26 4 / 2012

An open letter to an Invisible Children counter-movement.

Hopefully this serves as an open letter to all counter-movements and everyone who feels that they are “against” Invisible Children.

Hi (names redacted),

I made a decision very early not to support any counter-movements - my goal is to encourage discourse, not put down the efforts of an organization which has, despite its faults, served thousands of victims well. I find your programming especially problematic: if postering is a poor method of fostering political discourse, defacing posters is several steps down the credibility ladder.

I am highly dubious of your motivation in advising me that a member of a PR firm is Christian - is that intended to make me doubt his character? This bigoted view is revealing. Fight propaganda with the fair pursuit of balanced truths, not with propaganda of your own.

Your petition calls for US legislation which would, as I read it, eliminate anonymous internet use. Quoting a law which you admit does not apply to to the internet, you appear to complain that it was not made clear what organization paid for the KONY 2012 film. You then go on to call for military withdrawal from Central Africa without proposing any alternative solution. My unsolicited feedback for you would be to focus your organization on one cause or the other, although I find neither cause to be particularly valid in their current state. In your petition you also refer to the fact that some Christian groups have supported Invisible Children, implying negativity without justifying this bigotry.

As a final note, if you had taken the time to read my writing carefully, you would note that the photo you are referring to is not mine but belongs to a talented professional photojournalist named Glenna Gordon, whom you ought be crediting - and that the photo is not at all of “the Invisible Children founders posing with the Ugandan military” as you claim, but with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). If this is indicative of the general level of research you have conducted, this alone is reason for me not to endorse your ill-conceived campaign.

Please refrain from linking to my blog or any further action which may be seen to imply my endorsement. I have posted this response to your email on my blog, and would appreciate your permission to publish your side of the correspondence as well, along with a link to your website - but I will not do so without your permission, which I understand you may be reluctant to give. I urge you, however, to consider it. We must allow people to make their own decisions, and as you well know, there are two sides to every story.


Grant Oyston
Visible Children - KONY 2012, viewed critically.

20 4 / 2012

Truly extraordinary. This appears to be an example of some mind-blowingly misleading video-editing from Invisible Children.

Skip to 3:00, featuring an event last week in Gulu, N. Uganda, screening KONY 2012. In the video, it looks like people are rallying in support of Invisible Children. Here’s what really went down, from the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper:

“At least 10,000 people gathered at [the stadium] to watch the Kony 2012 video. Dissatisfied with the content, the crowd pelted the organisers with stones, injuring a police officer identified as Pamela Inenu and two musicians hired to sing at the event. Police fired teargas at the crowd, and live bullets in the air, injuring dozens, who also lost valuables including phones and money.”

Looks like this bit didn’t make it into their video. Fun project: Tweet @invisible if you’d like an explanation from them. You can also tweet at famous people!

17 4 / 2012

Massive riot erupts in Northern Uganda against Invisible Children.

From a recent article in the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper:

"At least 10,000 people gathered at [Pece War Memorial Stadium in Gulu, Uganda] to watch the Kony 2012 video. Dissatisfied with the content, the crowd pelted the organisers with stones, injuring a police officer identified as Pamela Inenu and two musicians hired to sing at the event. Police fired teargas at the crowd, and live bullets in the air, injuring dozens, who also lost valuables including phones and money.”

Archbishop of Gulu Arch Diocese and member of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, Rt. Rev John Baptist Odama, said: “Invisible Children has done a commendable job during the conflict, they started when we slept in town streets with children and paying school fees for stranded children. However the Kony 2012 video has tricked them into war mongering instead of helping them. It’s the right time they should rethink their position.”

Thanks to Holly Elissa of Caleb’s Hope (an NGO operating in Northern Uganda) for sending me a scan of the article, which I couldn’t find online anywhere. I’ve typed it up for anyone who’d like to read it here.

16 4 / 2012

Ugandans riot over KONY 2012 screening, again.

According to an Acholi Ugandan source who works as a Program Director for an NGO in Gulu:

"Invisible Children continue to have more trouble with the video and over the weekend in Gulu, as they attempted to screen the video for the public, it turned in to chaos and everyone started fighting for his life with multiple gun shots and some rioting with tear gas and ended prematurely! The streets were flooded with soldiers after that. They have lost credibility even locally."

I apologize that I am not able to name my source for this due to security concerns.

(Source: visiblechildren)

10 4 / 2012

Controversy: Did Invisible Children provide intelligence for Ugandan military?

According to diplomatic notes leaked last year by whistle-blower site Wikileaks, Invisible Children tipped off the Ugandan government about the location of Patrick Komakech, now under arrest for treason. Komakech had been involved in a rebel group (the PPF) seeking to overthrow the current President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni.

The June, 2009 cable, from the US Ambassador to Uganda (Steven Browning) to the Secretary of State, claims that Komakech (who had previously been featured in Invisible Children films) had been arrested by the Ugandan government for treason and extortion, thanks to a tip from Invisible Children regarding his location. The cable reads, in part:

"The latest plot was exposed when the Government received a tip from the U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) Invisible Children regarding the location of Patrick Komekech.* […] Invisible Children reported that Komekech had been in Nairobi and had recently reappeared in Gulu, where he was staying with the NGO. Security organizations jumped on the tip and immediately arrested Komekech on March 5 [of 2009]."

Invisible Children has denied their involvement, with Uganda spokesperson Florence Ogola saying, “We are not involved in anything to do with security. We only deal with development.” A further spokeperson told Foreign Policy: “[W]e do not conduct intelligence efforts of any kind for a foreign government.”

This story hasn’t really been picked up by mainstream media yet, so I’m going to break with my rule of not asking for reblogs and ask you to please reblog this if you think it’s worthy of media attention.

*Spelling of Mr. Komakech’s name is currently unclear – Foreign Policy and the Daily Monitor both spell it as “Komakech”, while the original cables from Mr. Browning spell it “Komekech”

(Source: visiblechildren)

20 3 / 2012

Young people changing the world.

Thoughts for young people from the author of Visible Children.

Since this all started two weeks ago, I’ve occasionally been criticized for the attention my blog has received on the basis that, as a university student, my opinion shouldn’t be as widely-read as it has been. I guess the logic is that because I’m a “young person”, my opinion is less valuable, or “misinformed and naive”, as Invisible Children’s PR firm eloquently described it.

Actually, the best and most thought-provoking questions I’ve received came from “young people” in a series of discussions I had over Skype with students in Pennsylvania. “What are you actually doing to help?”, they asked. “What changes would you have made to the movie?” “Would it be better if the movie never existed?” What I saw was a group of young people excited about making a difference. If Kony 2012 is an ad, it’s selling the feeling that you can change the world. Everybody wants to change the world, and young people most of all.

The message Invisible Children is sending is that anybody can change the world, and it’s easy. Watch the movie, share it with your friends, tweet at some famous people, and if you get really excited, put up some posters. I’d like to change their message slightly, although mine isn’t as catchy:

Anybody can change the world, but it’s difficult. And you should do it anyway.

Doing what Invisible Children wants may have an impact, but real, thoughtful activism – actual world-changing – is difficult. It takes significant motivation and concentrated effort. It takes research and organization and planning and discussion, and it’s not easy. But very little that’s worth doing is easy. Anybody can change the world, but it’s difficult. And you should do it anyway.

~ 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.

16 3 / 2012

Invisible Children responds to KONY 2012 filmmaker’s alleged public masturbation

“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”

I would like to wish Jason a speedy recovery.

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