Since Monday, more than 21m people have viewed this film – made by an American charity called Invisible Children – about the plight of children in Uganda at the hands of the warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) guerilla group. His group is said to have abducted 60,000 children.
With its slick Hollywood production values, the film has been an almost instant viral success, dominating Twitter worldwide and having one of the fastest ever take-offs on You Tube. The hashtag #stopkony has had hundreds of thousands of tweets, and millions of people now know something about Uganda and what is happening to children there. Support for the campaign to end the conflict in the country this year is spreading.
We’ve reported on the video here:
Kony stands accused of overseeing the systematic kidnapping of countless African children, brainwashing the boys into fighting for him, turning the girls into sex slaves and killing those who don’t comply.
His forces are believed to have slaughtered tens of thousands of people and are known for hacking the lips off their victims. Kony has been wanted by the international criminal court since 2005 on charges that include crimes against humanity. He has been living in the bush outside Uganda since that time.
The US designated the LRA a terrorist group after September 11, and in 2008 began actively supporting the Ugandan military. In October, the president deployed 100 combat-equipped troops – mostly special operations forces – to Uganda to advise regional military units in capturing or killing Kony.
But it has also attracted criticism: there are questions about the charity’s funding, its targeting of US leaders instead of African leaders to instigate change, and accusations that it is failing to criticise the Ugandan government, with its poor human rights record.
This morning, Invisible Children issued a detailed response to the criticism here.
We want, with your help, to investigate this further. Our principle approach is to attempt to gather views from Uganda about whether this film is the right way to go about campaigning on the issue. I’m going to be working with John Vidal, our environment editor, who has travelled extensively in the region and is on the phone now to his contacts there.
It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years.
But let’s get two things straight:
1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for six years;
2) The LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.
It makes the following points:
• The LRA is not in Uganda but now operates in the DRC, South Sudan and the Central African Republic
• In October last year, Obama authorised the deployment of 100 US army advisers to help the Ugandan military track down Kony, with no results disclosed to date.
• The LRA is much smaller than previously thought. It does not have have 30,000 or 60,000 child soldiers. The figure of 30,000 refers to the total number of children abducted by the LRA over nearly 30 years.
It also makes the point that there is currently no threat to remove the US advisers who are working with the Uganda government to track down the army – Invisible Children’s key aim is to force the US government to keep them there.
We’re contacting Michael to ask him to write more about the background to this for us.
I’m posting a taster below, partly in response to the reader who has just emailed me saying: “I am a mum in Devon with three kids, just about to run six miles for Sports Relief, please get behind this. Hollywood slick, who cares, support the kids – raise awareness and then start the criticism. It is a simple message which my 15-year-old son sent to me – Hollywood or not, it works!”
Peter Bradshaw writes:
Maybe Jason Russell’s web-based film Kony 2012, calling for international action to stop the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, can’t be considered great documentary-making. But as a piece of digital polemic and digital activism, it is quite simply brilliant.
It’s a slick, high-gloss piece of work, distributed on the Vimeo site, the upscale version of YouTube for serious film-makers. And its sensational, exponential popularity growth on the web is already achieving one of its stated objectives: to make Kony famous, to publicise this psychopathic warlord’s grotesque crimes – kidnapping thousands of children and turning them into mercenaries, butchers and rapists.
It does not stick to the conventions of impartial journalism in the BBC style. It is partisan, tactless and very bold. But it could be seen as insufferably condescending, a way of making US college kids feel good about themselves. And is Jason Russell scared to come out and admit that effective action entails an old-fashioned boots-on-soil invasion of a landlocked African country, with all the collateral damage that this implies?
He was previously the director of programmes at the Uganda National NGO Forum for nine years. He describes the NGO forum as independent of the government. We had a long conversation but, to be clear, he hasn’t at this point seen the film though he does know about Invisible Children and its work in Uganda.
It was quite a bad line from Nairobi airport, but this is what he told me:
From what I know about Invisible Children, it’s an international NGO, and it documents the lives of children living in conflict for international campaigning to draw attention to the lives of children in the north.
Six or 10 years ago, this would have been a really effective campaign strategy to get international campaigning. But today, years after Kony has moved away from Uganda, I think campaigning that appeals to these emotions … I’m not sure that’s effective for now. The circumstances in the north have changed.
Many NGOs and the government, especially local government in the north, are about rebuilding and securing lives for children, in education, sanitation, health and livelihoods. International campaigning that doesn’t support this agenda is not so useful at this point. We have moved beyond that.
There are conflicts in the north – several small conflicts over natural resources. Land is the major issue: after many years of displacement, there is quite a bit of land-related conflict.
But many organisations and governments are focusing on this. We need to secure social stability, health and education. These are the priorities. This is what we’re trying to focus on. Poverty is high compared to the rest of the country. That’s the practical issue that needs to be addressed.
I don’t think this is the best way. It might be an appeal that makes sense in America. But there are more fundamental challenges. Kony has been around for 25 years and over. I don’t think in the north at the moment that is really what is most important. It might be best on the internet and the like but, at the end of the day, there are more pressing things to deal with. If the Americans had wanted to arrest him, they would have done that a long time ago.
They [Invisible Children] are not a member of our forum. Many international organisations prefer to work and have direct contact with their quarters. They don’t work so much within the structures we have in the country. There is nothing dramatic about them. They are like any other organisation trying to make a difference. At the moment I think the work of Invisible Children is about appealing to people’s emotions. I think that time has passed. Their reputation in the country is something that can be debatable. There is a strong argument generally about NGOs and their work in the north.
It doesn’t sound like a fair representation of Uganda. We have challenges within the country, but certainly the perception of a country at war is not accurate at all. There are political, economic and social challenges, but they are complex. Being dramatic about a country at war is not accurate.
If the international media want to be helpful especially for the conflict situation, they should exert more time and effort understanding practically what the needs are. It is fast-changing.
The video would have been appealing in the last decade. Now we just need support for the recovery rather than all this international attention on this one point. Getting the facts right is most important for the international media. That would help the situation as it is.
12.54pm: The Invisible Children film has now been viewed more than 26m times. These stats from YouTube show how it has taken off since Monday, where it’s being watched and the age profile of those watching.
Invisible Children stats
12.59pm: The Ugandan journalist Angelo Opi-aiya Izama has written this blog, which makes a similar point to that of Larok about the Invisible Children campaign being outdated. He’s been talking to our foreign desk and has just sent this as an addition:
One salient issue the film totally misses is that the actual geography of today’s LRA operations is related to a potentially troubling “resource war”.
Since 2006, Uganda discovered world class oil fields along its border with DRC. The location of the oil fields has raised the stakes for the Ugandan military and its regional partners, including the US.
While LRA is seen as a mindless evil force, its deceased deputy leader, Vincent Otii, told me once that their fight with President Yoweri Museveni was about “money and oil”. This context is relevant because it allows for outsiders to view the LRA issue more objectively within the recent history of violence in the wider region that includes the great Central Africa wars of the 90s, in which groups like LRA were pawns for proxy wars between countries.
In LRA’s case, its main support came from the Sudanese government in Khartoum and many suspect it still maintains the patronage of Omar el-Bashir, the country’s president, himself indicted for war crimes by the ICC.
A reader has emailed in pointing us towards this Facebook page: PhonyKony 2012.
It documents child abductions happening there as recently as 2009.
They call themselves “a movement” seeking to end the conflict in Uganda and stop the abduction of children for use as child soldiers, but behind the slick website and the touchy-feely talk about “changing the course of human history”, there’s a hard-nosed money-making operation led by US filmmakers and accountants, commuication experts, lobbyists and salespeople.
So far the organisation has released 11 films and run film tours across the US and other countries to raise awareness. In Uganda, it has given scholarships to 750 children, and helped to re-build schools there and in centralo Africa. The organisation’s accounts show it’s a cash rich operation, which more than tripled its income in 2011, with more than two thirds of its money coming from “general donations”.
The accounts suggest nearly 25% of its $8.8m income last year was spent on travel and film-making with only around 30% going toward programes on the ground. The great majority of the money raised has been spent in the US. $1.7 million went on US employee salaries, $357,000 in film costs, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in “professional services” – thought to be Washington lobbyists – and $1.07 million in travel expenses . Nearly $400,000 was spent on office rent in San Diego.
Charity Navigator, a US charity evaluator, gives Invisible Children three out of four stars overall, four stars financially, but only two stars for “accountability and transparency”. This would seem to be a vote of no confidence, but it is explained by Noelle Jouglet, communication director of Invisible Children, like this:
“Our score is currently at 2 stars due to the fact that Invisible Children currently does not have five independent voting members on our board of directors. We are currently in the process of interviewing potential board members, and our goal is to add an additional independent member this year in order to regain our 4-star rating by 2013. We are aware of this and trying to fix it.”
The website suggests a staff of around 100 people, with the founders and senior staff mostly drawn from film-making and media industries. Jason Russell, the ceo and a co-founder, is described as Jason Radical Russell, “our grand storyteller and dreamer”. He is said to be “redefining the concept of humanitarian work” and to believe “wholeheartedly in magic and the impossible”. Laren Poole, another co-founder, is another filmmaker and the Ben Keesey, the chief finanacial officer, has been with Deloitte and Touche LLP, JP Morgan & Associates and Brentwood Associates Private Equity. He is described as “embracing the impossible and plots the course of our daring future”.
2.27pm: This is really interesting detail from a reader about the process of what would happen if Knoy is arrested.
Caroline Argyropulo-Palmer writes:
I did my masters at SOAS last year, focusing on transitional justice. One aspect of the IC campaign that I would like to highlight is that it is not a given that Kony would be tried at the ICC [International Criminal Court]. The court works on a system of complementarity – if Uganda can try him they will be given preference. There is also a lot of academic discussion about whether the in country trials would have to be criminal prosecutions or if alternative justice processes, such as truth commissions, would be acceptable to the ICC. It might seem like a minor point, but to me it demonstrates a lack of interest on the part of IC on the specifics. And emphasising bringing Kony to the ICC rather than to trial more generally takes the justice process away from Uganda, where complex discussions about what justice would mean about the conflict more generally have been taking place.
Does anyone know any more about this? Do get in touch.