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Kony 2012: Or, How Not To Do Charity

Kony 2012: Or, How Not To Do Charity

By Anne Russell
March 8, 2012

Like many, I only recently heard of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa. The LRA was founded in Northern Uganda in 1987 by a group of militant Christians, but its ideology is unclear these days, as it seems merely determined to maintain power. The LRA’s atrocities, committed over the course of 25 years, have included rape, and the kidnapping and use of child soldiers. Although their power has waned in recent years, social media has brought them back into the spotlight. The charity Invisible Children Inc recently released a documentary called Kony 2012, designed to make Kony infamous, encouraging concerted efforts to arrest or kill him. The wonders of the information age have worked equally well in the two directions; the video has gone viral, and criticism of the documentary and its makers has rapidly sprung up in response, prompting discussion on the nature of benevolent racism, charities and foreign aid. Watch the video below.


It’s a slick film, pulling emotive heartstrings in all directions. But curiously enough, Kony 2012 doesn’t put much focus on detailing the history of either Kony or the Lord’s Resistance Army, Ugandan politics, other NGOs in Uganda, or even what Invisible Children Inc itself is actually doing in the country. Even Kony’s undoubtedly heinous war crimes are given only a brief mention, before the film switches back to the all-important Raising Awareness trope. Apparently raising awareness doesn't involve delivering vital information on what Ugandans are up to, but in encouraging Westerners to talk to celebrities, put up posters etc. Africa, completely homogenous landmass as it is, needs white people to save it from itself, one Facebook share at a time.

The confused nature of Kony 2012’s activism shows the communication breakdown between the West and Africa. The latter often gets treated merely as some far-off place where everyone is hungry and poor, rather than getting due respect as a widely varied and complex continent. Given how little airtime African politics is given in global media, it is difficult for many Westerners to know how best to give assistance to fix its problems. Sometimes putting money towards a cause is the easiest and most significant contribution that Western individuals can make for foreign aid. However, I propose a moratorium on ‘donating’ to any cause that gives you a product in return. That’s not a donation, that’s a purchase; this fact doesn’t change just because it’s for a Good Cause. The money and resources used to manufacture the Kony 2012 bracelets would better have been spent of building a school or hospital in Uganda; but then white people wouldn’t be able to show via accessories that they’re Into Activism. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek outlines why ethical purchasing is not a solution to world problems; it allows you to give yourself a pat on the back for making an ethical choice, but does nothing to change the structure of commerce and its concomitant inequalities.

Indeed, this round of internet activism seems almost entirely focused on making Westerners feel personally empowered rather than on understanding Ugandan problems. The glorification of such empowerment and individualism pervades much of Western culture, and it represents the fundamental problem undermining Kony 2012: it concentrates on a figurehead. This approach may be more eye-catching than boring old systematic analysis, but it ultimately acts as a distraction. Hunting and eventually killing Osama Bin Laden did not stop US-Middle Eastern conflict. Electing Barack Obama did not transform politics in the US. And defeating Kony himself will not magically stop the LRA, nor help with wider problems in Uganda and the region. Invisible Children Inc workers may realise this, but their film doesn’t communicate it.

Kony 2012 is a simplistic, condescending and ill-informed advertisement, but its message also has the potential to be quite dangerous. One of the most troubling aspects of Invisible Children Inc is its desire to work with the US and Ugandan governments against the LRA. Let’s get one thing straight: the US government is not a humanitarian ally. Most of its foreign policies involve formalised concern-trolling, bombing civilians while purporting to liberate them. From 2000-2008—under a leader Invisible Children Inc want to work with—it began two Middle Eastern wars on false premises and practiced torture in secret. Only last year it contributed to a third war in Libya, discussed starting another in Iran, and made it legal to imprison its own citizens without trial. Again, let me emphasise this: the US government acts as an elected dictatorship at home and a colonising empire abroad. Upholding it as a humanitarian agent or enlisting its help to spread democracy overseas is like putting a serial rapist in charge of Women’s Refuge.

Many of the results of US aid in Uganda have proven this theory. While benefiting many Ugandans, US aid has helped prop up an illegitimate government headed by Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 26 years. The Ugandan government (again, who Invisible Children Inc wants to work with!) ranks a lowly 143 on Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index, cracking down on media freedom and discussing legislation for capital punishment of homosexuality. US aid represents over half of Uganda’s national budget, suggesting it encourages aid dependency. The strings attached to this aid have included economic reforms creating a primary-product export economy, which benefits US businesses looking for cheap raw materials. Moreover, the US relies on the Ugandan government as a strategic ally in the War on Terror against its Islamist neighbour and enemy the Sudan. Invisible Children Inc is mistaken to get into bed with either of these repressive regimes.

Ugandan-US bilateralism clearly goes far beyond belated attempts to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army. But, as Kony 2012 didn’t tell us, what is happening with the LRA right now? Well, among other things, they haven’t been in Uganda for six years, but have mostly been operating in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Invisible Children Inc thus seems rather confused in discussing Uganda in relation to the LRA at all; this is likely done to gain support for its Ugandan governmental allies. However, the LRA numbers are only in the hundreds, as are the resultant deaths from their activities over comparatively long periods of time. Is this really the region’s key problem requiring millions of enthusiastic Western activists to pitch in and do, er…Something?

Many problems in Uganda are not as Hollywood-esque as those the Kony 2012 video shows. Aside from government corruption, Ugandan health levels are some of the worst in the world. Life expectancy is low, with widespread AIDS and malaria, and trained medical staff are scarce. In recent news, real invisible children are arguably those dying from the mysterious Nodding Disease. All of these problems could use extensive activist support to counter them. Kony 2012 showcased some great techniques, but missed the opportunity to put out a useful message.

In reality, aid work is rarely as glitzy or simple as Kony 2012 paints it. Buying a bracelet will not make Uganda a better place. Moreover, helping any charity that supports corrupt states will help worsen civilians’ problems. Invisible Children Inc’s video fails to mention that NGOs have been in Uganda for decades, and most have a deeper understanding of systematic problems in the country. While giving money to causes in foreign countries is always problematic, since no agencies are entirely free of corruption, one can improve the situation by researching what work each NGO carries out before donating. Reliable NGOs probably don’t focus on exchanging money for hanging out with George Clooney or buying a nice T-shirt, but they are better equipped to help Ugandans help themselves, which is more the point.

The founders of Invisible Children Inc pose with the Sudan People's Liberation Army.


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