, they’ve built schools and they’re giving tailoring lessons to women. But Ugandan markets are over-saturated with tailors. As a trade taught by the majority of aid organizations as a vocational skill, it now has the stigma of a rebel trade.

And what about trauma counselling in a country where formerly abducted children still suffer from PTSD, haunted nightly by the spirits of people they were forced to kill? Just one percent of the government’s health budget is currently set aside for mental health services.

Grab any Ugandan in the street and ask them about their thoughts of Kony. The majority will be more concerned about putting their kids through school, or putting food on the table.

Frankly, I feel that the founders of Invisible Children have lost sight of why they started the organization in the first place: the people of Uganda. They are no longer terrorized by the LRA, but more than 20 years of conflict have taken their toll and despite its Peace, Recovery and Development Program, the Ugandan government has failed to rehabilitate the north.

Many of the women I spoke to have said life was easier back in the bush with the LRA.

But the Invisible Children video mentions none of this. Instead, it actually raises the very real risk of inflaming the conflict. Are all those tweeting thinking about that? And will bringing Kony before the International Criminal Court even bring an end to the activities of the LRA?

I do honestly commend the sentiment and passion behind the message being broadcast by Invisible Children. But people shouldn’t be force-fed misconceptions that are so binary.

And what happens as a result? I overheard many of the doe-eyed Invisible Children interns in Uganda wonder out loud where the night commuters were. They’d wanted to photograph one.

At last year’s One World Film Festival in Ottawa, I spoke to a number of their employees educating festival goers about the war and the Acholi people.

They’d never even been to Uganda.

All I’m saying is: don’t tweet without thinking. Pick up a book and educate yourself before you donate to a cause circulating propaganda that arguably seeks to assuage western guilt by targeting a regime’s figurehead, rather than helping those who are still struggling in post-conflict Uganda.

But I’ll give Invisible Children one thing—they’ve certainly improved their message from their “whip your hair” campaign..