**Note: This post was written a week ago, prior to the unfortunate mental breakdown of Jason Russell, the co-founder and producer of the Invisible Children organization who produced the 'Kony 2012' video. I hesitated in posting this because I didn't want to appear insensitive to his situation. Obviously, there has been an enormous amount of pressure on him since this video has received world-wide attention and critique from millions, including government officials right up to the presidents of countries. I have no reason to question his motives in producing this - from everything I've read he appears to be genuinely concerned about the people affected by the LRA and doing his best to help. However, in my opinion, it is fair to evaluate the methods he's using to try to help - just as we should be evaluating all relief and development efforts made by the West in the developing world given the long history of problems created by some of those efforts.
As you can imagine, a number of people have been asking us for our opinion on the new 'Kony 2012' campaign being launched by the California-based organization, Invisible Children. As of this post, it had been viewed by over 85 million people on YouTube. So last night, Alisha and I watched the 30-minute online video (watch it here) after reading dozens of opinions of the film from news outlets and friends of ours still in Uganda. Anyway, I thought I'd respond here so I could point people somewhere as more people ask.
We of course have read and heard all about Joseph Kony during our time living in Uganda (Jan '08 to Jun '10). We knew many Ugandans who were misplaced from their homes and now living in Kampala because of the wrath and destruction he spread. Though he sees himself as a messianic-style leader with purported direct access to God, a look at his resume reveals quite a different picture. He has devastated many lives in Northern Uganda over the past two decades and continues his reign of terror in other parts of Central Africa, albeit on a much smaller scale now due in part to the countries in the region finally standing up to him and his brutal activities. But upon even closer inspection, you will find that he has been closely tied to the greater geo-political situation in Uganda for a long time.
Well, while we were there in December of 2009, they finally felt the pressure from the people and other countries, so the militaries of Uganda, DRC and Sudan joined together on a mission to kill or capture Kony. In the raid, many leader's of the LRA (Kony’s group – the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’) were in fact killed. However, once again, one of the military generals tipped Kony off and he was able to escape with a small group of soldiers. (At the time, it was announced that the Uganda military general involved in the leak was to be brought up on charges, though I never heard if that actually happened or not.)
Anyway, in October of 2011, the US sent 100 troops to Uganda to help with coordinating the effort to capture or kill Kony. They are not serving in a combat role, but rather operate in an advisory capacity from the major cities in the region (such as Kampala, where we lived) to the Ugandan military. There hasn't been any public updates since they were mobilized.
My initial impression of this new ‘Kony 2012’ movement by the Invisible Children (IC) people is definitely mixed. I have always felt that once their movement gained traction and notoriety, there were signs that the movement became as much about the movement itself rather than the situation they were trying to help. Of course, who am I to determine their motives, but looking at how the funds were being used made you wonder what the overall goal was and how the spending practices were justified if those goals were targeted to a solution to the problem.
So fast forwarding to this new ‘Kony 2012’ movement, my first instinct was definitely peppered with plenty of skepticism. When I first heard of the video (it was just released on March 5th), I read a post written by a good friend of mine named Jeff who lives with his family in Uganda (read it here). Jeff is our age and has lived in Uganda for over 10 years now I believe. I do trust his insight and on the ground perspective, though I don’t know that I can whole-heartedly endorse everything he says in his post. However, I do think it’s a very worthwhile post on the subject to read and consider, and I have a lot of respect for Jeff as a person.
So, having said all of that, I do think that the issue of kidnapping and creating child soldiers is one of the great atrocities of our time. Having just traveled to Sierra Leone twice, I am keenly aware of the devastation it causes. In the past few months I've read a couple of books about the war in Sierra Leone of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and the rebel group there (the 'RUF') really popularized the idea of creating and using child soldiers to fight their war. They would kidnap them, beat and starve them, then train them in weaponry and finally force them to kill their own families to desensitize them to killing. They also kept them doped up high on cocaine and pot and speed, and showed them all kinds of violent and pornographic movies as they moved through the countryside terrorizing people. Kids as young as 8 and 9 committing rape, murder and all sorts of mutilations – it's just an unthinkable crime against humanity. So anything that can be done to stop it is worthwhile, whether or not it’s a ‘Christian’ organization (IC is not a Christian organization, though I have no idea of what their individual spiritual beliefs are).
So, in my mind, whether or not ‘Kony 2012’ is at least in part simply out to make themselves a continually viable organization is definitely an issue, but not necessarily 'the' issue. The real debate is (or should be) about whether or not this movement will help or hinder capturing Joseph Kony (my friend Jeff seems to indicate in his post that it will hinder it). In my mind, I really have no idea, but I do know that plenty of well-intentioned relief and development efforts of the past have oftentimes made things worse.
hundreds of thousands of Ugandans into so-called ‘protected villages’ where they were unable to support themselves or their families – and where they remained thoroughly unprotected. Fifth, it presents a hugely skewed picture of Uganda. The main issue facing the majority of Ugandans right now is an absence of good governance: Kony is a sideshow, a symptom (albeit a brutal one) of poor governance and the mismanagement of resources over the past decades in which the country has seen over 20 rebel groups operating since Museveni came to power.
The publicity around Kony 2012 might have helped 10 years ago when people on the ground were shouting themselves hoarse to get the world to listen, but it is very hard to see what all this is going to achieve other than to line a few pockets and make a few kids aware of a conflict – whether through awareness-raising or voyeurism I can’t say." (click here to read an article on this general subject by this same author.)
It's a bit harsh for my taste, but I do think the perspective she raises is important to keep in mind while watching the very emotionally-charged film.