What Invisible Children is Doing Right: Protection and Knowledge

In case you haven’t read my last dozen posts about Invisible Children, we’ve been having a very back-and-forth relationship for the last few years. On Saturday, I joked that, if we were on Facebook, our relationship status would be “it’s complicated.” That’s because, at the time, I was waxing nostalgic about how much of an impact Invisible Children has had, both in my life and in the lives of the Acholi people that benefit from their development programs, while I was simultaneously typing up this recent post on how Invisible Children and Samantha Power both advocated for military intervention that might be making things worse.

This love-hate thing I’ve got going on runs deep, and it’s because Invisible Children does a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. And in the past seven years I’ve seen a lot of their work first hand. As you know, my thesis is on radio’s role in the LRA, but while I was in the DRC I also caught a glimpse at some other aspects of IC’s work in LRA-affected areas that I’m still digesting. Here are some roughly hewn thoughts on Invisible Children’s work in the region:

The LRA Crisis Tracker, a joint operation run by Invisible Children and the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, tracks LRA incidents and is just one part of a network that includes the radio stations I studied, local military attaches in villages, and aid organizations operating in the area. This network is part of a broad effort to track LRA movements, coordinate military responses to the LRA presence, and facilitate aid to those in need. Whether or not it works is a whole other story, as several aid agencies have closed up their Dungu offices, the FRDC military attaches frequently choose not to engage with LRA forces, but do choose to intimidate, rob from, and attack the civilians they’re supposed to protect, and LRA tactics have rendered some of the advantages of the HF radio network obsolete.

But the effort to better understand the LRA has increased our knowledge of what the rebel group is doing by leaps and bounds. The Resolve’s most recent report [pdf] has included really essential research findings including the existence of intense divisions within the LRA leadership and identifying groups that want to defect. It also includes estimates of current LRA numbers, including composition of combatants versus non-combatants.

Some of my research on the HF radio network included some questions about the defection process. For a member of the LRA trying to surrender and come home, the process has traditionally included a debriefing with the UPDF [pdf, section 3.2]. This served to give the military up-to-date information about LRA activities from those with insider knowledge, but it also served as a tool for the UPDF to hold returnees longer than they were supposed to, sometimes in an attempt to forcibly recruit former LRA.

In the network that Invisible Children has helped create, debriefings have also occurred (although I don’t know how involved the military is, nor the type of support returnees have during their transition from LRA to home). The information gleaned from these interviews with recent returnees has shaped IC’s actions on the ground, directing flier drops and influencing the programming of radio messages. In the coming months IC is planning a large-scale defection messaging effort (funded through their current #ZeroLRA campaign)  including dropping leaflets about defection, flying helicopters with messages on speakers, and broadcasting messages over FM radio, all in targeted areas where LRA are known to be living, along with establishing safe reporting sites for defectors and providing comprehensive rehabilitation for them upon return. A lot of this has the potential to bring more LRA abductees home, and (hopefully) without relying too much on the military, a group historically responsible for more bad than good.

In addition, IC (and Resolve) are pushing for research to help piece together a clearer understanding of the LRA command structure. For a long time, most people only know the LRA leadership as far as the ICC indictments go. For the most part, many hadn’t heard of Caesar Acellam before he was captured. That’s slowly changing as IC supports efforts to find out who is in charge of the various LRA groups and what they are doing. Ledio Cakaj, one of the co-authors of Resolve’s report mentioned above, has written a paper about the LRA command structure that I’m eager to read in the coming months. IC’s staff in DRC and CAR are working on the same thing: building a clear picture of the LRA. This serves a lot of purposes. It will help in shaping radio programming that can target specific individuals with the potential to cause large-scale defections. It will serve as evidence in the event that those responsible for attacks are brought before courts to face justice. And it will help paint a clearer picture of where Kony and his two remaining ICC-indicted commanders are operating, helping direct efforts to bring them specifically to justice.

You can learn more in this interview with Adam Finck, IC’s International Programs Director. He sat down with a couple of IC staff during the Fourt Estate live stream this weekend, and he shed some light on LRA activity and how IC is responding, including several of the things I mentioned above. Broadly speaking, I think many of these efforts are solid steps towards protecting civilians in LRA-affected regions and hopefully an effective way to get us that much closer to ending this conflict.


Kony 2012 Panel – A Recap

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a panel discussion of the Invisible Children film, Kony 2012. The panel was convened at the New York Society for Ethical Culture as a part of Congo in Harlem, a week-long series of film screenings and other events related to the DRC. It was the best way I could have spent my birthday (I know, right?) and I would like to recap everything covered at the event for all of you who couldn’t be there. (In addition, the Congo in Harlem website should have a full audio podcast up in the near future). Early next week I will also (attempt to) write up my own response to what was said. Below is a run-down of what was said by whom, in a very not-verbatim transcript rendered from my notes.

Continue reading

KONY2012: Six Months Later

It has been six months since Invisible Children’s viral video, Kony 2012, hit the internet.  From getting over 800,000 views in its first 24 hours, the video went on to 100 million views in a week, becoming the internet’s most viral of viral videos and launching Invisible Children and its cause into the spotlight.  Six months later, the attention on the Lord’s Resistance Army has died down, but the campaign continues to plod along.  Where is Kony? Where is Invisible Children? And what has the world’s biggest humanitarian viral video campaign achieved so far? This post aims to look at Invisible Children’s history to explain Kony 2012’s impact, and to look at what exactly that impact has been.

Kony 2012 was the fastest-growing online video in history.

Some are rightfully skeptical that Kony will be captured by the 2012 deadline in the film.  The more pessimistic will say that Kony is no closer to being captured than he was six months ago, and that things haven’t really changed. The LRA’s disparate brigades continue wandering the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, with rumors that some troops, including Kony himself, have sought haven in Sudan, an old ally.  Rebounding from a piecemeal turnout for Kony 2012’s subsequent “Cover the Night” campaign, Invisible Children has moved on to other campaigns.  The San Diego-based non-profit is sending out its fifteenth tour of roadies, interns tasked with showing IC films to audiences at high schools, churches, and community centers across the country.  Their programs on the ground in Uganda and the DRC continue to serve war-affected communities.  But the fact is, things have changed, and to truly see how things have moved in the past six months you have to look back a few years. Continue reading

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.

It’s Rebel Leader-Hunting Season

On Friday, the press began to run numerous stories about the announcement that President Obama had authorized the deployment of about 100 combat-ready troops to Uganda to take an advising role in order to help capture or kill LRA leaders. Obama wrote a letter to John Boehner about the deployment two days after the first troops had landed in Uganda, placing the statement square on a Friday afternoon. This was a scrolling headline for some, but for me it was all over the internets. Stuff like this happens when you’re Facebook is filled with Invisible Children activists and your Twitter is dotted with development wonks and academics that are experts in the region. Let’s look at what exactly is happening here.

Let’s start with why this is happening. In the letter, (which can be found here) Obama references that the LRA are impacting regional security, the passage last year of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, and national security interests in the region. The troops are destined for Uganda, but will be going to the DRC, CAR and South Sudan as long as each of those countries agree to host them. The troops will be combat-ready, but will only be serving in an advisory role.

Full disclaimer to the few readers that don’t already know, I volunteered with Resolve to help advocate for passage of the aforementioned bill. I’ve continued to work with them to advocate for more action from the Obama administration on this issue. That said, I’m not sure where exactly I stand on this decision. Over the years, I have had at least a few conversations with fellow activists about the possibility of deploying American forces – advising or combating – to remove LRA leader Joseph Kony. Let’s take a look at some of that, shall we?

Why don’t we send some U.S. troops to just go snipe Kony?

Well, for starters, that’s a really bad idea and it probably wouldn’t work.  First we’ll be needing permission to run the operation (well, I guess we don’t need permission if we decide to just fly in on a stealth helicopter and shoot him in the face, but still. We should). Kony could be in one of a few places: northeastern DRC, southern CAR, South Sudan, or Darfur. The DRC has a history of being used as a training ground for atrocities, place to push a rebel group you don’t like or place to start your own rebel group if you want. It’s not fond of having more armed forces in the area. The DRC has already asked the Ugandan military, currently hunting for Kony, to get out. Twice. And it tried to kick out MONUC despite never really solving the 20-rebel-groups-hide-here problem. Supposedly Kabila is “pleased” with the recent U.S. decision, but I can’t read French and he’s changed his mind after the fact before.

Anyways, if we were to send U.S. troops in to do the job, they would face quite a few setbacks. The terrain is densely forested and rural, and there are very few chances to use surveillance such as cell phones and satellite tracking. Kony has historically established wide networks of soldiers around him so that he knows when trouble is afoot. That’s how he’s survived for 25 years, outlasting the Holy Spirit Movement and the UPDA and evading the UPDF, SPLA, and even Guatemalan special forces (killing 6 when the UN tried to catch him a few years ago). He will know what’s up. Not knowing the terrain or the language puts the forces at a disadvantage against a guy who has literally lived in the bush for twenty years.

That, and the specter of Somalia (despite huge differences between the situations) seem to be why Obama has gone with the advisory route, which still smells a little bit like Vietnam to many, but that is also a vastly different situation. Museveni has already given assurances that the Americans are here to advise, not to fight, simultaneously boasting about how the UPDF don’t need help to fight their wars. And so the US “personnel” have begun to arrive in Kampala, and will pretty soon begin to deploy to the other respective countries in the region.

Except for Sudan. While the LRA are currently scattered across DRC, CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, a year ago reports said that Kony was en route to Darfur. Darfur would be part of Sudan, and thus out of reach to both central African militaries and US advisers. I feel like if anybody asked Omar al Bashir if it was okay to enter Sudan to apprehend a leader indicted for war crimes, he might think you were talking about him since, you know, you could be. If Kony hasn’t made it to Darfur yet, he’s probably thinking about it.

But why send the advisers there now?

The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed in May of 2010, and the requisite strategy on the LRA was released in November of that year. Since those have been around for a while, some are asking, “why now?” Well, since then, all has been quiet on the LRA front until Resolve mentioned AFRICOM’s nudge-nudge that a deployment could happen soon. ABC News reported that the plans have been in the works for over a year, but that resources were not available until now. Some have speculated that the U.S. is rewarding Uganda for its contributions to Somalia’s fight against al Shabaab.

I don’t quite know if that makes sense. Uganda itself is really not concerned with the LRA anymore. The government is dealing with economic protests and its huge effort with AMISOM fighting al Shabaab. The LRA haven’t been active in northern Uganda for years, and when I was in Uganda last year many people told me they were far more concerned with the upcoming elections and Museveni’s continued rule than with a rebel group in the DRC – especially in central and southern Uganda, where civilians never really faced the threat of the LRA. This deployment is fueled by grassroots efforts, and I think that Uganda will accept it as another way for the UPDF to project power in the region.

One other piece that fits nicely that I haven’t seen reported is that it is yet another nod from the Obama administration to support the ICC. After Bush relaxed the hatred late in his term, Obama has stepped it up with a yes-vote on the Libya resolution and a heavy, heavy presence at the ICC Conference last summer. Assisting in the capture of Kony could show real U.S. support for the ICC without all the supposed worries of actually joining up and ratifying the Rome Statute. It’s an international and human rights win without any of the duke-it-out-with-Jesse-Helms bad press.

Will it work, and if not, what will?

I’ve been pushing for the Obama administration to address the crisis for a long time. The region that the LRA operate in has almost zero infrastructure and is completely ungoverned. This is why there is so much lawlessness in these corners of the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. The key to protecting civilians and ending these types of insurgencies is to make it difficult to operate there. Whether the advisers go there or not, the thing that needs to happen is more support for infrastructure in the region.

Speaking specifically to the LRA, Kony has got to go. There have been reports about how fractured the LRA are, but they are usually followed by a former abductee mentioning that Kony is communicating with other leaders constantly. The LRA has a highly concentrated command structure, and getting rid of Kony could actually resolve the entire issue.

While training troops and assisting with intelligence to find Kony, we also need to help build up government legitimacy and accountability. Resolve indicated in a recent post that the US personnel will be able to investigate UPDF abuses “and (hopefully) hold them accountable to a higher human rights standard as they interact with civilians across the region.” I have yet to see that reported anywhere else, but if that is true it is a huge step. The Ugandan government’s handling of both the civilian population in northern Uganda and abroad has been abysmal and needs to be addressed. The UPDF itself testified that it had committed 501 human rights abuses in 2005 alone. If a handful of advisers can simultaneously help catch Kony and bring accountability into the UPDF, it will go a long ways.

In summation, the decision has little guarantee of succeeding, but there is little risk for the US. AFRICOM has said that the advisers will not be accompanying on any missions to actually capture Kony, only on training missions. This means American soldiers should not be in any real danger, although that’s really hard to say for sure. If Kony is captured, it will be an easy foreign policy win and a great step for human rights in central Africa. If it doesn’t work, the advisers can quietly return and say they did their job, which was to train the regional forces. There’s a lot to gain and not a lot to lose, so why not try it?

Using Maps to Track the LRA

You might be aware that I have a love-hate relationship with trendy activism/development. I’ve always been interested in development, but I’ve been slowly opening my eyes a little more to what actually works and what kinda works and what is actually detrimental. My first foray into what we’ll call “sexy development” was Invisible Children, as most of you know. It’s a pretty sizable tag over on the right, and I was a founding member of the Schools for Schools club at ASU. My relationship with IC has been a close one – it means a lot to me and I care about the crisis in central Africa a lot. To me, IC was the amazing development group that was doing things I had never heard of.

As I grew academically and otherwise, I learned more about what’s happening on the ground in places like Uganda. I realized that lending circles have been going on everywhere for years. I figured out the economics of why in-kind donations are detrimental. I stared the conflict mineral movement in the eye and realized what it’s really done in the DRC. Finally, I realized that IC here and IC in Gulu are very different. Here, it’s the trendy commercial non-profit with the big vans and the MTV-esque movies that started small and grew huge raising money to help people. In Uganda, IC was the small group of naive kids that tried to pioneer forth and finally did what everybody else was doing.

But something happened recently that I thought set IC apart from some of the other trendy activists, and that’s the LRA Crisis Tracker. Invisible Children and Resolve have been working for almost a year to set up radio towers throughout the DRC to establish warning systems and to better track LRA activity. Crisis mapping has become a pretty big field recently, and its use in this region has the potential to be of tremendous help. The information on the mapping tool comes from a variety of sources, including human rights NGOs and journalist reports, and is being updated constantly to give an accurate account of LRA activity and displacement migration. If you’re interested in the LRA or crisis-mapping you should check out the site and peruse the methodology book.

Screen cap of northeastern DRC from today.

Henry V at Washington, or a Letter to the Resolve Fifteen

This is an open letter to my fellow advocates and dear friends with whom I spent a lot of time (and at the same time not enough) in DC. It’s on this blog instead of an e-mail because what I experienced this weekend really should be on the record. If you want to know why we were there, click here. If you want to see what I did with my own time, click here.

To Whom Advocating for Peace is the Most Paramount Task,

In Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, he uses a scene of human rights abuse in Shakespeare’s Henry V to analyze the massacre at Srebrenica. Since we were all in DC as a part of our advocacy against mass atrocities, I thought it was fitting that I thought of a wholly different part of the same play. What we learn from Shakespeare is that, on St. Crispen’s Day, Westmoreland wished they had more troops to fight, to which the King responded – at length – that he would rather die with those who were around him: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

There were only a few of us that were able to make the trek to Washington this weekend. I boarded my plane knowing two friends would be there, alongside a few who I only knew over the phone, and a handful of strangers. I left with over a dozen friends with whom I can share this experience. And it’s not just an experience of being able to say “I got to see David Plouffe speak” or “Holy crap I just saw Bo in the hallway,” it’s much more than that.

Half of the gang on Pennsylvania Avenue

It’s the fact that I can say that not only did most of us meet for the first time at State Place & 17th Street in the early morning on Friday – and proceed to spend almost all of the next 48 hours together – but that we made true friends and learned a lot from one another during that time. It was with this group of new friends that I learned about the Fourth Estate (which I sadly missed and sounds inspiring) and shared my thoughts on America’s LRA strategy (thanks for listening, Adam). I experienced my first poetry slam at Busboys and ate the greatest sweet potato fries. I met four people whom I could never thank enough for helping me over the years via phone calls and e-mails, and I had three people bear witness to the hostel at which I stayed.

Eugene tells a story. Laughter ensues.

More than learning about USAID’s programs around the world and seeing the White House’s outreach efforts first hand, I got soaked in rain with friends – twice – and got in more than one conversation about the attractiveness of a certain former Director of African Affairs at the NSC. I talked about the ICC, heard about conflicts in the CAR, and learned about crisis mapping in the DRC. But I also learned how not to use Camden Yards as a slip’n’slide, was compared to the sorcerer Jafar, and laughed uncontrollably at somebody saying “K as in knitting.”

I am truly humbled by having the chance to meet you this weekend. We all traveled to DC, some of us flying across the Great Plains while others took buses up from the South, to hear what the White House had to say and learn from it. I have been involved with this cause for a long time in my life, but I got involved my senior year of high school. I am only 21 years old and I just barely finished my undergrad, and yet I wasn’t out of place. Some of you are still in high school and are already raising thousands of dollars and lobbying your senators and representatives for this. Some of you have been done with school and are already forging ahead into the real world, blazing the trail for advocates. You all are superstars.

While we were able to raise our concerns with several officials (spitting fire while we did it), we did even more. We solidified our place as advocates with more than just an issue or a cause, but with a passion. As I told some of you, I’m at sort of an impasse in my life where I’ve stopped cheering for Enough and I haven’t fundraised as much for IC as I used to, but I can’t stop, won’t stop, advocating for peace and justice through Resolve.

To each and every one of you who joined me in any of these escapades, thank you. We raised our voices and delivered letters, we definitely made a difference. But I sure as hell made some great friends too.

A Day at the Executive Mansion

This post is the political and analytic post about the DC trip. For the general trip run-down, click here.

Friday was the big day, and in the morning I took a stroll down F St. to the White House gate, and started meeting all sorts of great fellow advocates. Once we all got together, we went through security and headed into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, one of two office buildings that flank the White House on the premise. We filed in and took our seats in a small auditorium, and listened to the following and surprisingly long list of speakers.

  • Gayle Smith (Director of the NSC) and co-founder of the Enough Project,  talked about America’s transition from a unilateral actor to a multilateral actor in development and international affairs, and emphasized the importance of security, economics, and values in humanitarian aid. She talked a lot about long-term solutions and referenced some advancements in the aid sector.
  • Erin Mazursky (Youth Advisor, USAID), formerly of STAND fame, talked about the link between youth advocacy and conflicts, emphasizing the importance of the younger generation to be involved. Herself a product of that, it was great to hear her talk about her work for USAID in helping youth around the world, and she said that many in the development sector see advocacy as “the wind in our sails,” which is always uplifting to hear.
  • Andrew Sweet (from the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID), who used to be at the Enough Project, talked a lot about OCMM’s work in producing alert lists of countries at risk of falling into conflict. He also made several references to conflict assessment and contributions to local reconciliation efforts to prevent conflicts in post-conflict zones. In response to some questions, he also referenced that the U.S. was going beyond MDGs in a lot of developing countries, with other goals such as legitimate political systems, justice, and security.
  • Brooke Anderson (Chief of Staff of National Security Council) took a lot of questions and tried very hard to understand where all of us advocates were coming from. In the course of answering questions, she referenced the importance of crisis mapping and that problems in the DRC needed to be addressed, but our group did not get any LRA questions in really.
  • Esther Brimmer (Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the State Department) talked primarily about the UN, saying that the U.S. needed to not just support peacekeeping mandates but also to ensure they had viable plans. She referenced the UN’s role in Côte d’Ivoire and the Human Rights Council. She dodged a question about the LRA, probably because it wasn’t really in her job description. However, she did say that witness protection was a priority, which it definitely needs to be. When asked how to face opponents to UN funds, she reiterated the importance of sharing the burden of peacekeeping around the world.

Originally, myself and two others were supposed to meet with Jon Carson, the director of OPE, to express a little bit of urgency about the President’s LRA Strategy. That got cancelled at the last minute, and I ended up joining everyone for a self-guided tour through the East Wing! From there we split up for lunch before reconvening, and then the following people spoke:

  • Mark Doms (Chief Economist, Department of Commerce) gave a prolonged talk about the current recession, replete with pretty graphs and humorous interludes. Talking points included European debt problems, international uncertainties in the global market, and dependence on foreign fuel.

    Plouffe taking questions

  • David Plouffe (Senior Advisor to the President), also former campaign manager for the Big O, talked a lot about how to move forwards, shifting between calling himself a progressive but also mentioning the importance of balancing budgets. He took questions for a long time, and when asked what President Obama wanted his foreign policy legacy to be, he speculated that it would be ending the war in Iraq, giving AfPak the attention it needed, reestablishing the U.S. leadership role, and non-proliferation (a la START). In short, a “cleaner and safer planet.”
  • Alexia Kelley (Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) talked about her office’s work across the country and ways to partner with the government in communities. It’s also worth noting that during this segment I slipped out to use the restroom and upon my return I passed the First Dog, Bo. It was pretty legit.
  • Brad Cooper (Director, Joining Forces) talked about the launch of his program, which is a support system for military families and is definitely going to be getting bigger.
  • Anne Filipic (Deputy Director, OPE) emphasized the importance of taking our experiences home and spreading the word about the White House’s outreach programs. OPE is holding all sorts of round tables and focus groups across the country to get a better idea of what exactly people are wanting to see from the presidency, which is a pretty great effort. She also referenced ways to connect with the White House via technology.

    Carson taking questions

  • Jon Carson (Director, OPE) didn’t meet with me privately, but instead came to talk to everyone, which was pretty cool. Referencing the small size of OPE, he called on individuals to act as conduits for making sure people in the communities’ voices were heard. When asked about the LRA by one of our own, he said that building networks was an imperative, and called on involving diaspora groups (which I have always been on the fence about, given a majority of them’s contempt for Museveni). When we challenged him to get a strategy going, though, he seemed to take to heart that advocates like us really want to see the Executive Branch give a little and get some skin in the game. He later referenced that, when it came to cuts in the budget, community activism was the key to keeping money where it was needed the most.

As the White House event closed up, one of my fellow advocates – a child psychologist in Kentucky that works in Uganda rehabilitating former child soldiers through art – presented Jon Carson with letters and a drawing made my children addressed to President Obama. Carson assured her that he would pass them along, which is great news.

In the aftermath of the event, we congregated outside the White House and a few of us did interviews with Ricky from Discover the Journey, who was filming a short segment on Resolve’s work at the White House. I did my little part, and also hung out with some great people by the gate.

And that was my day at the White House. It was a pretty neat experience, and it was great to be surrounded by such a great group of advocates. Not all of the speakers were great, but the briefing overall was wonderful. Thanks go to Resolve for the invite and to Citizens for Global Solutions were setting up the briefing in the first place and for hosting a neat workshop the following day at their offices.

“Dr. No” Got the Message

Roughly a year ago, when local lobbying was at its height for the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, the bill’s co-sponsors tried to pass it by unanimous consent.  With more co-sponsors than any Africa-related legislation in modern American history, it was a good idea.  And then Tom Coburn stepped in.  Known for blocking everything that costs more than a penny for Congress, Coburn had decided that the LRA bill would be one of his many stands.  He he blocked a bill with bipartisan support from the country at large, including his state’s senior senator , and thousands of his constituents.  Needless to say, grassroots organizing got a move on.  Quite a few of my friends, from across the country, held a vigil in front of his Oklahoma City office 24/7 until he took the hold off.  All told, the vigil lasted eleven days before a deal was reached, and the bill passed the Senate the next day.

Dr. Coburn was in the news again this past week for being one of the more vocal opponents to the 9/11 health bill.  The bill would have compensated a number of first responders who were suffering from health problems related to 9/11 and the rescue efforts that followed in the rubble.  After Jon Stewart hosted a number of first responders on his show to call out opponents, the general populace started getting up in arms about it (including Rudy Guiliani and Mike Huckabee).  After all the uproar, Coburn finally decided to give in (after bringing down some costs, obviously).

I’m all for being careful with money and watching where the government spends money, but Coburn has gone to the extreme. He also blocked aid to Haiti after the earthquake there, among other hot topic blocks.  It seems like he always needs a level of shame before he’ll back down.  I hope he gets smarter about where he chooses to put his foot down in the future. It’d make government work a little better, which – according to Coburn – has been his intention all along.

Remembering December

In early 2008, the Juba Peace Process between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army failed.  In December of that year, a joint offensive by Uganda, the DRC, and South Sudan invaded the LRA’s hiding place, dispersing the rebels.  It was a messy, ill-advised attempt at apprehending rebel leaders and freeing abducted civilians.

On Christmas Eve, the LRA lashed out at the local population, destroying whole villages. In the ensuing month, as reported by a number of news papers and human rights groups, the rebels killed at least 900 people and abducted at least 160 children.  They rounded up villagers who had been celebrating Christmas, tying them up and killing them with clubs, axes, and machetes.  A number of women were raped and whole families burned.  In the following year they would kill over 1500 and abduct over 3000, 700 thought to be children.

In December of 2009, the LRA issued a warning – saying they would celebrate Christmas with the people of the region. On December 14th, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the military incursion, the rebels lashed out again, attacking a number of villages and towns in eastern DRC.

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a week or so.  It’s about something that has me worried.  It’s December.  It’s almost the two-year anniversary of the beginning of hostilities and one-year anniversary of the 2009 attacks, as well as the two-year anniversary of the Christmas Massacre.  Who knows what the LRA are planning this year?  Having spent a good four years learning about this conflict, and having met a number of victims in Uganda effected by the LRA, I’m worried for the people of the DRC, CAR, and Sudan.

On this subject, the Obama administration’s LRA Strategy was released almost two weeks ago, and I’ve been reading and reviewing it.  I’ll put up a praise/critique soon, hopefully. After two years of relative peace from 2006-2008, these past two years have been pretty brutal for the people of east-central Africa.  I’d like to see it end.