Catching Kony

Newspaper Article
Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson
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Catching Kony
Written: By S-CAR
Published Date: March 08, 2012
Topics of Interest: Civil War, East Africa, Identity, Media, Military

If “November is LRA month” then “2012 is Joseph Kony year.” On March 5, 2012, Invisible Children, the non-profit organization making headlines for its efforts to bring peace and justice to the conflict in Northern Uganda, launched KONY 2012, “a film and campaign by Invisible Children that aims to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”


Within 48 hours of its launch, KONY 2012 received more than 10 million views on YouTube – and that number continues to increase. The website which hosts the video crashed multiple times because the internet traffic was simply too much to handle. If the mission of KONY 2012 is “to make Joseph Kony famous” then Invisible Children is off to a good start.


Success is a funny thing though. After KONY 2012 began to circulate, so did accusations about organizational mismanagement and, unfortunately for Invisible Children, this isn’t the first time they’ve been criticized. And now, it seems the trending topic is not Joseph Kony himself but the way in which Invisible Children operates. This is regrettable.


Most of the criticism directed at Invisible Children seems to be based on three factors: 1) image; 2) internal operating procedures; and 3) the impact of advocacy on peacebuilding efforts.


Image, and the perception that comes with it, is important. An organization working so tirelessly to raise awareness about the LRA and their mass atrocities cannot afford to be photographed with – or taking the side of – an opposing army that is accused of equally gruesome acts. At the same time, conflict resolution is sometimes a dirty business and if peacebuilders refrained from working with less than perfect partners on the ground, there would be no peacebuilders.


As far as internal operating procedures are concerned, get the house in order. The end. Too many people have invested time, energy, and resources to see the organization falter because of a few missteps and/or technicalities.


Chris Blattman, a highly respected academic and authoritative voice on the conflict in Northern Uganda criticized Invisible Children (and others) in 2009, saying, “[t]he savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.”


Fair enough, but if the fear among academics and policymakers is that a single documentary can negatively impact the structure and strategy of peacebuilding programs (or military interventions), then perhaps the real criticism should be directed at those governments and international organizations designing the programs/interventions in the first place. After all, the conflict in Northern Uganda started as just that – a conflict in Northern Uganda. It has since experienced regional spillover and multiple failed attempts at peacebuilding. We’ve also seen repeatedly that even when the numbers are right, the conclusions we draw from them can be wrong. I would also bet more Americans – certainly young Americans – have learned about the LRA because of Invisible Children than because of The World Bank, UN, or other international organizations. Clever advocacy has its advantages.


The unpleasant truth, however, is that to be taken seriously (i.e. to be more than just a trending topic on Twitter) and to become a truly credible voice, Invisible Children will indeed have to continue strengthening its internal operating procedures – as do all organizations. Too often, well-intentioned but poorly run organizations crash and burn, along with the cause they so passionately promote.


The good news is that many people, including yours truly, are rooting for Invisible Children to succeed. Imagine what we would be saying about Invisible Children if in fact the organization’s proven ability to mobilize an otherwise lackadaisical demographic around a conflict based on moral imperative but lacking in national security sexiness did in fact lead to pressure so intense that Joseph Kony found himself in front of the International Criminal Court. Conflict resolution theorists might struggle to find an explanation.


The other criticism levied against Invisible Children is much more of a stretch – that the organization is intentionally misinterpreting/misrepresenting the complexity of the conflict. True, the conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda has spilled over into a regional conflict involving Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. This makes “the neighborhood effect” all the more precarious. True, the LRA represents only a small part of a much larger conflict and removing Joseph Kony from the battlefield will not resolve the entire situation. So what. Don’t bother? Tell that to the ICC which made Kony among the first to be indicted under the new norm of international justice.


To suggest that somehow the focus is all wrong or that because Invisible Children is not addressing the entirety of the conflict they are therefore making matters worse is as questionable as claiming that mobilizing social networks toward a specific end goal (i.e. “crowdsourced intervention”) will lead to disastrous results. On the contrary, Invisible Children should be praised for the work they did to create tools such as the LRA Crisis Tracker. The tracker is just one example of the burgeoning nexus between social media and conflict resolution. Yes, we should all view the data with healthy skepticism – but not to the point where we forget or ignore its utility. Even if we learn that the data is wrong, for example, we would then know the data is wrong. That’s a start. 

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