Video Killed a Star Charity: The downfall of Invisible Children

Was one high-profile advocacy video the undoing of Invisible Children, or was it the final straw for an NGO whose work was built on misplaced intentions? Andrew Green visits northern Uganda to find out.

By: /
November 5, 2015
Residents watch the premiere of "Kony 2012", a 30-minute YouTube film created by the nonprofit group Invisible Children. REUTERS/James Akena

It’s been nearly four years since Jason Russell sat down for a talk with his then-five-year-old son Gavin and sparked an international discussion. The father-son chat sets up “KONY 2012,” a half-hour-long advocacy video for Invisible Children. Russell co-founded the group after a 2003 trip to northern Uganda exposed him and two friends to the atrocities the warlord Joseph Kony was perpetrating in the region. The video’s unexpected success catapulted Russell to global fame, but also cast Invisible Children as an archetype in an emerging debate about the nature of humanitarianism and the possible harms it might cause.

Even now, nearly a year after the organization handed control of its programs in northern Uganda over to local staff members and left the region, the community there is still grappling with the questions raised in the wake of the video’s release. There is deeply felt gratitude for the work the group did, but an uncertainty about what legacy they leave behind.

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In the introductory scene in “KONY 2012,” Russell is trying to explain his career to Gavin in language the five-year-old can understand. The boy’s initial suggestion that his father “stop[s] the bad guys from being mean” becomes the lens through which Russell explains Invisible Children’s efforts to advance Kony’s capture and prosecution. Russell focuses especially on the atrocities Kony’s forces, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), committed – villages raided, residents slaughtered, children kidnapped and conscripted into their ranks.

Russell traces his own activism to his arrival in Gulu, the region’s hub, at the height of the brutality. There he encountered thousands of children who, ahead of the setting sun, streamed in from their homes around northern Uganda to sleep in the relative safety of the town. Known as “night commuters,” their stories galvanized Russell and his friends to form Invisible Children, as he explains in the video, “to stop Kony and rebuild what he had destroyed.”

That included pressing for a stronger U.S. military intervention in the search for the warlord, but also improving access to education and job opportunities for people across northern Uganda – especially the abductees who had escaped and returned home.

The video’s release triggered a global event, registering a then-unprecedented 100 million views in less than a week. The outsized attention also crystalized an existing critique of the approach organizations like Invisible Children bring to their work – a concern that in their western-grounded, under-contextualized efforts to “make a difference” they might actually be perpetuating the perceived helplessness of the communities they are trying to assist, while also doing real damage with some of the policies they advocate.

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, in a series of messages posted on Twitter and then in an essay for The Atlantic, gave the practice a name: the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

“There is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference,’” he wrote. “There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them." 

Communities in northern Uganda reacted to “KONY 2012” with indignation. They wanted to know why Invisible Children – a group they trusted – had not told them about the video, which seemed to both appropriate and misrepresent their suffering in the name of a cause they did not support. They did not want to “make Kony famous,” as the video suggested, even if it did trigger an international manhunt.

That was not the point, as Cole wrote. Kony offered “a convenient villain” for people looking to make a difference, but unwilling to engage in the “constellational thinking” that might cause them to question and address the political and economic circumstances that led to his rise or to consider what impact a deepening militarization in Uganda might have.

It also allowed them to bypass the foremost demand of the people of northern Uganda, which was not to see Kony captured, but to have a long-term, systemic commitment to helping rebuild the region his war had destroyed.

Instead, they got neither.

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Geoffrey Howard Okot, country coordinator Invisible Children Uganda. OPENCANADA/Andrew Green

Geoffrey Howard Okot still remembers when the three American filmmakers first arrived in northern Uganda in 2003. Laren Poole, Bobby Bailey and Russell were on their way to what was then southern Sudan looking for a story to tell. Okot is now the country coordinator for Invisible Children Uganda, which spun off from the U.S. group late last year and is now an independent NGO operating in Gulu. It officially took over programs from the international organization on December 31, 2014.

It was in Gulu, a few hours from Uganda’s border with Sudan, that the filmmakers first met Jolly Okot — Geoffrey’s sister — and “she turned their mind around,” he said. “Jolly told them, ‘Look, there are stories around here. There are children suffering.’” Seven years earlier, she herself had been kidnapped by the LRA and spent two years “forced to fight, forced to steal from my own people at gunpoint and repeatedly raped by commanders,” she later testified in front of the U.S. Senate.

Jolly Okot’s kidnapping came near the outset of the LRA’s development, which had its origins in the Kampala government’s marginalization of the north. As support for the LRA dwindled among northerners, Kony turned his forces against his Acholi community. By the time the LRA was finally driven out of northern Uganda in 2006, its forces had abducted more than 30,000 children. Kony is still on the loose and his now-dwindling group of soldiers continues to operate in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.

Back in 2003, long before peace returned to northern Uganda, the Okot siblings took the three American filmmakers to meet some of the night commuters. During one interaction, which they included in “KONY 2012,” they are filming the hundreds of children pouring into Gulu when Russell, obviously shocked, exclaims that if it were happening in America it would “be on the cover of Newsweek.”

This perspective, that the three had stumbled upon an unknown conflict, is woven into Invisible Children’s publicity materials and provides fodder for some critics to cast them as global ignoramuses, uninformed about events beyond the U.S. border. But their preliminary knowledge matters little to Geoffrey Okot, when balanced against what developed from that inaugural trip.“They had made a promise to some of the children they met in northern Uganda, that when they go back they will be able to raise money and come back and support them,” he said. “And for sure, they came back.”

With funds raised from a documentary they shot during the trip, they returned to northern Uganda in 2005 to found Invisible Children and distribute 100 secondary-school scholarships.

Back in the United States, they quickly became known for their innovative, successful fundraising techniques – slick videos, road shows across the country – that allowed them to expand their projects in Uganda. The scholarship swelled to eventually support 6,000 secondary and university students. They rebuilt 11 schools across the north and also taught job skills – especially to women – and then helped them set up savings programs. Ultimately, Invisible Children would pour US$26 million into their programs in northern Uganda during their 10 years of operations.

“They really helped in the gaps of somebody who had lost a dream of doing well,” said Ocheng Vincent Ocen, the Gulu district education officer.

And then came “KONY 2012.”

konyvideo
April 21, 2012A supporter uses her mobile phone to take a photograph of a projection that is part of the non-profit organization Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" viral video campaign. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

It was more than a video release, but a well-oiled campaign to raise awareness about Kony and the LRA. Supporters were told to sign pledges, make donations and buy action kits, which, for $30, came with bracelets and posters. They were told to barrage celebrities and politicians with requests for support. Oprah Winfrey, one of their targets, responded to the deluge of requests via Twitter: “Thanks tweeps for sending me info about ending #LRAviolence. I am aware. Have supported with $’s and voice and will not stop.” She followed up with a segment interviewing the Invisible Children founders. And it culminated in an international “Cover the Night” event, where supporters were encouraged to blanket their cities and towns with wanted posters of Kony.

The spike in awareness also proved a fundraising boon for Invisible Children. Their funding jumped from US$13.8 million in 2011 to US$25.6 million the following year, according to their tax filings.

It also put an enormous bulls-eye on the organization.

There were several different threads to the criticism that followed the video’s release. First there were the factual inaccuracies – locating Uganda in central, not east, Africa and giving an impression that Kony was still active in the country, when he had decamped years before – which seemed to undermine Invisible Children’s credibility. Tied in with the narrative’s overall simplicity, it fueled one reading of Invisible Children as a group of privileged westerners who didn’t much know what they were talking about.

The accusation seems remarkably unfair, according to David Ocitti. A former abductee, he was impressed by Invisible Children’s efforts in northern Uganda and eagerly signed up to help. “Their programs were doing amazing work,” he said. “You could see what was happening in the life of those people who didn’t have hope before.”

Through Invisible Children, Ocitti participated in three fundraising tours of the United States. He visited middle schools, high schools, churches – any place they could get an audience – and shared his story. Through the organizers, he learned to tailor his message to the different groups to achieve maximum impact. To him, “KONY 2012” was in line with that approach. “The point was for everyone to know he exists,” Ocitti said. “They had to be mindful of all of their audience and cut across to all those people.”

More worrying were the accusations that “KONY 2012” eclipsed any indigenous response to the situation with a perspective that outsiders were needed to rescue Ugandans. In her analysis of the video’s fallout, “Beneath Kony 2012: Americans Aligning with Arms and Aiding Others,” Dr. Amy Finnegan wrote that Invisible Children “sponsors a narrative in which Africa remains an object to be manipulated by outsiders instead of a dynamic context with talented and knowledgeable actors, compelling ideas and potential resources.”

The video’s primary ask was for people to help create awareness of Kony. His growing infamy would keep pressure on Washington, D.C., to maintain the group of U.S. military policy advisors already working with the Ugandan army to track Kony. Invisible Children’s lingering influence is evident in President Obama’s decision last month to re-authorize U.S. support to the mission to hunt down the warlord for at least another year.

This rush to militarize the response and further equip a Ugandan government that has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to trample human rights when convenient was troubling enough. But it also ignored the systemic issues that led to Kony’s rise, Cole argued in The Atlantic. “What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony’s indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice. This is the scaffolding from which infrastructure, security, healthcare and education can be built.”

Lisa Dougan, who took over as Invisible Children’s president and CEO this year, but has been involved with the organization since 2006, acknowledged Cole’s critique and credited “KONY 2012” with creating “a platform for such needed public discourse.”

But in a recent email from the DRC, where she was visiting program sites, she wrote, “As with our programmatic work in the region, the policy agenda behind the ‘KONY 2012’ campaign was guided by the voices and demands of LRA-affected communities in central Africa with whom we are speaking and working regularly.”

That rings true to Geoffrey Okot’s experience. Invisible Children, he said, never imposed, but allowed its programs to be guided by the Ugandans they hired, including his sister, who served as director. “Jolly told them clearly the only way to solve the problems of this region was through education. She said education would turn around everything. To educate people who want to fight so that they can solve problems rather than ignorantly going into war.”

Still, Francis Arop said the video undermined the good work Invisible Children had done in the region. Arop heads the Community Rural Empowerment and Support Organization (CRESO), a local NGO based in Lira – the next major town east of Gulu. CRESO specializes in building community actions around access to healthcare and other social services. 

Arop was around for the public screening of “KONY 2012” Invisible Children held for Lira residents following the video’s release. Community members reacted with anger, pelting the screen with rocks and forcing the organizers to call an early halt to the viewing. 

“They tried to show what really happened, but to me, that wasn’t the real scenario,” said Arop, who has lived his entire life in Lira. “What we saw was not what northern Uganda went through. I lived to see the conflict starting and also the conflict ending. There are certain things in the ‘KONY 2012’ which were not real.”

The reaction across Uganda was so negative, Okot said, that if the organization hadn’t been able to point to the work it had already done in the region, the government would probably have shut them down.

But to Arop, who happily acknowledges Invisible Children’s accomplishments, “KONY 2012” irreversibly altered its relationship with the communities in the north – from an organization seen to be working for the people to one that took advantage of them and then left them behind.

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Invisible Children office in Gulu. OPENCANADA/Andrew Green

The organization was undone in the wake of “KONY 2012.” Hammered by criticism and Russell’s subsequent, very-public breakdown – he was taped roaming the streets of San Diego naked – fundraising fell and the U.S.-based headquarters decided to shutter their operations in northern Uganda. Dougan said they fell victim to “the effects of donor fatigue and international attention moving elsewhere,” though they have been able to maintain active programs in CAR and the DRC. Russell and the other two founders no longer have day-to-day roles with the NGO, though Russell remains a board member.

Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu district chairman, said they are growing used to the disappearance of NGOs from the region, whose white 4x4s used to crowd Gulu’s roads. He recently dedicated his weekly radio program to discussing that very issue. What he tried to get his listeners to understand is that these withdrawals mean “a lot more responsibility for government, especially local government. So many of them are coming to me and, unfortunately, sometimes, they’re coming for the things that the local government cannot afford to do.” 

Peace has not resulted in the prosperity many came to expect. Instead, the north is now embroiled in land wrangles. Jobs remain scarce – especially for overeducated youth, said Ocen, the district education officer. Some turn to small-scale farming or driving motorcycle taxis, others to crime.

People are now looking to other sources to provide the systemic changes they need. The region – long a hotbed for opposition politicians – is undergoing a political shift back to the National Resistance Movement party of President Yoweri Museveni, in power now for 29 years. Regional political reporters say people are willing to trade in their principles for the hope of better services.

gulu
Former LRA abducted women and their children attend a weekly meeting in Gulu, northern Uganda March 21, 2005.

Late last year, Invisible Children handed their remaining programs – including more than 300 scholarship students – over to Invisible Children Uganda. But without enough money to fully support them, the Ugandan team is scrambling to raise the missing funds, even as they plead with the schools to retain the students on reduced rates.

There wasn’t enough money for Thomas Opio. The LRA kidnapped Opio 20 years ago when he was 16. Two years later, after participating in countless battles and nearly starving to death, he managed to escape and find his way to Gulu. He spent his first three months back in a rehabilitation center, slowly learning to control the anger he felt over having his family, his education and his future stolen from him.

“I wanted to study hard and at least get some white-collar job,” he said. “My parents did not get that chance to study well. My father ended up as a soldier. I never wanted to end up as a soldier like him.”

At the end of the three months, someone from Invisible Children approached Opio and asked if he would like to complete his education. Within weeks, the organization had enrolled him in secondary school, paid his fees and equipped him with textbooks. As long as he did well in his classes, they continued to pay. When he graduated, they found him a spot at the Makerere University Business School in Kampala studying entrepreneurship.

Sometime during his second year, members of the Invisible Children team called him to a meeting with two other scholarship recipients. The organization was leaving, they told the students, and wouldn’t be able to support them anymore. “They said they have tried. If they renew the project then we will be back,” he remembered.

Opio was left to find the money to finish his education. With his siblings, he spent three months making and selling bricks. Eventually he earned enough that administrators allowed him to return to the university and finish his classes. But he still has an outstanding balance of 300,000 Ugandan shillings – about $111 Canadian – and until he pays it off they won’t release his exam results or allow him to graduate. 

Now, he’s back in Gulu, looking for work. He’s excited about what he learned in school, but finding it difficult to apply. He doesn’t have the capital he needs to start a business and in the midst of the current downturn in Uganda’s economy he’s afraid to take out a loan.

Still, he remains grateful to Invisible Children. When they cut off his funding, he remembers telling them, “You have brought us from nowhere and we are coming to this stage. I wish you could continue supporting us so we can finish what we have started.” He paused for a moment. “But I have no blame on them, because they have done something very important.”

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