Kony 2012: A Partial Defence

What should we make of it all?

Kony2012 Uganda

I would like to wade into the debate surrounding the currently trending topic of Joseph Kony who, if you’ve ventured into social media since Monday, you will probably know is the International Criminal Court’s most wanted man.

Similarly, you will have been witness to the remarkable backlash against the Kony 2012 campaign. This is an attempt to address the arguments in all that clamouring, and to add my own tuppence to the debate.

The first is that last year, only 32% of Invisible Children’s finances were actually used for their cause. Film production, salaries and travel costs certainly rack up. This figure is certainly not one to be proud of, and it does cause misgivings. However, it’s by no means unique in terms of how charities often spend their money. A quick scan on the Charity Commission’s website shows, for example, that last year Cancer Research UK spent 69% of their income on their charitable activities. While I know that is substantially bigger than the former figure, it nevertheless means £152 million went elsewhere, for similar overheads as Invisible Children. To put this in perspective, that is more than twice UCL’s endowment.

A senior analyst at New Philanthropy Capital, a charity think tank, said in 2006 that "while administration costs have continued to preoccupy the giving public, we're really trying to refocus the debate on to results". Kony 2012, at the time of writing, has approaching seventy million views. So they’re certainly achieving results in terms of awareness. Their legacy will be formed as they tackle their second goal.

An obvious criticism of the campaign is the suggestion that if enough of us unite, the US will sweep in, remove Kony and the world will be united. Personally, I wonder if the video’s protagonist worsened this by prominently featuring his little (cute) son, reducing the debate to the analogy of good guys versus bad, and possibly putting too much focus upon a seemingly utopian world vision.

On the other hand, isn’t a lot of charity campaigning in the same vein? We’ve all seen posters trying to make an emotional impact and inspire us to give to a whole range of worthy causes. What I object to in this instance is the tendency for national newspapers to run pieces which essentially say "yeah sure, Kony’s bad but so was General Butt Naked. The world is bad, people". Isn’t the logical extension of this argument that therefore we should accept injustice and crack on with our cosy lives? That’s easy to say from where we’re sitting. Isn’t giving to charity generally motivated by a desire to seek change? This seems to be what the Kony campaign is attempting, but on a huge scale. Their emotional angle, however, is nothing new and I would argue it’s not fundamentally wrong.

Beyond the surface issues around the campaign, attention has been given to the proposed methods of Invisible Children to remove Kony. I would say this is rightly so. The aim of IC is to aid the Ugandan armed forces, which is a seriously questionable move. A report in December 2011 made allegations of rape and looting, but IC remains unshakeable in their determination to work with them.

For me, this is the crux of the issue, and it is a problem that extends to other large charities. This campaign is an example of dedicated and good-hearted people far removed from the events trying to intervene. Are Invisible Children working with local grassroots charities? Why, and this is a key question, was there no mention of the Ugandan government in their campaign video? Joseph Kony has been at large for over a quarter of a century – doesn’t that raise some questions?

It is my belief that to truly impact a society, you need to involve local people. In terms of planning and management, you should be seeking to put yourself out of a job. Invisible Children doesn’t seem to be doing that. Yes, their video was expensive to make – are there no film crews in Uganda?

Finally, there is the element of social media’s involvement in the campaign. Forty-one of my friends have currently shared the video on Facebook. How many of them have done anything more than that? I am sceptical – but I don’t think that means we should write it off as social posturing. Kony 2012 can be seen in broader terms as one of a new kind of charity campaign, which could engage younger people amongst whom charitable giving is pitifully low compared to older age groups.

So – do I think Joseph Kony is a scumbag who must be stopped? I do. Do I support Invisible Children? Fundamentally, yes, because I support their cause. In raising awareness and funds they are exposing the plight of tens of thousands of children. However, their campaign and tactics are flawed, probably like those of many charities. After all, charities are groups of imperfect people who have some degree of a perfectionist ideal, be that a cure for cancer or a right to childhood. It’s incredibly easy to preach from a pedestal. The alternative is to engage – and there are worse places to start than sharing the Kony video.