You must have heard of the viral video created by Invisible Children (IC), a U.S. organization that has launched a one-year campaign (expires December 31, 2012) to eliminate Joseph Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group in Northern Uganda that has been embroiled in civil conflict with the Ugandan government for 25+ years. The LRA has admittedly used atrocious tactics such as abductions to engage children in conflict, using boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves. Needless to say, Kony and LRA must go. That’s where my agreement begins and ends with Invisible Children’s work. I appreciate the organization’s commitment to the issue and can see its good intent, but I strongly question the group’s approach, strategy, and work. Below are some of the reasons why.
Lack of context and nuance: in the video, the founder of Invisible Children tells his young son that Kony is a bad guy and he must go. Daddy will work on making sure he is caught. He goes on to state later, “if we succeed, we change the course of human history.” Such a humble undertaking! Simply, a long socioeconomic and political conflict that has lasted 25+ years and engaged multiple states and actors has been reduced to a story of the good vs bad guy. And if a three-year-old can understand it, so can you. You don’t have to learn anything about the children, Uganda, or Africa. You just have to make calls, put up flyers, sings songs, and you will liberate a poor, forgotten, and invisible people.
This approach obviously denies realities on the ground, inflates fantasies abroad, and strips Ugandans of their agency, dignity and humanity- the complexity of their story and history. The work, consequence, and impact are all focused on Uganda, but the agency, accountability, and resources lie among young American students. Clearly a dangerous imbalance of power and influence; one that can have adverse lasting effects on how and what people know of Uganda. It reduces the story of Northern Uganda, and perhaps even all of Uganda, into the dreaded single narrative of need and war, followed by western resolve and rescue. As we have seen from the past, without nuance and context, these stories stick in the collective memory of everyday people for years in their simplest forms: Uganda becomes wretched war. Whatever good IC may advance in raising more awareness on the issue or even contributing to the capture of Joseph Kony, it can never do enough to erase this unintended (I hope) impact.
Invisible to whom: these children have been very visible to their communities for years. After all, they’re somebody’s child, brother, sister, friend, niece, nephew, or neighbor. They’ve been visible to the shopkeepers and vendors in town who protected them. They’ve been visible to the family members who lost them and the community that cared for them. It’s because they’re so visible that Concerned Parents Association opened its doors in the 1990’s, after LRA abducted about 200 girls from a secondary school dormitory, to advocate for and bring to international light their plight. It’s because they’re visible that young people, including returnees from abductions, started Concerned Children and Youth Association. They’re visible to the people that matter, but apparently not to IC. The language we use in social change often denotes the approach we take, even if subconsciously. Since the children appear to be invisible to IC, then perhaps it’s clear why they’re represented as voiceless, dependent, and dis-empowered.
The dis-empowering and reductive narrative: the Invisible Children narrative on Uganda is one that paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering. Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of child and youth advocates who have been fighting to address the very issues at the heart of IC’s work. Want evidence? In addition to the organizations I list above, also look at Art for Children, Friends of Orphans, and Children Chance International. It doesn’t quiet match the victim narrative, does it? I understand that IC is a US-based organization working to change US policy. But, it doesn’t absolve it from the responsibility of telling a more complete story, one that shows the challenges and trials along side the strength, resilience, and transformational work of affected communities.
Revival of the White savior: if you have watched the Invisible Children video and followed the organization’s work in the past, you will note a certain messianic/savior undertone to it all. “I will do anything I can to stop him,” declares the founder in the video. It’s quite individualistic and reeks of the dated colonial views of Africa and Africans as helpless beings who need to be saved and civilized. Where in that video do you see the agency of Ugandans? Where in that Video do you see Jacob open his eyes wide at the mere possibility of his own strength, as Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters describes here? Can we point out the problem with having one child speak on the desires, dreams, and hopes of a whole nation? I don’t even want to mention the paternalistic tone with which Jacob and Uganda (when did it become part of central Africa by the way?) are described, not excluding the condescending use of subtitles for someone who is clearly speaking English.
How many times in history do we have to see this model to know that it doesn’t work? Even if IC succeeds in bringing about short-term change (i.e. increased awareness or even the killing of Kony) it won’t eliminate Northern Uganda’s problems overnight. It won’t heal and sustain communities. In this era of protest and the protester, we have seen that change is best achieved when it comes from within. Let Ugandans champion their own, IC!
Privilege of giving: that was quite a 30-minute production? Where did they get the resources? How do they have that reach? Well, in the nonprofit world, the one thing that we have to learn, especially as Africans, is that privilege begets privilege. The IC video is another reminder of the ways in which privilege infiltrates the social justice world and determines the voices and organizations that are heard; simply those that can afford to be heard. There are several local organizations that could offer a nuanced and contextualized perspective on and solutions to the Northern Uganda conflict. They don’t have IC’s reach. They simple weren’t born into the world of financial, racial, social, and geopolitical privilege IC members are.
Lack of Africans in leadership: Invisible Children’s US staff is comprised exclusively of Americans, as is the entire Board. How do you represent Uganda and not have Ugandans in leadership? Couldn’t the organization find a single Ugandan? An African? Did it even think about that? Does that matter to current staff and board members? I understand that IC’s main audience is American and its focus is on American action. However, when your work and consequence affect a different group of people than your target audience, you must make it a priority to engage the voices of the affected population in a real and meaningful way, in places and spaces where programs are designed, strategies dissected, and decisions are made.
Clearly, I think people should work across borders to address global issues. Obviously, there is a role for Americans in this issue. The problem here is the lack of balance on who speaks for Uganda (and Africa) and how. We need approaches that are strategic and respectful of the local reality, that build on the action and desires of local activists and organizers, and act as partners and allies, not owners and drivers. When it comes to Africa, we have seen the IC approach play out time and time again, whether it was Ethiopia in the 1980s, Somalia in the early 2000s to date, Darfur in 2004, or now. History is on our side and it shows that these types of approaches often fail. At some point, we have to say enough is enough. Africans, raise your voice! Now and into the future.
For more on the IC campaign, please read: