Catching Joseph Kony

This Monday, Invisible Children released its newest film – the thirty minute Kony 2012. I’ve been involved with IC since early 2007, and my relationship with them is almost always in flux – ranging from being inspired and truly believing in the work to being a critic of the trendy oversimplification. After helping Resolve and the Enough Project gain support for the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010, IC has embarked on a new mission of trying to effectively end the war in 2012, with this video as a part of the broader campaign.  The video is centered on Jason Russell, one of the founders of Invisible Children, explaining Joseph Kony, the war criminal in charge of the LRA, to his son.  The take-away from the video is that the goal of the next two months is to teach people who Kony is, thus leading to more change and ultimately his capture.

Through most of Monday evening Facebook and Twitter were slowly ramping up in my world. I have met scores of people in my work on the issue, and many of my friends are on the staff at IC, so the hubbub was expected.  By Tuesday afternoon, some staff members were tweeting that, in the first 24 hours, the video had been viewed 800,000 times. Late Tuesday evening, the campaign took up six of the top ten trending topics on Twitter, and “Kony” and “#KONY2012” accounted for 3-4% of all tweets.

The last 24 hours (checked at 7:45am, MST today) of Twitter traffic, from trendistic.

Like many who are aware of the crisis in central-east Africa, I would love to see Joseph Kony brought to justice as soon as possible. Kony is the leader of a highly centralized rebel group comprised of abducted fighters – some of them children. Kony is among the first criminals indicted by the International Criminal Court, and his arrest would go a long ways towards ending the Lord’s Resistance Army as we know it and reinforcing an essential international institution like the Court.

”]As I mentioned, I’ve been a supporter of varying tenacity, and I have disagreed with Invisible Children here and there over the years. I support many of their programs on the ground in the region – granting scholarships for students to attend rebuild schools, teaching displaced people employment skills, and building a radio warning system among them – and am one of the many that first got involved in human rights and activism through their work here in the States. I’ve always felt that there is a huge disconnect between the great work being done in the region and the simplistic, sexy, and purely PR work Stateside, which is a shame. I’m not as much of a critic as others, but I do have a few qualms with the current campaign that’s launching right now.

Invisible Children continues to oversimplify the message of how to get rid of Kony. I understand that advocacy groups need to take really complex problems and boil them down so that it can be disseminated among supporters. As the movement grows, however, the leaders should be better educating their followers.  Being involved for five years, I have yet to see IC expand on its very simplistic history of the war, which is critical to understanding how best to approach ending it.

Something needs to be said about the narrative that IC creates, but I’ll leave that to everyone else.  IC has been running programs in northern Uganda for several years – ineptly at first but more recently they operate like any other aid organization there. Meanwhile, their PR campaigns in the States aim to address the LRA, who left Uganda – which has been in relative peace and experiencing slow recovery – in 2006. The videos blur the lines between the countries, and simplify everything to Kony roaming Africa abducting kids. That’s not to mention that there is no evidence of the 30,000 children figure endlessly repeated by IC and other NGOs, and no discussion of how to define abduction (which is important, since some are forced to help transport supplies before being set free, while others are forced to kill their own family members before being conscripted for life). The story IC creates will drive policy, and it needs to ensure that we have a dialog about the peace-justice debate, the accountability of the Ugandan military, and ways to move forwards without losing momentum.

IC’s campaign for the next two months is heavy on awareness. We supporters are to tell all of our friends and put posters everywhere, and then write messages to 20 cultural leaders (who control public discourse) and 12 political leaders (who are involved with real change). This build up is to April 20th, when we’re supposed to plaster our cities in Kony 2012 posters to “make him famous.” There is footage of “Kony 2012” – to make him as popular as possible – a sort of Public Enemy #1.

When I first got involved with IC, I attended an event that included learning about displacement camps in northern Uganda – an eye-opening experience that really pushed me to start a student organization in college. This year’s big event is to put up posters. This is all in the name of garnering more name recognition for Kony to make him (in)famous, but when you get the most bipartisan congressional support for any Africa-related bill in history and you claim hundreds of thousands of youth support you, you’ve gotten the word out. Claiming that nobody knows about Kony (the video says “99% of people” have never heard of him), is absurd. There is enough attention that we can move from awareness to action now. It’s time to pursue real change – front and center. E-mailing the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not just be a side-note to hanging up flags and tweeting at Oprah, who is probably sick of IC distracting her from her work in South Africa anyways.

As Daniel Solomon notes (and you should definitely read his post), if people are tweeting at me to watch the video and aren’t reading the ICG report to learn more, then a vital part of the campaign has missed the mark. Mark Kersten also calls out the campaign in a post you should read, and here’s a critique of “crowd-sourced intervention.”

After six years of building a massive youth-led base in America – including raising millions of dollars in record time and directing masses of young people – we have passed the deadline for moving forwards. In the film, IC tells us the Kony 2012 campaign expires at the end of the year – a movement has an expiration date alright, and it’s important to freshen up the whole IC movement.

Update: The list of related links has moved to a new post, as it continues to grow.


29 thoughts on “Catching Joseph Kony

  1. This is an AMAZING post, Scott. Do you mind if I post a link to it on a friend’s facebook page? I think she needs to read it.

    • Obviously, I’d be happy to have you spread the word! You should definitely read some of the posts I linked to at the bottom as well. All well-said stuff. Thanks!

  2. Really appreciated your perspective here! Great, balanced thoughts on the pros and cons. I, too, was on the Invisible bandwagon at one point and, more recently, have seen the other side of it – the prevalent feeling on the ground that they are exploiting, the lack of respect, etc. Thanks for putting the two sides in one place and highlighting it for people – definitely sharing this.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words! It’s very difficult to flesh out the disrespect and exploitation debate. IC has good intentions and even helps many people, but there’s a question of what the broader narrative their creating does in the long-term. There is definitely some truth to a lot of these critiques, it’s important to navigate with care as we try to help people, and it’s important for IC to develop accordingly. If you haven’t read Rebecca Hamilton’s book Fighting for Darfur, you should pick it up – it outlines a lot of the same problems with the Save Darfur movement as it grew. IC needs to be aware of those problems as they move forwards.

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  4. Stopping the LRA is not about development. It’s an emergency. Until the shadow of the LRA crisis ends, development cannot fully take center stage. It’s time will come.

    • My point about development is that that’s what I love about IC – flashy videos telling me to tweet at Lady Gaga about mass atrocities doesn’t get me excited about IC.

      I know that the LRA crisis isn’t specific to development, although strengthening governance in these areas will definitely prevent a resumption of violence. But IC has such as huge base that it should not be concentrating so much on getting celebrities to care – it needs to take the thousands that already care and mobilize them in a more productive way. If not now, when? We can’t wait for every single high schooler and TV personality to be on the same page before reading more of the book. That’s my point – it’s time to move past raising awareness.

  5. The LRA crisis needs more awareness, more people need to know in order for the US to continue advising until Kony is captured. Development is great, it’s important and every person needs an entry point to what the LRA has done and is still doing in order to understand the importance of development (recovering from all the damage Kony’s caused). Governance where the LRA operate in DR Congo is a tall order and won’t happen anytime soon, that can’t wait in order for the LRA to be stopped. It’s not time to move past spreading awareness about the #1 indicted war criminal by the ICC. Eventually, more people caring about Kony’s atrocities equals more people caring about what you love about IC – development.

    Development in the spotlight, I’d love for that to happen. It’s time will come.

    • I feel like LRA awareness has been huge for a while. I mean, 60,000 people showed up for Displace Me, and over 2000 went to DC for How it Ends – where we started the process of passing a bill into law with more cosponsors than any Africa-related bill in modern U.S. history. These are all huge steps, not including the awareness raised by S4S and the roadies. His name is out there already, which is a great thing for which IC is responsible. But it’s time to move beyond that, is all I’m saying. The Crisis Tracker and radio towers are a huge step in the right direction – let’s do more things like that instead of concentrating so much on “cultural leaders.”

      And I honestly don’t think that the US will withdraw the troops anytime soon. The soldiers are there for more than just public outcry, as I indicated at And the best way to ensure that the troops don’t withdraw before achieving their goal isn’t to have Bono give a talk – it’s lobbying your members of Congress (which I plan to do).

    • And I agree that development can’t happen as effectively while the conflict continues. I just feel that the Kony 2012 push doesn’t accomplish that much on top of what’s already been accomplished through their past campaigns.

  6. You raise a lot of good points and I really appreciate your perspective. Having spent so much time supporting IC I can understand how you’d want to move past awareness, you’re already aware. But, what about the millions of people that don’t know? More people will lobby, if more people know. More people will know if more “culture makers” and policy makers help to spread the word and also care. Let us not give up on spreading awareness, which leads to action, because with more activists can come more lobbyists.

    Development in the spotlight. It’s time will come.

    • I guess I should clarify more – I don’t want to abandon awareness campaigns completely. It’s fine to raise awareness to keep the programs going, but for a long time awareness has been central to IC’s work. I remember hearing one of the founders boast sharing three common principles: awareness, aid, and advocacy. Recently, I feel like awareness has taken a huge portion of their time. Advocacy doesn’t need to be the biggest portion since they partner with Resolve (and to a lesser extent, Enough), but aid can and should be at the fore.

      If you execute programs well enough, you make your own awareness. The successful lobbying for the LRA bill led to passage, and then to the deployment. Both of those actions shed so much light on the issue – I never saw Uganda on the news as much as I did when the deployment was announced. I think you’re right that we shouldn’t give up completely on awareness – my gripe is more about just how much IC seems to dedicate to awareness. I appreciate your dedication to getting the word out – I just think it can be done in a smarter, more effective way, which would simultaneously leave more for other work as well.

  7. Agreed. Once Kony is captured/arrested, development (not aid) should take center stage, unless IC’s mission is international justice for war criminals and shining light on the crimes they’ve committed, so that if enough people care policy makers can use their power for the common good of humanity.

    I’m a fan of development and eventually I’d love to see it at the fore. Until Kony is captured that can’t happen and I believe it won’t happen. But in due time, it will happen. And millions of people will know the depth of what IC is doing in Uganda and Central Africa.

    Keep up the great work you’re doing, keep spreading the word.

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  10. “Today, we joined with our partners at Invisible Children and the Enough Project to issue a policy manifesto for the campaign, in the form of an open letter to President Obama. In the coming days, we’ll be inviting advocates to join us in taking the campaign message offline and into the halls of Congress to ensure our leaders hear it, loud and clear.” –

    • Definitely a good step forward. I’ve been involved with Resolve in planning local lobby meetings in my area. I’m glad there’s a thorough blueprint for some of the tasks ahead, and it’s definitely an improvement from the “Cover the Night” call to arms. There are still questions of the narrative that IC perpetuates, but that’s probably for a whole other blog post someday. Thanks for the link, Daniel!

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    • And I agree with you that awareness in and of itself can not suffice, it should be an impetus to act. It’s time we revere aid more so than we do mere awareness. Make Kony 2012 a catalyst for significant reform, not just another over grandeurized (and shallow) propaganda effort.

      • I agree! While the video itself is simplistic and paternalistic, I hope the campaign overall will bear some fruit. I know that there are plans beyond putting up posters all night, hopefully to do some good.

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