PHONY 2012


Somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one imagines that Joseph Kony got quite a shock when he last logged into Facebook on Wednesday. His wrath must have been a sight to behold when he found out that he was trending on Twitter. The vicious warlord must be terrified now that students across the globe are united in the cause of Invisible Children Inc. The decades of guerilla warfare against the forces of at least two states in Central Africa were nothing compared to the increased scrutiny of millions who spent twenty-seven minutes watching a toddler talk about the “bad guys” and, briefly, Star Wars. After all, in October 2001 when the first bumper stickers with Osama’s face appeared, it was only a matter of time before justice caught up with The Most Hated Man In The World©. God knows it was only a matter of “getting the word out there, man” that led to a team of elite Navy SEALS putting a bullet into his head.

Sarcasm comes easily in the face of such pleading earnestness in the form of the ‘Kony 2012’ video. The public reaction appears to be a split between the fervent support of the converts and the crossed-arms and upturned noses of the skeptic. The criticism of the latter group by the former is going to be swift and unfair: the Invisible Children are doing “something”, “something” is better than “nothing” and if you don’t want to tattoo the word KONY on your forehead then you must be a monster. Please, if you have researched the subject of the decades old conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and feel what this shiny, slick and ‘cool’ activist group is doing is worthwhile, by all means change your profile picture and wear the bracelet. But in case you aren’t an expert in this subject, as most people including myself are not, you should be aware of a number of things.

Firstly, there are serious questions about the organization that at various times has been called “naïve” and “misleading”. Invisible Children publicly admits that only 31% of donations go to ‘direct action’, meaning schools and other ‘do-gooder’ projects. A look at their financial audits released for 2011 reveal that the three founders make eighty thousand dollars each. The figures quoted in the video are out of date, specifically regarding the numbers of child soldiers, which have seen a sizable drop since 2003. Not for one second am I saying that there is an acceptable amount of child combatants. But to deliberately mislead the public is shameful. As is unconditionally supporting the Ugandan national security forces, themselves repeatedly accused of killing, torture and rape.

No one can really dispute how well made and effective the video is. That’s precisely the problem though. Making such a complex issue into a very simplified video to spread virally is a double-edged sword. Watch the film again but replace Kony with Saddam and the issue of child soldiers with the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish people. It seems on the surface to be a facetious analogy, but there are some parallels.  How can those who were so quick to protest the Coalition’s march into Mesopotamia be so ready to accept a comparable action?

There needs to be a nuanced debate about this issue; by drawing the world’s attention to an underreported issue, Invisible Children should be applauded. No one should doubt Invisible Children’s intentions either. However, the KONY2012 campaign has the potential to do more harm than good. If a majority of people only accepts the information put to them by the video then they will be supporting an extremely worthwhile cause for the wrong reasons and drawing the wrong conclusions. This column can’t offer any better solutions other than to take a closer look at this issue and avoid blindly offering support to the loudest voices in the room.

We didn’t Make Poverty History. When everyone changed their photo on Facebook last year to a cartoon character, violence against children wasn’t halted. The easiest thing in the world would be to just climb aboard the Kony bandwagon and ride it straight to the moral high ground. It’s easy to post a status or watch a slick video. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UNICEF all do admirable work with fewer of the flaws of the Invisible Children. If you want to do something today to help combat the evil in the world, donate to these or other reputable organizations. Or more importantly, ignore what I have to say and do a little careful research and make up your own minds. Which admittedly doesn’t make a great slogan to put on a bracelet, but it’s the truth.


  1. While I think you make some good points that we shouldn’t just blindly follow what is said in this video, I think you should heed your own advice and do some more research. Have you studied Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNICEF? I can’t say I’ve researched into these organisations but I have seen one of them in action while working in Zambia, and what I saw was them spending all of their time interrupting programmes we were trying to deliver, much more focused on making good promotional materials and wasting money on their fancy hotels and driving around in their fancy cars then actually stopping and giving any attention to the kids they are meant to be helping. I of course believe that these organisations are doing a world of good, but I think it is ludicrous for you to claim that they are flawless in comparison to Invisible Children. You say that the founders of Invisible Children are making $80,000 per year. Seems like small change when the new executive director of UNICEF is reported to be earning 2 million…

  2. Thank you. I’ve come under a ton of fire just for mentioning the fact people should take a closer look at it. The moral high ground you’re talking about quickly goes to peoples heads and just because I’m not re papering my walls with Kony 2012 stuff I’m some kind of idiot. I literally had somebody tell me not to believe everything I read regarding anti Kony stuff and to “do my research” while he blindly accepted everything in a 27 minute long video from 2003. I understand what IC wants to do and it’s great, but they lose credibility when they try and subvert the facts.

  3. I saw red at the line: “Please, if you have researched the subject of the decades old tribal conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa “.

    I am one of those people that thinks people should acutally do some research before supporting things. But I also think they should inform themselves before criticising them, especially if they’re writing a whole article criticising something. So many ‘wise’ St Andreans have actually assumed their own moral highground with based on nothing but their ability to be cynical.

    1) This article says nothing others haven’t. It is rehashed and tired.

    2) Statements that Amnesty etc. have ‘none of the flaws of Invisible Children’ are just misled and uninformed. You’ve clearly arbitrarily picked the Charity names without having extensive knowledge of them.

    3) THIS IN NOT REDUCIBLE TO A ‘TRIBAL CONFLICT’. This legitimately makes ma angry because it’s such an uninformed colonial orientalist view of the Africa as if every conflict there is merely tribal. This is the furthest thing form tribal! You know NOTHING about this conflict and to be writing an article on it with a sense of self-accomplishment because you’ve been cynical about something is self-seeking and ignorant. Don’t preach from a pulpit if you have no idea what you’re talking about. This is a reductive statement that smacks of the notion of African savages unable to have a war about anything other than tribalism. This is SO much more complex than that. The conflict has involved 4 countries, the highest concentration of valuable natural minerals in the worldand a whole lot of politics. Read this: and educate yourself.

  4. Regardless of mistakes made in the article, and the obvious, and self professed, lack of knowledge on the conflict, this article shines past most things published on the saint in its actual attempt at objectivity and perhaps (gasp) journalism. This article is not about Kony, or the Congo. It is about how we react to the moral fads of the moment, and I think the author makes some very good points. You can hate it for its supposed ignorance of ‘Africa’ and its culture, but that’s missing the point. This article is about OUR culture, a culture in which the author rightly claims we too often attempt to simplify the complexity of the ‘other’ in order to give ourselves moral superiority. An attitude far more colonial than any single misrepresentation of a conflict.

  5. Sorry for the delayed response. Thank you for the feedback, I agree with some of the criticisms people have pointed out.

    @Stacey – I chose those names because they are large organisations along with Red Cross International, The Red Crescent and Medicin san Frontiere which have international credibility and name recognition. I listed these organisations not necessarily because I strongly approve of everything that they do (and I don’t doubt for one second that there are problems as you gave an example of), but because they are well established, more transparent and have gained prominence over a long period rather than overnight. It was possibly unfair to imply that these are flawless organisations, which was not my intent but I can understand that interpretation. They are not.
    With regards to the UNICEF director earning a seven figure salary, my understanding was that the job was initially offered at a much lower salary but failed to attract qualified candidates who would earn multi-million dollar salaries elsewhere.

    @Africa is a country, I never meant to come off as a colonialist and I am going to edit out the word “tribal”. My limited research indicated that tribal tensions were a factor in the origins of the conflict but I understand your criticisms as fair and will amend the article. Thank you for the link to the Enough Project, it was very interesting. One positive result of the whole Kony phenomenon has been that it is slowly encouraging people to do detailed research.
    I don’t for one second wish to claim any moral highground. As stated, I don’t question IC’s motives only their methods and wanted to urge caution in rushing in to support something about which (as you indicated) few people have a direct knowledge of.

    When you say that the article is rehashed and doesn’t say anything new, I’m unsure how to respond. Every single major and minor news outlet in the english speaking world did some form of story on this, repetition between articles is inevitable when most agree on the main criticisms of the campaign. But I do genuinely appreciate the commentary, which is harsh but fair.


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