Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Thoughts on Kony 2012

I don't have a lot of answers. This is a long rant so I'll sum it up here at the top.
1. I congratulate Invisible Children just as much as I question them. I hope they succeed in healing the wounds of child soldiers & trafficking in Uganda and beyond.
2. Let the majority of voices of the Kony Campaign come from the Ugandans. 
3. Kony is not in Uganda--Invisible Children should have made this clear in the video.
4. I don't believe sending US troops is necessarily the best answer.
5. Look before you donate. 
6. In the end, my opinions don't matter too much. The big question is, "What do the Ugandans want?"

My professional background makes me very interested in Kony 2012. I spent ten years working in international development, in war torn places like Cambodia, East Timor and a solid two-year stint in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

Am I impressed with Kony 2012? Yes! Do I have issues with Kony 2012? Yes! And I'm grateful that it has evolved the way it has, because the world is discussing what it means to be sustainable in international development. In this Internet world where everything is so visible and where it's easy to donate with the click of a button, it's important to question as much as it is to praise this campaign. We have some lessons to learn, especially as we collectively address and move deeper into the healing of our global community.

What do I love about Kony 2012?

A group of guys with good intentions designed an intelligent and slick video campaign that reached countless people 'round the world and mobilized millions of youth in a heartbeat. People are now more conscious about child soldiers and trafficking in Africa. Maybe Kony will be caught and brought to justice. This is another fabulous example of how social media can be much more powerful than mainstream media.

What I question...

Failure to integrate local voices.

"In all its manifestations, overseas aid ultimately impacts on other people’s lives, and we therefore have a moral imperative to do more than merely “our best”. The prime directive should be to “do no harm” and to listen to the people we are trying to serve. The Kony 2012 video is a beautifully made and highly effective campaign tool. Hopefully the next campaign video will improve it, by basing it on what Ugandans, not outsiders, are asking for." From the Irish Times

"Invisible Children asked viewers to seek the engagement of American policymakers and celebrities, but – and this is a major red flag – it didn’t introduce them to the many Northern Ugandans already doing fantastic work both in their local communities and in the diaspora." From the Independent

I don't agree with the narration style of the video because most of it does not come from the Ugandan people. This may seem harmless to most, but it's a reflection of the biggest problem in international development; foreign aid organizations make many decisions on what they think is best for people. This can be disastrous. I admit that it would be great to capture Kony, but I think there's more than one way to do it. If Kony 2012 makes another video targeted towards westerners, I hope they let Ugandans narrate the story. I suggest that Kony 2012 goes more with the style of I Am Because We Are produced by Madonna. It's about children in Malawi who were orphaned by AIDS. Before watching it, I wondered if Madonna would tell the story herself, but most of the voices in the film were Malawian.   

Of course, I believe in international aid, when one of the most important universal laws is obeyed: ask!  Ask if the majority of Ugandans want our help. If so, great. Ask how they want our help.  Imagine if the tables were turned. Imagine if a nonprofit in Uganda decided to address a social issue here in the states without asking us how to help. I think Americans would be pretty annoyed. 

This topic reminds me of something I witnessed in Afghanistan...

A large and well known US funded organization spent a million dollars to deliver iPods with public health messages to Afghan tribes in the middle of nowhere Afghanistan. The iPods were delivered, but the locals who received them didn't have electricity. How would they recharge their iPods to listen to the important messages? A million dollars went down the drain. The problem was that this organization didn't do its homework--it didn't consult with local people. 

Make the location clear.

"Awareness is great, but if you ask your kids, 'what do you think this video means?' and they say, 'we need to go to Northern Uganda,' which is the reaction I've seen thousands of times in the last 24 hours, that's factually incorrect," Wilkerson said. "Northern Uganda has been peaceful for six years. Kony and the remainder of the LRA weredriven out by the Ugandan military." Public Radio International

The video implies that Kony is in Uganda. He is not. Ugandans know this (even the Prime Minister has pointed this out). I watched one of the founders of Invisible Children in a TV interview say that he agrees that Kony is not in Uganda. So why wasn't it made clear in the video? Why did the Kony campaign convince the US to send US troops to Uganda? I have yet to see an answer that satisfies my question.  

I question the use of American military force.

In the previously mentioned TV interview of one of the founders of Invisible Children, he states his belief in the involvement of the US military.  I don't know if that's the best answer, and I encourage the Ugandan people to explore what the best answer is. If the majority of Ugandans want the US military's assistance, than so be it. I'm for free will of the people. If they don't want US involvement, than I have to respect that.

I understand how the military can be a positive force in dire situations. The US military did a fabulous job of providing the Afghans with secure voting stations on the day of the Presidential Election in 2005.  I witnessed this first hand. The problem with the military is that some soldiers (the minority) make a bad name for everybody else and kill or hurt innocent people. In the situation of Afghanistan, the poor and sometimes deadly behavior of US soldiers has caused the majority of local people to resent all of the foreign military.  It actually results in more fighting and terrorism. Many Afghans want to be left alone because they don't feel they're being helped by the foreign presence; a presence of military and international development that went to Afghanistan with good intentions. 

This is a situation that has repeated itself throughout history, and it would be sad to see it in Uganda.  

The Finances.

I can't judge the financial situation. It's not publicly clear, and it never will be. My good friend who is the founder of a successful international nonprofit told me that any nonprofit that has enough money can hire a good team of lawyers and accountants to make financial numbers and percentages look like anything so that the public believes that funding is being properly spent.

I am curious about who is behind the funding of the Invisible Children's past, but I don't expect that we'll ever know the whole story.

I did hear one of the Invisible Children founders say that 1/3rd of their funding reaches the people in Uganda. Anyone who is experienced in international development knows that this is not an impressive number. Nonprofits are always bragging much bigger numbers. I don't see how real development can be carried out in another country if most of the money is being spent in the USA. If people want to argue that Invisible Children needs to spend so much money on advocacy in the states, I have to disagree. With my experience in social media, I have a very tangible understanding of how little money it takes to spread awareness to the masses. 

I also want to point out that the western world is good at throwing money to fix situations, but that doesn't always work. We saw the waste of donated money for the relief efforts for the tsunami of 2004 and more recently in Haiti. By the way, one of my friends who is deeply engrained in the Haiti crisis just informed me that there are still millions of publicly donated dollars that have yet to reach the ground. Pathetic. Let's hope that Invisible Children can result in a different story.

While on this note, I want to point out the amazing child development work of Hands to Hearts International, a model organization for international development. Please know that I will not recommend every nonprofit that I have worked for. HHI has one constant fulltime employee here in the states. The remaining majority of employees are local women in places like India and Uganda. I can say this organization is legit, because I know the founder Laura Peterson very well.  I've also worked for HHI in the past. I once asked her, "Just imagine having a whole building for HHI's HQ!" She instantly responded with a gentle reality check, "I'd never want that--that's not the point."  Laura understands the most effective development will build most of its staff of local leaders where the targeted issues are happening.  

The dangers of a slick video campaign paired with a heart wrenching issue.

Kony 2012 made millions cry, including myself. I do not doubt the reality of the Ugandan boy who shared his story. The video was so well done, that many people didn't question the deeper information of the story before donating. In a world of advanced media and technology, I urge people to stop and research before donating. There have been many groups that use tear jerking issues to proselytize--this is not evident with the Kony 2012 campaign, but I won't cross it off the list of possibilities. All I'm saying is look before you leap with your pocket books.

I'm reminded of Afghanistan again. Several years ago, an Afghan woman whose nose was cut off was put on the cover of one of the USA's major magazines. I think it was TIME Magazine. When it happened, I heard many public figures from all points on the political spectrum say, "See! This is why we need to be in Afghanistan! We need to protect those women". I specifically remember Danny DeVito expressing the same. This cover helped to fuel a disastrous military campaign and didn't do much for the rights of Afghan women.

Some additional quotes/articles to ponder:

From Hands to Hearts International:

"The current challenges in the area are profound, the population used to live primarily on subsistence farming and after years in IDP camps they return to barely accessible roads, overgrown fields, no livestock, and eroded homes.  There are too few: health clinics, health workers, medicines, schools, teachers, water pumps, and almost no ways to earn an income.  While there is an overflow of: HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, malnutrition, food scarcity, PTSD trauma, alcoholism, and likely general depression.  The people I have met here are smart, motivated and active in creating a better future for themselves and while they greatly appreciate international assistance, they would rather be able to provide for themselves and this is what they are working very hard on doing." From Laura Peterson of Hands to Hearts International

A Facebook post from a well respected intercultural communications professional:

So I watched the video and I was impressed by their ability to raise awareness and mobilize thousands of people for a good and righteous cause. Which makes it only more unfortunate that people believe they have been misled or misinformed by the organization. However, I was extremely disturbed by his presentation of this issue to his son and I'm curious what value he thought it added. Good intentions often result in Good things, but should not obscure the need for honesty, integrity and understanding the role of cultural self determination in social movements such as this.

"I would also recommend the  Twitter feed of Laura Seay, who was moved to comment this morning that “[Solomme Lemma] is tweeting links to great community-based organizations working in Northern Uganda.  Give there if you really want to help."

From a professor of history at Swarthmore College

"If with its current resources and aid, in a simple or unobtrusive way, the Ugandan army and American advisors can catch or kill Kony, that’s great. Making this the singular, surpassing international demand by the world, making this the objective that launches a million postcards from American schoolchildren, pouring whatever resources might be available into that goal? Not only does it miss the forest for a single tree, it runs the serious risk of turning into precisely the kind of crusade that does more harm in the end than it does good. A very similar rhetorical logic was used to sell the war in Iraq: get Saddam Hussein at all costs. A similar logic drew the American military into a disastrously misconceived crusade to “get” Mohammed Farah Aidid in Somalia. Real life isn’t Roy Rogers, it’s Unforgiven. Going after the bad guy often makes more bad guys, or gives other bad guys a gold star and lets them pretend to be the sheriff." See blog here.

WJXT, Jacksonville

"But the media attention on Kony may actually hamper efforts to catch Kony, said Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. The film comes after a regional -- and covert -- military operation that has been under way for several months. The attention could prompt Kony to go on the move again and may set back African and U.S. efforts to catch the warlord.
"All I can say is, it couldn't have happened at a more unhelpful moment when you look at it strategically and operationally,"said Pham, a civilian adviser to the military command that sent the U.S.troops."" News4Jax.com

From Public Radio International:

"Even under horrific circumstances, people are endlessly resourceful, and local actors understand their needs better than outsiders. It's good that Americans want to help, but ignoring the role and authority of local leaders and activists isn't just insulting and arrogant, it neglects the people who are the most likely to come up with a solution to the conflict. The LRA is a problem worth solving, but how to do so is a complicated question with no easy answers."
 From Public Radio international

"Last year I went to Gulu, Uganda, where Invisible Children is based and interviewed over 50 locals. Every single person questioned Invisible Children's legitimacy and intention.
"Every single person. If anything, it seemed the people saw Invisible Children as a bigger threat than Joseph Kony at the time. Whyis it the very people you are trying to 'help' feel more offense than reliefwith your aid?" From the Acholi Times

"They spend 2/3 of their budget on advocacy and awareness raising in the United States," Wilkerson said. "A lot of that is film production, a lot of it is road shows where they take their 12 videos now on tours around the United States. They also have some traditional NGO-style education and other programs on the ground in Uganda, but it seems like they're trying to do a little bit of everything and are not necessarily great at anything except making the film and viralmarketing." From Public Radio International

No comments: