Sunday, March 11, 2012

Countering the Headlines: A Response to Kony 2012

By now, Facebook, Twitter, TV and newspapers have been full of reactions to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video for almost a week. The video has received 71 million views on YouTube and has been the number one trending topic on Twitter since its release.

Some have heralded the short film for making Joseph Kony a household name, while others have sharply criticized Invisible Children for oversimplifying the conflict, misrepresenting the LRA’s dwindling influence, and offering a flawed strategy by suggesting viewers spend $30 on publicity kits to decorate their neighborhoods in posters and stickers. Some headlines have suggested Ugandans are “outraged” by the video, while others have claimed making Kony famous will harm efforts aimed at his capture.

Amidst all of the confusion and discussion, what are we to believe? Should we click “re-post?” Is our money best spent on a publicity kit?

As many articles have mentioned, the LRA left Uganda six years ago (a fact Kony 2012 points out in minute 15). In the beginning of 2011, the last remaining internally displaced people camp closed, and nearly all northern Ugandans have returned home or relocated, resuming their lives in relative peace. Children no longer trek at night to find safety in Uganda, and they probably don’t in the regions the LRA has relocated to either.

It is estimated that the LRA now consists of only 400 or fewer militants spread throughout a vast region of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan. Their decline does not diminish the heinous nature of their war crimes, with children still returning from “the bush” with horrifying stories of forced violence and abduction, but the magnitude of their continuing threat is overstated in Kony 2012. With juxtaposed images of children sleeping in safe centers with maps of the LRA’s current presence, the video seems to equate the violence and instability which occurred in Uganda in the early 2000’s with ongoing LRA operations elsewhere in Central Africa, a gross overstatement of the LRA’s current capacity.

While this may be misleading, the video does make an important contribution by highlighting the affect roving militias have on several regions of central Africa today by drawing attention to one such group and suggesting that all humans have a responsibility to care about and take action for peace. In over 25 years of terrorizing populations, never before did 70 million people talk about Joseph Kony in one week, and that fact alone means the creators of Kony 2012 are on to something.

Ugandans are also talking about the video. Over the past week, several people—from Directors of NGOs addressing the needs of Kony’s victims to international diplomats—have discussed the video or its contents in my presence. Never once have I heard “outrage,” but rather, a general sentiment of support for any effort aimed at finding Kony, some trepidation about the strategy suggested by Invisible Children, and a general feeling of “a little too late” for Uganda.

The video has resulted in some positive international attention for Ugandan NGOs. Over the last few days, the main community-based organization I work with in Pader has received several inquiries about how donations can be sent for Kony’s victims who continue to be in need of educational assistance and livelihood support.

I do not believe the video will create more harm than good. Even the Ugandan military has acknowledged the video’s overwhelming popularity and has restated its commitment to finding Kony at any cost. Reminding governments that citizens care is almost never harmful and keeps pressure on governments to be accountable to their people.

Raising awareness about the hardship caused by conflict and violence can make a difference. Surely, Congress won’t order the withdrawal of Obama’s 100 advisory forces now that millions of Americans know about Joseph Kony and the LRA.

“Making Kony famous” has now been achieved, and I thank Invisible Children for increasing awareness. A persuasive—if flawed—video has resulted in many more people knowing about the impact of ongoing violence in Central Africa.

This was all accomplished at zero cost to the public thanks to the capacity of the internet to spread ideas rapidly and for free. The video’s popularity likely surpassed what Invisible Children could have imagined, eliminating the need for publicity kits all together. Unintentionally or not, creating a controversial video shot by a controversial NGO has managed to keep the spotlight on Kony and this video well past the initial days of salience from its release.

So go ahead and talk about Kony, tell your congressmen you care, and keep sharing any material you find interesting about the LRA because the Ugandan government has listened to you and responded that it won’t give up. But please, don’t spend $30 on a goal that has already been achieved for free. That money can be much more effectively spent addressing the needs of those living in areas affected by Kony and the LRA to whom $30 can mean nearly a year of education or life sustaining tools for income generation.

About the blogger: After graduating Harvard in 2011, Danielle began working on post-conflict reconstruction projects in Northern Uganda focused on research and service delivery to LRA-affected women and children. During her undergraduate studies, Danielle researched human security and mass violence with a focus on the history of recent conflicts in Central and East Africa.


  1. Thank you, Danielle, for your insight and clarity. Always impressed by what you bring to the table.

  2. Thank you Danielle for your wisdom and for all you are doing to help bring PEACE to those who have been subjected to unimaginable violence in Uganda and elsewhere. What a great opportunity to bring more awareness to your peace-building efforts and the work of other organizations on the ground working with the people of Uganda....I think we should create a new marketing campaign....PEACE 2012! Let's make PEACE famous!!! Let's support PEACE 2012 through Kids for Peace!

  3. Danielle, thanks for this thoughtful post. I came to it via John Regier's re-posting for those of us at Harvard-Epworth. I am looking forward to to following more of your posts from Uganda. When I was in Uganda with Medical Teams International a few years back, we only went as far north as Lira, but I really wanted to visit Pader. Wishing you all the best,

  4. Thanks, Danielle, for your wise words. Asante sana ! Que Dieu vous benisse dans votre travail, a vous Missionnaire de la Paix !