Why You Should Not Donate To Invisible Children/Kony 2012

March 8th, 2012

Like many people across the world, I am in the large minority that takes internet access for granted. On March 7th, millions of wealthy people who count themselves among that group watched a half-hour long video made by a group called Invisible Children.

The video went viral and ended up gaining unprecedented support via a mixture of pledges of support and video sharing, both quite innocent, and donations. The request for these donations after an emotionally manipulative video, however, is quite sinister – brazenly so. It was a tour de force in coercion, emotional manipulation and sophistry, and millions are falling for it.

I can’t tell you what to do with your money, that’s entirely up to you. But if you had not heard of Joseph Kony before yesterday and are now thinking of reaching into your wallet for some change or your credit card, stop. Stop right now, please. I can’t tell you what to do with your money, but I can ask you what to not do with it, and what you should not do is donate to this group. Let’s say you do decide to donate though, as is your right; where would the proportion of your donation that is not spent on salaries and administration go? (If you want to read beyond this point, and you should, I suggest you open the video in another tab because I will be referencing certain points of it in parentheses.)

Invisible Children does not hide the fact that it would lend its financial resources to help the Ugandan Army in its aims (19.23 and 21.47). Uganda has been led by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who has also used child soldiers and “ghost soldiers” , since 1986. Among many of its human rights violations, the regime tortures prisoners, oppresses other political parties and the press and also wishes to introduce a bill that would have ‘convicted homosexuals’ put to death.

In the mid 1990s, the Museveni government forcibly removed over one million people of the Acholi tribe from the northern part of the country to concentration camps further south. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently have some of the highest mortality rates in the world at around 1,000 per week. Both Kony’s LRA and Museveni’s UPDF have committed terrible atrocities against these IDPs.

The video says we need to pressure American politicians (why just American?) to go after Kony and try him in the ICC, but the US isn’t even a member of the ICC (21.00). It asks that people put pressure on representatives to try a criminal in a court they themselves have voted against recognising. It juxtaposes a Republican lawmaker and an ICC prosecutor. It is incoherent logic.

It also states that it is the Ugandan Army that must be supported in achieving the aim of capturing Kony, but as the video also points out, Kony is most likely no longer in Uganda (15.00). This advocates that the Ugandan Army invades another sovereign state or states when those states offer no credible threat against the invading state, going against international law. The Ugandan Army has already entered other states and exploited resources: oil, mineral reserves and rich farmland. In addition, the Museveni regime, along with ally Rwanda, initiated or helped initiate the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed an estimated 6 million people – more than any conflict since WW2.

Look at the brief montage of footage (17.26-17.38) where people are out in matching shirts with a banner declaring where they are; not one of them is in a lesser developed country or even in Africa. No Cairo, no Abidjan, no Cape Town, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi . . . All of these cities have zones with internet access. They also have walls and they also have paper, so you would think that a “global” effort to capture Joseph Kony, an African, for war crimes by putting up posters would at least entail some element of Africa in the solution, no? This video was directed solely at rich nations because they are the ones with citizens who have the means to donate by buying the action kits and posters, which retail at $30 and $5 respectively.

The video also depicts the Ugandan regime as honourable, wishing to deploy soldiers to hunt a war criminal but limited by technological and financial restrictions that US advisors can help overcome.  This is simply not the case in reality. They are promoting keyboard activism.  If people use this viral exposure to do something useful, such as target the political root causes of the problems – something that we, as those with access to the internet, could do – then we ought to be impressed.

But for the moment, the lack of context and the black-and-white moralist tone of the video clouds a series of highly delicate political and social situations in central Africa.  Doing some good is great, but most of the video was filmed over five years ago. A lot of the ring leaders, such as Vincent Otti, are no longer alive. Going on a revenge spree is a solution for nothing. If you chase the symptom away, fix the problem, don’t wield pitchforks and hunt. This is not Rwanda 1995 when we actually ought to have done something to stop a genocide that killed 800,000 people in under 100 days. (That’s the same as three 9/11s per day for 100 days straight in an area smaller than the state of Massachusetts.) We didn’t care then because there was no economic or strategic interest in the region at a geo-political level as there is now.

At its worst, the video manipulates a child through a highly staged mock interview (09.20 and 13.00), is neo-colonial and says that only wealthy white people can cure poor non-white people of their problems. It is Kipling’s White Man’s Burden in all its jingoistic glory. It is a real life version of Team America. If you actually want to do something in the long-term about the LRA, Kony, Uganda and Africa, then take a consistent interest in Africa rather than hopping on board because everyone is wearing the same colour t-shirt. You could start by demanding of the education system in your country that if a history course is given on Africa (usually titled the “scramble for Africa”), then perhaps it should not just be given solely from a British and French perspective and should not focus exclusively on how it affected European affairs. If you want to do something positive in the short- to medium-term after watching the video and wish to make a donation to a group doing great work in the area, you can donate to Amnesty International, MSF or War Child, among others.

People are saying “Is it better to stand by and do nothing?” – implying that doing nothing is the only alternative. This creates a false dilemma, is a logical fallacy and is intellectually lazy.

Reading this was probably a lot less fun for you than watching the video, but then again I didn’t write this to entertain you or make you feel better or worse about yourself. Did you ever watch the Simpsons episode ‘Trash of the Titans’? It’s the one where Homer becomes sanitation commissioner. During a debate, his level-headed opponent says;

“All right, fine. If you want an experienced public servant, vote for me. But if you want to believe a bunch of crazy promises about garbage men cleaning your gutters and waxing your car, then by all means vote for this sleazy lunatic.”

Homer won in a landslide after an appeal to people that they could feel better about themselves by being lazy – intellectually lazy. It takes no intellectual effort to put on a t-shirt, put up a poster or make a donation. Let’s not do the same thing the population of Springfield did. For once, let’s actually care about Africa and Africans.



Hugo O’Doherty has written on African affairs for various publications in Ghana and Ireland. He believes that Joseph Kony is a vile person who needs to be brought to justice. hugo@hugoodoherty.com


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  • Matthew Leady

    While I appreciate your viewpoint, it adds to the ongoing debate about how much and how far should humans go to help each other, I disagree with your allegation of inconsistent logic. The underlying logic seems perfectly clear: Joseph Kony uses atrocious tactics (like child soldiers) to further terror in Central Africa. This is wrong. We should do something to stop Joseph Kony. Making him famous will further that mission. To focus on how that money is managed, to make broad assertions about this being a neo-colonialist venture, and to accuse them of being political is to miss the good among the questionable. I spent some time growing up in Northeastern DRC and am a staunch believer in trying to hold organizations accountable for how they spend their money, how they are or are not imposing their own cultural hermeneutic, and how they are using their ’cause’ to gain power in some way. But let’s not just be critics of those in the trenches while essentially dismissing the truths that they are grappling with. Joseph Kony is a monster. That entire region of the world is a chaotic mess with millions of people dying and millions more suffering. Any ’cause’ or side you take necessarily means that there is an opposing side that has their own ’cause’ or stake in the outcome. But all of these truths do not mean that they should stop trying to do good. This organization, and hundreds of others, are doing something. Good for them, let’s help them do it better, because they can always improve. Unfortunately this is harder than donating money or critiquing how they use it. This requires involvement, dialogue, disagreement, struggle. Don’t just donate your money or your mouth. Donate your mind and body. Then critiques about how money is being spent, and what message is being expressed become pruning shears that make the tree healthier, instead of a chainsaw that destroys what good could have been preserved because some portion was not healthy enough to our liking.

  • Linnet Aguirre

    To Hugo O’Doherty: The mission was not implying in any way that could change the world overnight. Do not insult them by writing about the inconsistencies or making it out as if they just want the “colored shirts” to be a fad. They are just trying to do something good in the way the know how, and to get people aware and involved the only way they know how. How about you write about what ELSE people can do instead of criticizing the makers of the video, to help them, and not to put them down? It is sad how amidst people like them who do everything they can, no matter how simple or little, to try to do something good, are people like you who complain and criticize, and even worse just wreck the good intentions they have. I hope the people of the world would just be smarter in seeing the bigger picture in this issue, despite your persistence in tearing down the Invisible Children’s mission and video.

    • Rondah

      There is always a bigger picture* Sadly, if the funds raised to benefit the boy soldiers & other persecuted humans goes to the war~lords responsible for these attrossities:( the cause is causing more of the retched behaviour all of us caring folk would love to see changed. Damned if you do & Damned if U don’t :(:(:( I am not in favour of money being thrown at the cause to play GOD or to be the necessary *Mr Fix It* Catalyst, Instead*** I’ll Pray, Night & Day <3

  • Andrea

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve felt that this, the colonial view, has been lacking in the debate. To take it one step further, actually, I’m wundering why there isn’t a single Ugandan in the IC board. Isn’t that very suspicious?

  • Hugo

    Hi Linnet, thanks for your contribution to the debate. As I said in the article, there are many things that people can do to help improve the situations in central Africa. I advocated that people lobby for a more nuanced and true perspective on African history within their education systems and if they want to make a donation of some sort to groups doing excellent work in the field, I suggested Amnesty, Medicins Sans Frontieres and War Child. My opposition to this video and its intentions comes from a deep love of Africa from my time working as a journalist there, a hatred for Joseph Kony, and my opposition to the use of child soldiers. Kony 2012 would provide logistical support to a man, Yoweri Museveni, who has also used child soldiers. I am seeing the bigger picture. Thank you for your comment and I hope you’ll debate this matter further with me.

  • Hugo

    Hi Andrea, thanks for your comment. Yes the lack of any Ugandan or African at a decision-making level is galling. Kony 2012 does not believe in Africans and their ingenuity and problem-solving abilities.

  • Hugo

    Hi Matthew, thanks for your contribution to the debate. The only instance where I said that the logic was inconsistent was when discussing not the ‘why’ of stopping Kony but the ‘how’. Kony 2012 says that pressuring US politicians to provide logistical support to help capture Kony can lead to him being tried at the International Criminal Court, but the US has not ratified the bill recognising the ICC. It is a legally and logical inconsistent process. I largely agree with the sentiments you express, and, having worked for newspapers in Ghana and an African newspaper in Ireland, I hope this goes some way towards your idea (one that I share) that people ought to donate their body and mind.

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  • SD

    I agree 100% with this article!

    Good job!

  • Les

    Interesting info Hugo. You are correct that it would be silly for U.S. Politicians to urge prosecution in a world court that the United States refuses to recognize. The U.S. would probably do it anyways as hypocrisy is nothing new and this does not involve Americans being prosecuted.
    Unfortunately, you feel the need to drag 911 into this. Yes, the endless weeping and melodrama of 911 offends me as it has been milked of meaning and has been an excuse for some awful things. But I am disgusted by people needlessly comparing tragedies. Carrying on about one tragedy being worse than the next is a race to the bottom that you should not take part in. What is the point? Are you trying to say “Sure, 911 was bad, but stop your crying, Rwanda was even worse?” This contributes nothing of value.

  • Hugo

    Les, where do I bring 9/11 into anything? I didn’t mention it at all.

    • Mory

      You said, “That’s the same as three 9/11s per day for 100 days straight in an area smaller than the state of Massachusetts.”

  • Hugo

    That is there solely as a relative reference point to the number of people who died in the Rwandan genocide, not anything to do with 9/11 as an event in itself.

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  • Jack

    How old are you people and was your grade point average in social studies?