5 (and counting) Essential Reads on Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Campaign

Posted by on Mar 7, 2012 in Blog, Writing | 16 Comments

Since you’re reading this, I can easily assume you use the internet. Which means you’ve no doubt seen the slew of posts about Joseph Kony surfacing over the past few days. The posts are part of a new campaign spearheaded by Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization that has been working with child soldiers in Northern Uganda since 2004. Over the past few years, after working with some smart organizations that empower locals to change their own communities, I’ve become more and more skeptical of the work they are doing, and I’m happy to see other critical voices surfacing with this new campaign.

So, in an effort to inspire conversation about this now-viral campaign, I’m posting the #Kony2012 video, along with a 5 posts to offer some counter-perspective.

To be clear – like many of the posts mention – Kony has done terrible, evil things, and should certainly be stopped. I applaud Invisible Children for their ability to inspire so many to action against injustice. HOW he is stopped is where I (and many others) disagree. 

Don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourselves. Watch the video below,  then read the posts, then feel free to comment here.

Recommended Reads:

  1. “We Got Trouble”
  2. “Taking Kony Down a Notch”
  3. “Let’s Talk About Kony”
  4.  “Kony 2012: Why I Love the Idea, but Hate the Campaign”
  5. Looking Deeper at Invisible Children’s Stop Kony Campaign

* And this one – Just for fun: “The Definitive Kony2012 Drinking Game” (Equal parts hilarious / sad-but-true)

———————– UPDATE —————————-

I’m sure this will continue to happen as more people keep writing, but here’s a few more:

From the comments:


  1. Emily Goodrich
    March 7, 2012

    Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for consolidating all of this information. I definitely think people should look before they leap, and it’s great to have plenty of knowledge under your belt before jumping on board with something like this. Any military intervention at all makes me a bit nervous, but I definitely know that Kony is worse than people realize, and that he needs to be stopped. I dont know the best way to go about it, and don’t lean 100% in any direction. I tend to be a pacifist.

    I did, however want to address a couple of accusations in some of the articles that can maybe help people make a more informed decision.

    In terms of development issues and looking at the underlying causes, Invisible Children is definitely doing more than awareness, and those projects will not stop when Kony is caught. They’re looking into rehabilitation programs for returning child soldiers, and have substantial programs on the ground in Uganda that send hundreds of kids to school, as well as economic development projects (which literary and financial education components for employees that help them pursue their own ventures as well). The majority of their staff in Uganda is Ugandan, and those Ugandans are helping to identify the needs for these programs and see them implemented. When I worked for them years ago, I was raising money to buy science lab equipment, clean water & sanitation, and books for a specific school. Two years later when I happened to be in Gulu on an unrelated note, those things were all there.

    Some of the weird things that show up in the financials, like large sums of money for computer equipment, rent, and transportation make a lot of sense in the context of how Invisible Children operates, which is unlike any other charity out there. Aside from the handful of people on paid staff, there are a couple hundred “roadies” and interns that work there each year. These employees work way more than full-time, essentially for free, and many pay for their own food and personal expenses, or receive just a small stipend. Invisible Children supplies housing (and trust me, it’s not luxurious), but that’s where a big chunk or rent and tech expense goes. (Each of those people work on a computer when they’re in the office).

    Also, twice a year, they send out 10-15 teams, in a van, all across the country, to screen their documentary at schools and raise money through merch sales and other donations. And Ugandans are on those teams that go out on the road. That’s a huge chunk of the transportation budget. (No private luxury jets or anything).

    So while there’s definitely room for debate on the best intervention strategy, I hope people keep those financial points in mind and don’t let misunderstanding of how the organization operates taint their opinions of their actual work.

    • ryanlinstrom
      March 8, 2012

      Hey Emily,

      Thanks for the comment. It’s good to get a little perspective on that. Personally, I think the financial criticisms are some of the weakest out there right now, mainly because, as you said Invisible Children has a unique model. It’s hard to compare them to other service-based organizations because they seem to be much more of an advocacy / awareness organization.

      And I guess that’s my issue with this campaign – Because, yes – IC is certainly suited to tell a story about Kony – produce it, film it, distribute it, and get people talking about it. But with this campaign they seem to be going further – dabbling in international politics and pushing for (in my opinion, hasty) action that could ultimately be very harmful to the people of Uganda, DRC, CAR, and Sudan, depending on where Kony ends up…

      I can’t help but think IC missed a step – they decided they COULD change the world, but forgot to take a second to make sure they SHOULD.

    • Booker
      April 2, 2012

      the 90,000 this guy makes a year goes to support his maifly of 3. the average cost of living for a single person from the census of 2010 is 45,000. and his wife doesnt have a job. she is also 100% devoted to the cause also. so the maifly of 3 is living of of what the average is for 2 people. Also the susan g coleman foundation only donates 28% of its donated dollar and the ceo of that company makes over 500,000 a year .wheres all the hate videos for them

  2. Emily
    March 8, 2012

    Fair enough.

    I would encourage you to check out their annual report for last year:

    It gives a pretty comprehensive idea what they’re about and the programs they’ve got going in Uganda as well as in neighboring countries that have been affected by the LRA.

    They may come across as hasty and ill-planned (and for the first year or so they were. Peace village with a moat?) because of their youth and enthusiasm, but they’ve learned from their mistakes and been responsive to legitimate criticism, and these days things they do are very researched and thought out. And for some reason everyone thinks of them as a bunch of American kids running around deciding what’s best for Uganda, but it’s good to keep in mind (again), that a big portion of their staff is Ugandan, and they are involved in making those calls, particularly about what programs happen on the ground in Uganda.

    Again, I’m still uneasy about the idea of military intervention, but I’m curious what the better strategy might be. Do you have any thoughts on that? I ask honestly, because I don’t know 100% what to think on this issue myself.

    • Alwish
      April 3, 2012

      Hi Pam,And the good news is that the video helped snoemoe like yourself became aware of the situation because of the talk, but you are right in that all of this needs to be so much more than a recent sensation.I love how the film is making people aware, but in the end it takes the long, hard and dirty work of peaceful sustainability to really bring about change.Trust you are well.Curt

  3. Emily
    March 8, 2012

    Also, here is their response to some of the criticisms.


  4. ryanlinstrom
    March 8, 2012

    Yeah, I checked out the financials. I’d still have to say – after 9 years, 80% for programs (counting all the road trips, screenings, etc. as “programs”) isn’t great. Fairly inefficient.

    Still – that’s not my main concern – In an organization that intends to provide development assistance and facilitate geo-political cooperation – there doesn’t seem to be one single staff or board member with any real development, conflict resolution, or policy experience under their belt. At best, they have a few staff members who are pursuing advanced degrees in development studies, but most of the staff are graphic designers, photographers, film editors, etc. And that’s fine – but they can’t pass themselves off as a serious development org if they are not going to invest in the expertise that matters to the people they want to help. They are an advocacy organization. And, they’re really good at it – but they shouldn’t be directly influencing policy in the region without some serious expertise and buy-in from both the Ugandan community and the global development / peace -justice community, and I just don’t see them trying to get that buy-in. I don’t see them working with other organizations to make sure military intervention is the best solution (it hasn’t worked in the past). I haven’t seen them trying to make sure the Ugandan military is the best partner to work with (their response on the link you posted was vague, at best), and that once Kony is captured, the Ugandan military will use their newfound “technology” for good and not for the shameful practices they have been accused of in the past. I haven’t seen them talk about building support and empowering Ugandans to take control of their own government from who can only be described as a goofy-looking tyrant in a silly hat, (Museveni) once Kony is gone.

    What I HAVE seen is them coming up with an oversimplified solution that easily resonates with high school and college kids – using a video that is at best misleading, at worst, fraudulent to get funding to push a violent agenda in an African country. None of it – the violence, the naiveté, the hint of neo-colonialism, sits well with me.

    So what can we do about it? I don’t really know – Maybe nothing, in all honesty. Let Kony rot in the jungles while Ugandans focus on building their own structures for political engagement. IC has done their job – 17 million views in the past few days. Mission accomplished. People know. Now IC needs to figure out the best way to get out of there and let the Ugandans have their country back.

  5. Emily
    March 8, 2012

    9 out of 108 staff listed on their website being filmmakers/art department staff means “most?”

    They don’t consider themselves a pure development organization, anyway. They consider themselves to be a media company that promotes advocacy and development.

    It seems to me like they’re doing exactly what they say they do, and I don’t know why they’re getting so much criticism for doing exactly what they say they do.

    As far as financials go, when they’re funding a specific project, like Schools for Schools (rebuilding schools), they made sure they sought outside funding for the operational costs so that when kids donated their lunch money to rebuild a school, 99% of that lunch money went to rebuilding a school. First they asked each school what they needed, and then they raised money for it. And I’ve been there, and I’ve seen those schools, and they’ve done exactly what they say they’ve done. When people make donations to a specific project, it goes there.

    Most of the money for things like tour, awareness events and filmmaking comes from larger donors who know full well that their money is going to tours and media things like that, and are okay with it because they think it’s important.

    And because they don’t consider themselves experts, they partner with organizations like Resolve Uganda, the UN, and local organizations like the Congolese led Commision Diocesaine Justice et Paix.

    Here are some more of the organizations they partner with and seek advice from to make sure they’re getting a more holistic view of what’s necessary: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/our-network (and yeah, there are some fancy celebrities sprinkled in there, but note that they’re donating money and twitter posts, not development tips).

    A way some of those partnerships work is that the organizations will say “Hey, we think this is necessary, but we don’t know how to get people involved or can’t come up with the financial support.” And Invisible Children exists to get people involved and get the financial support. And they do that very well.

    They’re not operating in a vacuum, doing whatever they want to do and then making an awesome t-shirt.

    They listen closely to Ugandans, mentors in the development world, and partner organizations with serious expertise, and add volume to what is going on.

    Sorry to get so frustrated, but this organization is near and dear to me, and most of the information floating around the web about them is straight up false.

  6. Sarah
    March 8, 2012

    Hey Ryan,

    Sarah J. here. I just wanted to point out that you labeled 80% of program expenses as inefficient…it’s actually the opposite. 80% for program expenses is actually highly efficient. Charity Navigator and its counterpart, Guide Star, rank any charity with over 2/3rds of the expenses going towards programming as a financially sound organization. For the type of organization that IC is (a social media, awareness organization), it is entirely plausible, and acceptable, that program expenses include the cost of equipment, road trips, etc.

    I think one of the things that many people do is confuse what IC actually does with what they think it *should* do. It’s an awareness program at its roots. Yes, it has some technical programs (see: Schools for Schools), but at the heart of it, IC is a social media driven awareness campaign. I personally don’t believe it is misleading in any of that but I think the public gets confused because they think IC is a technical development program.

    Neo-colonialism is another issue in itself. Unfortunately, colonialism in Africa left a big mess without the infrastructure and institutional capacity to correct course. Another issue for another day.

    Do I think IC’s solution is over simplified? Absolutely. But I think that this is drawing attention to the issue so that policy makers, who will have to look at the issue more critically than the general public, get in the game.

    • Ntd
      April 3, 2012

      Hey, did you know that Kony hasn’t been in Uganda for two years? He moved out into northern cotnuries! He’s not dead, he’s in hiding from the international forces out against him.Please, get your facts straight before you call this bullshit. Children still need help.

  7. ryanlinstrom
    March 8, 2012

    Thanks for the response everyone –

    @Sarah, I will concede to your brilliance regarding the financials. :)

    @Emily – I apologize if you were personally offended – that was never my intention. In fact, I hope all this criticism allows IC to grow and change and become a better organization – criticism should, ultimately be a good thing, and falsehoods will fall away, with time.

    As I said before, I’m not entirely concerned with the discussion on financials, and really, I don’t have much to say about their education or work programs – I don’t have enough information to criticize those with any certainty. But I (and the authors of the posts above) do have serious qualms with the narrative they use regarding Kony and believe the video is misleading and irresponsible, given the complexity of the issue. Also, the urgency is fabricated, and that could very well lead to unwanted consequences as we rush to “Vote for Kony” this election season – that would certainly be more harmful than good.

    • Tomas
      April 2, 2012

      Curt,Earlier this week one of my son’s friends, home from cleloge, stopped by to hang out with us and was talking about the Kony video. Prior to that, I hadn’t heard about it, although my daughter and son had (I’m too often in the dark, I don’t watch much TV or read news feeds). I still haven’t seen the video, but I’ve since purposely checked out the on-line news feeds and have seen it featured on TV news shows. What I also found disturbing, obviously besides the whole content/story line, is how the media is referring to this video as an Internet sensation,’ making it sound like some kind of cool, pop-culture documentary or just another YouTube video gone viral. As always, you’ve wisely and intentionally put things into perspective with your blog post here, and I thank you so much for that and for being the voice of reason. Grace & peace,Pam

  8. Stop Kony 2012 « selfcircled
    March 8, 2012

    […] 5 (and counting) Essential Reads on Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 Campaign Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  9. ryanlinstrom
    March 8, 2012

    Hey Emily, I just wanted to throw this one out there – I think my comments last night on “What we can do” was a little, underwhelming, to say the least. I do think there are things we can do outside of “get out of the way”, and I think this article articulates it pretty well (although, in just as depressing of a tone…)


  10. Charinii
    April 2, 2012

    how do you know this video is giving you the ctelpmoe truth? this is just ONE video on youtube that’s telling you that the KONY 2012 project is bullshit. when in fact, if it was bullshit, why would they have footage of them going and debating to the government about the issue? obviously, the man who made the video is trying to make a living, as well as, help these children. she shouldn’t be bashing on this guy. whatever he’s doing is working,because he has millions of people fighting for uganda.


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