10 March 2012

On Kony 2012, Because You Asked

A lot of people –by which I mean, like, four– have asked what my thoughts are on the Kony 2012 campaign, created by Invisible Children, that has taken over many a Facebook news feed recently. I guess because I live in Uganda. Unfortunately –and remember this: it's important to everything that follows– rather than making me any sort of expert on, well, anything, all that means is that I don't have access to internet fast enough to stream video, and so I haven't actually seen 'Kony 2012'. I've been reading a lot about it this morning, from various sources, and most of it seems to confirm my initial thoughts on the video and campaign.

First, it is a wonderful little world we all live in, or a wonderful technological era anyway, to be more specific. The fact that the Kony 2012 campaign has exploded as it has –quickly and impressively so– is something noteworthy in and of itself. It makes me, for one, exceedingly happy that the world can be so interconnected, that there exists the possibility for 50 or 100 million (or however many YouTube and Vimeo views 'Kony 2012' has now) people to go online because they want to learn about a crisis taking place half a world away. It makes me happy because I want to believe that people –let's be honest, I'm talking about Americans– do care about the rest of the world, are interested in educating themselves about foreign affairs in far-flung areas, that they want to do something to help (even if they're misguided in their choice of something).

It seems to me that this provides a least some measure of an answer to the critique that 'Kony 2012' should have been 'Kony 1990' or 'Kony 2000'. The campaign should have been started then –it was much, much more necessary ten or twelve years ago– but it would not have garnered the kind of support then –How could it have? By going viral on Dogpile.com?– that 'Kony 2012' has in the last few days. This does not lessen the criticism that the video is out-dated (though, remember: I'm just saying things, because I haven't seen it); I simply find the possibilities that exist now, especially through social media, for similar educational or activist campaigns as proof of a hopeful future, interconnected in the most positive ways.

The awareness raised by 'Kony 2012' cannot be as wholly negative as a lot of people seem to think it is. There's a correlation here with the attitudes a lot of Peace Corps volunteers have towards short-term volunteers. There's a tendency for a lot of us (PCVs) to mock short-termers –it's a good-natured mocking, but there is certainly an underlying seriousness to the criticisms and teasing– for coming here in their shorts and tank-tops and holding orphanage babies for a week and then going home; for those people who stay at home and buy a pair of Toms shoes or, in this case, a Kony 2012 bracelet (for $30 –yes, thirty American dollars), there's reserved the term 'slacktivist'. I'll admit that I do it, too, on occasion: get on my twenty-seven-month-commitment high horse and use my cultural-integration gavel to pass judgment on well-meaning but naïve short-termers and slacktivists. We generally just laugh it off; I don't know many PCVs who legitimately get upset about the work that short-term volunteers do in country. But it happens.

I usually try to look at it this way, though: Everyone's got to start somewhere. Individual involvement in issues in Africa, or anywhere else, might begin with the most misguided week-long 'voluntourism' trip in the world, but that start might lead to deeper research into the issues, a more critical and informed understanding of development and global affairs, and a more effective and intelligent approach to development work. The same thing goes for 'Kony 2012'. Hopefully. Hopefully people will use this as a jumping-off point, one that piques their interest in international affairs, and one from which they expand their knowledge of the various perspectives and issues and learn more about better ways to help or get involved.

I realize this is a naïve and idealistic hope, though.

Because, obviously, the ease with which little Tina Tweenager in Cornfield, Indiana, can access information about Jacob –the Acholi teenager featured in 'Kony 2012'– brings with it its own set of issues. The ease of access to information does not mean that the information accessed is correct, nor does it mean that follow-up information, just as easily accessed and oftentimes more important, is ever looked into. Something as –presumably; the original Invisible Children film was really well-done– slick and well-produced, and widely shared over social media, as 'Kony 2012' is going to grab Tina's attention ten times out of ten over a critique of the video in Foreign Affairs or a fact-checking radio program on NPR. The vast, vast majority of people aren't going to look any further than 'Kony 2012'; the vast, vast majority of people will forget about it, guilt assuaged, after watching the video and buying the bracelet. It takes more effort –though the access, like I said, is just as simple– to dig deeper into the issues, and so it happens less, and the Tinas of the world accept 'Kony 2012' at face value.

Which is a problem.

But let's get this out there first: That little white kid, the one who is apparently in the video for some reason, was right –Kony should be 'stopped'– though he was also a bit understated –Kony is not a 'bad guy' but rather something more akin to a horrific incarnation of everything wrong with mankind. We all agree on that, the harshest critics of 'Kony 2012' included.

So, why all the criticism of a video that seems to be arguing a point that no one would argue with?


Northern Uganda is no longer a war-zone; the LRA hasn't been in Northern Uganda since 2006. The video makes only a passing reference to this. The LRA has moved into the DRC and the CAR, mostly – and that's what the map graphic on the video shows. But moving into other countries is too easily confused with expanding into other countries. Similarly, the LRA isn't the 30,000-child-strong army with which people are apparently mistaking it. It's true that 30,000 children were abducted over the course of 25 years, but showing 30,000 faces is seen as misleading even if its intent was only to dramatize and express just how terrible was the LRA's two and a half decade campaign in Uganda. Today, the LRA's numbers total in the hundreds, at most, and they're spread across several large countries. [1; 2]


(And I think this is a very important point): “When a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it.” [3] Placing the blame solely on Kony lets President Museveni, who came into power in 1986, essentially the same time as Kony was beginning with the LRA, off of all the hooks upon which he, too, along with his government, should be placed.

When Museveni came to power, he “sought to impose his authority on the Acholi population in northern Uganda, which had been closely associated with [Museveni's predecessor, Tito] Okello,” leading to uprisings from “a diverse range of resistance groups” of which the LRA is the sole remaining active group. Uganda's government has also never truly been held accountable for its dreadful counter-LRA strategies, such as when they “forced the region's population to relocate into what were effectively concentration camps” where the Acholi were “poorly protected from attacks, and faced dreadful living conditions” leading to “1000 excess deaths per week in the Acholi region” in 2005. This is not to mention the fact that many in the camps lived in fear of rape and violence from the very government soldiers who were assigned to provide protection from the rebels. [4]

It's irresponsible to place all of the blame for 25 years of atrocities in Northern Uganda solely on the shoulders of Joseph Kony. There is plenty of responsibility to go around.


One of the main criticisms seems to be that there is no mention of how Kony is supposed to be stopped.

I can't understand how putting more (and active combat) American military personnel on the ground in Uganda, the DRC, and the CAR is a realistic approach. The LRA is a small force somewhere in a massive jungle in a massive country (or countries) largely devoid of infrastructure and consumed with other conflicts and bouts of violence and human rights abuses. And if Kony is captured or killed in the DRC, theoretically with the help of American combat troops, do we then pull our troops out, leaving the country to its other horrific instances of rape and violence that were never related to the LRA at all? It just strikes me as rather similar (and equally complex) as going into Iraq to take out Sadaam Hussein: We go in, take out the guy we want, and then find we're stuck in a quagmire of escalating violence, ethnic tensions, and poor governance, and are unable to extricate ourselves, our troops, for eight or ten years.

And if, let's say, we agree on sending more American troops in an advisory role, rather than a combat role, there remain the facts that many of Uganda's troops are tied up in the ANISOM mission in Somalia (a dangerous mission and one for which the US sending troops to help with the LRA is often seen as payback), and that “of the more than 4,000 Ugandan troops that were originally sent to LRA-affected areas, less than 2,000 remain … operating in three different countries, leaving very limited capacity on the ground.” [4] (And when you start talking about the fact that oil is on its way, soon, from Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and the DRC, the role of the US government becomes even more complicated.)

The United States government has had troops in Uganda supporting the Ugandan military for years, though without much press attention, especially not regarding Operation Lightning Thunder, which was carried out in 2008. The mission, an attempt to attack Kony at his base in the DRC, was a failure for a number of reasons, quite possibly the worst of which –apart from failing to capture or kill Kony– being the fact that the LRA retaliated brutally beginning on Christmas Day, 2008, and continuing into early 2009, abducting 700 people and killing over 1,000 over the course of two months; this, on top of the continuing breakdowns, exacerbated by the failed mission, of already tenuous peace talks. [4; 5]

It seems that 'Kony 2012' makes it seem like the US government is on the verge of pulling its troops out of East/Central Africa; the campaign is to raise awareness to make sure that those troops stay there and continue to assist in the hunt for Kony. However, as the State Department has since clarified, there are no plans to pull the troops out, nor have there been any discussions about doing so. [6]

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, people in Northern Uganda don't want the LRA to be wiped out, because the LRA is their children – so what happens when Kony's soldiers, these Acholi sons and daughters, return fire? [7]


My main concern with the campaign and the focus it places on Kony is that if or when he's captured or killed –when he's 'stopped' in accordance with the little white kid's wishes– people will call it good: the crisis over, the world safer. Some people –unfortunately, probably a lot of people– will already start forgetting about the campaign by the end of the month, if not by the end of the weekend. But for the people who stick with it, and for IC and the guys who created the video, it concerns me that there doesn't seem to be any mention of how to help the people who are living in a now-peaceful Northern Uganda, albeit one still plagued by the after-effects of twenty-five years of the LRA. Among numerous other issues, Gulu has the highest number of child prostitutes in Uganda, and one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. There are 4,000 children suffering from Nodding Disease, “a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu.” [8]

That is, to me, where the focus should lie. No doubt, Kony should be stopped. Absolutely. (Although, I think the campaign should be that Kony should be stopped, now, not for the safety of the people of Northern Uganda, but for the safety of the people of the DRC and the CAR who have to fear the reprisals of the LRA each time another Operation Lightning Thunder-type mission fails.)

But when we put all of the focus on Kony, we forget everyone else, all the victims, the people with whom our focus and concern and hearts should rest. Or rather, our hearts shouldn't rest; they should be restive with the focus on the continuing lives of victims of the LRA and Kony's campaigns. The problems won't end with Kony's end; the victims, many of them, will still have to live with the memories of their personal atrocities for years after Kony is stopped. Let us focus on them. They victims will have to carry on, dragging those memories along behind them as they struggle through the post-conflict issues that have arisen out of the last twenty-five years and the same day-to-day issues that are faced by Ugandans across the country: poor governance, a lack of health care, poor nutrition, poor education or a lack thereof, gender inequality, and (the issue which I honestly believe is going to determine the course of the future of Uganda, and probably the rest of Africa; the issue which makes me most frightened for the future of Uganda) the rapidly growing population which is cramming into this little country with its limited space and limited natural resources and even more limited financial resources. In fifty years, when Uganda is projected to have over 100 million people within its Oregon-sized borders, we'll look back and wish that more had been made of this issue, these issues, and that there was a campaign for this like there was for 'Kony 2012'.

So, yeah...

Overall, I think that the attention is generally good. I think that the hearts of everyone involved are in the right place. I have high hopes or expectations for the work that Invisible Children does, not least because I have passionate, intelligent family members who work or have worked with IC. But also because they, IC, are clearly very, very good at raising awareness of some very, very important issues. They have a massive platform from which they've done a lot of good work, and hopefully will continue to do good work while also adapting, learning, and continuing to improve as an organization. I think –though this is only an assumption– that the video was intentionally simplified, and the facts presented as they were or weren't, because it was meant to go viral, because a dramatic, thirty minute video will go viral much more quickly and consume much more press, snowball-like, than a two hour film that does its best to explore all of the intricacies of the issue. It seems that was their goal: this massive, nearly-instantaneous outcry. The intentions were good; hopefully the results will be, too. Hopefully I'm not overly naïve in thinking that people will look deeper into the issue, will examine everything more critically, will find positive, sustainable ways to help with this and other, more wide-reaching issues. Hopefully the criticism and the support can somehow coalesce into something good and powerful and right. And hopefully I'm not offending anyone, or being on too high of a horse – that wasn't my intention at all. I'm more than aware that there are many short-term volunteers or State-side activists who are much more involved and engaged than I am, sitting here in Ngora. A lot of them, you, whoever, do great work. I'd just been asked what I thought, I found it interesting what I read, and I'm a nerd who likes writing about things.

Here are the links to the articles I referenced or quoted:


  1. Thanks for putting in the time and thought to post about this Daniel. Definitely a good read and helps form some of my opinions on this whole issue.

  2. This really was a well written post. Truth be told, if it wasn't for Kony 2012, how many of us in the states would have known?

  3. Thanks. It's certainly true that many (most?) people in the States wouldn't have known about Kony, the war, etc, without the campaign. I only hope that people won't stop at the video and a donation...