11 3 / 2012

Show me the money.

According to Jason Russell’s appearance on the Today show several days ago, over 500,000 action kits have been ordered at $30 a piece, meaning this campaign has brought in a minimum of $15M in revenue this week. This is great news: at least 500,000 people are “advocate[s] of awesome” according to the group’s webstore! So where’s that money going? I’ll leave it to Jedidiah Jenkins, Invisible Children’s Director of Ideology:

Thirty-seven percent of our budget goes directly to central African-related programs, about 20 percent goes to salaries and overhead, and the remaining 43 percent goes to our awareness programs. […] But aside from that, the truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be. I think people think we’re over there delivering shoes or food. But we are an advocacy and awareness organization.”

Yes, you heard it from Invisible Children: more money goes to awareness than to Africa.

More detailed breakdown from the Guardian's Julian Borger, John Vidal, and Rosebell Kagumire in Kampala, Uganda:

"Invisible Children’s accounts show it is a cash rich operation, which more than tripled its income to $9m (£5.68m) in 2011, mainly from personal donations. Of this, nearly 25% was spent on travel and film-making. Most of the money raised has been spent in the US. The accounts show $1.7m went on US employee salaries, $850,000 in film production costs, $244,000 in “professional services” – thought to be Washington lobbyists – and $1.07m in travel expenses. Nearly $400,000 was spent on offices in San Diego.”

Information about how they intend to spend their windfall 2012 revenue of a bare minimum of $15M has not been released, but as I wrote earlier, at least $3000 would’ve gone to flying me to both San Diego and Africa had I allowed them to do so. (Story behind that at the bottom of this post.) If I were Invisible Children, I’d start talking about where this new money’s going. I’m emailing Jason and Ben a link to this post to see if they’re willing to post a financial plan for the year ahead - is there yet another film in store?

09 3 / 2012

What to do?

A lot of people have been asking what form their action should take, but frankly, I don’t feel that it’s my business to tell you what to do about Joseph Kony. I’d suggest finding an NGO you like, whether it’s IC or not, researching them, and supporting them with your time and/or resources. Unless you have specialist skills or expertise, it’s likely that a trip to Africa isn’t the most productive course of action, although it’s an option you can certainly consider.

I am not endorsing any alternative organization for a few reasons. I don’t think a perfect NGO exists, and my message is that you should think critically before making up your mind. Where you choose to give your energy and resources should be an educated, personal decision based on a balanced understanding, not media hype. Some will feel that it’s ironic of me to argue that NGOs aren’t perfect while criticizing one harshly, but all NGOs should be subject to criticism, and both Jason Russell (the filmmaker) and Ben Keesey (the CEO of Invisible Children) have spoken with me and were appreciative of the critical response they are receiving. Although they don’t agree with the majority of the criticisms, they understand that organizations, like people, need criticism to develop and learn from. Whether another organization is “better” than Invisible Children depends on your perspective, and isn’t something I can answer in a straightforward manner.

I will, however, put in a good word for an NGO which takes a radically different approach to peace: CISV International. CISV operates in over 60 countries around the world and is focused on bringing about peace through immersive educational programmes. Founded in 1951, over 200,000 people have participated in CISV programmes, which bring people from around the world together in programs for youth starting at age 11. If you know children or teens hungry to learn more about peace and conflict in an international context, I’d suggest that you check out CISV. It takes a very different, less direct approach to peace, but it’s an organization worthy of your consideration, operated primarily by hundreds of volunteers and a very small group of paid staff. List of national websites here. And before I’m accused, I have never received money from them, although I have volunteered with the organization for several years. Is it better than IC? I don’t think I can answer that. It has completely different goals and a completely different approach. Do your research!

~ Grant Oyston

08 3 / 2012

We got trouble.

Please note that posting date has been edited to keep this at the top of the page. Post written March 7, 2012. Many more updates have followed at visiblechildren.tumblr.com which cites all sources, and a “best-of” those updates is available here.

I do not doubt for a second that those involved in KONY 2012 have great intentions, nor do I doubt for a second that Joseph Kony is a very evil man. But despite this, I’m strongly opposed to the KONY 2012 campaign.

KONY 2012 is the product of a group called Invisible Children, a controversial activist group and not-for-profit. They’ve released 11 films, most with an accompanying bracelet colour (KONY 2012 is fittingly red), all of which focus on Joseph Kony. When we buy merch from them, when we link to their video, when we put up posters linking to their website, we support the organization. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I’m not alone.

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal for an issue which arguably needs action and aid, not awareness, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they lack an external audit committee.* But it goes way deeper than that.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.

Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.

Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

If you want to write to your Member of Parliament or your Senator or the President or the Prime Minister, by all means, go ahead. If you want to post about Joseph Kony’s crimes on Facebook, go ahead. But let’s keep it about Joseph Kony, not KONY 2012.

~ Grant Oyston

Grant Oyston is a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and is the the National Communications Chair of CISV, a nonprofit that hosts international friendship-building programs in over 60 countries for people as young as 11.

EDIT: Please read Invisible Children’s response here.

*FURTHER EDIT: Charity Navigator has explained their ratings here.