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Alex Halperin: Is Invisible Children for Real?

March 12, 2012

 

Invisible Children_Glenna GordonPhotograph via glennagordon.com by Glenna Gordon.

As of this writing, Kony 2012 has been on YouTube for seven days and has attracted more than 70 million viewers, but is the organization that created it telling the truth?

By **Alex Halperin**

Last week the charity Invisible Children set the Web on fire with Kony 2012, a video nominally about Joseph Kony whose Lord’s Resistance Army terrorized northern Uganda for almost two decades. Among other atrocities, the LRA kidnapped more than 30,000 children, using them as soldiers and sex slaves. As of this writing, Kony 2012 has been on YouTube for seven days and has attracted more than 70 million viewers. The video tries to shame the U.S. into apprehending Kony, and has spread Invisible Children’s message across the world.

For most of its short existence, Invisible Children has taken flak from the international development establishment for both its institutional and ideological foundations. It has been accused of wasting money and of oversimplifying the situation in central Africa. But with Kony 2012, some prominent critics have softened their judgment. Chris Blattman, a professor of political science and economics at Yale, conceded on his blog that Invisible Children, “has been more effective than any of us at raising awareness, and they may get us closest to the least worst action we can take.”

Invisible Children began in 2003 when Laren Poole, Bobby Bailey and Jason Russell, three young and admittedly naïve filmmakers from southern California flew to Sudan to make a movie. Sudan was a bust, but after relocating to Uganda they found their story. Every evening, children walked from their villages or from displaced person camps to the town of Gulu, to escape LRA raids.

These “night commuters” became the subject for “Invisible Children: The Rough Cut,” a skillful and emotionally manipulative film indebted to MTV for its rapid-fire editing and bombastic, tell-all soundtrack. Yet between rock anthems and reality TV–style confessionals, the movie features moving interviews with a few of the LRA’s young victims.

The video gained a following through Invisible Children’s aggressive promotion and merchandising campaigns. The charity incorporated in the United States as a 501(c)3 non-profit and screenings of their film helped Uganda’s night commuters grow into a celebrated cause on U.S. college campuses. As part of their marketing strategy, IC sponsored happenings like the Global Night Commute and “Displace Me”—massive slumber parties purporting to give American teenagers a sense of refugee life.

But IC must have grasped early on that it couldn’t excite American teenagers about Uganda’s awful little war without manipulating some facts. The LRA has not been a threat in northern Uganda since 2006, but the group’s films, including Kony 2012, continue to emphasize the LRA menace. The LRA is thought to have regrouped in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic, at a fraction of its former strength. Yet the 30-minute Kony 2012 video, as far as I can tell, devote about 10 words to the LRA’s current status.

Invisible Children has circulated a picture of a child soldier wearing a helmet and camouflage gear, but this image has been altered

While this may seem like a simple sin of omission, this is not the first time IC has misled its audience. For example, Invisible Children has circulated a picture of a child soldier wearing a helmet and camouflage gear, but this image has been altered. The reality is more disturbing but perhaps less visually arresting—child soldiers are more likely to wear flip flops and t–shirts as their only armor.

I’ll say this for IC, it’s not afraid of being mocked. At one point, the Kony 2012 video cuts from an interview with Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to footage of filmmaker Jason Russell’s adorable son, Gavin, who looks to be about four years old. “We should stop him,” Gavin weighs in.

On several occasions in Kony 2012, we’re treated to monologues from Russell like, “At the end of my life I want to be able to say that the world we’ve left behind is one that Gavin can be proud of, a place that doesn’t allow Joseph Konys and child soldiers, a place where children, no matter where they live, have a childhood free from fear.” Moments like these have secured, probably forever, IC’s reputation for being unserious (and yet humorless).

Compounding that perception is Guernica Art Editor Glenna Gordon’s now infamous photo of IC’s founders brandishing guns. Glenna took the photo in 2008 while she was on assignment for the Associated Press. It was an unusual situation. A group of journalists and officials had helicoptered to a remote spot on the Congo-Sudan border because they believed that Joseph Kony, arguably the most wanted man in Africa, was going to walk out of the bush and sign a peace agreement.

It was a boondoggle; After several days the warlord had not kept his promise and everyone was filthy and bored as hell. During the trip, IC’s founders made the boneheaded move of posing with some heavy artillery. Their Rambo frowns and tough guy stances, in front of unflinching soldiers in the background did not flatter three fellows who were known as lightweights.

When Glenna took that picture in 2008, I was a freelance journalist renting a room from her in Kampala, Uganda. We tried to write a story about Invisible Children, pitching it as “Visible children: A dispatch from the frontier of hipster activism,” but we couldn’t sell it. At the time, IC was trying to find a distributor for a feature length version of their opus. It will be as if “Schindler’s List came out during the Holocaust,” IC founder Laren Poole told us in an interview.

***

By 2008, Gulu had become the hub for the many NGOs active in northern Uganda. Like a lot of central African market towns, Gulu has covered sidewalks and the feel of an old west movie set. White SUVs rumbled around the tiny, dusty downtown, surrounded by motorcycles and bikes, like minnows and whales. At the Kope Café, the semi-official gathering place for IC groupies, you could sit on a couch, order a burger and watch American movies and sitcoms projected on the walls at night.

One evening there I met a University of Tennessee undergraduate named Erin Bernstein. She had seen the movie and participated in the Global Night Commute and Displace Me events. Invisible Children is “the reason American youth know about Uganda,” but she had grown disillusioned. “Their movie is severely outdated and they’re still showing it,” she said four years ago. “I feel like [IC has] turned this into a fashion statementIt’s like a fad. It’s just trendy.”

Catherine Piwang, a Ugandan woman who was running a small charity in Gulu, voiced similar skepticism when she said Invisible Children is “not a phenomenon here. It’s more a phenomenon there.”

IC’s main development project at that time was Schools For Schools, which channeled funds from American students to rebuild Ugandan schools. I toured some of the sites with a former teacher from the U.K. who was  implementing the program. At one school, IC had completed construction of a borehole and a handsome block of classrooms. The long concrete structure had a metal roof but couldn’t be used because it was missing a lightning deterrent. A school official said it had also developed a leaky ceiling due to lazy construction work.

The teacher talked with the leader of a construction crew who was wearing blue coveralls as his crew dug a latrine nearby. Villagers, he said, had been draining the borehole, but the construction crew needed to water to mix with the cement. Hartley asked if they could bring water from out of town. “Transport,” he smiled, nervously. “It will not be cheap.”

Why can’t IC tell the truth? Maybe because the group’s image (and possibly it’s funding) depends on its ability to tell a story about good vs. evil.

In sum, it was development work—grueling, sweaty and frustrating. It will never generate the kind of attention IC seems to crave. I spent a few days in Gulu trying to learn whether IC had outgrown its rumspringa and was ready to settle down to hard work. My reporting was inconclusive, but with Kony 2012 I think we’re closer to an answer.

According to IC’s financials for 2011, funding for Schools for Schools has dropped off somewhat since my visit and the organization’s literature and Web presence emphasizes sexy new programs like the “Early Warning HF Radio Network” for tracking LRA movements in Congo. This comes even as a report put out by IC and a group called Resolve admits that between October and December 2011, LRA attacks “were among the lowest recorded.”

Gulu is IC&#8217s holy city, and possibly the place where the group could accomplish the most. But Gulu is no longer the dangerous place IC implies. Why can’t IC tell the truth? Maybe because the group’s image (and possibly it’s funding) depends on its ability to tell a story about good vs. evil.

Next up IC, which now has scores of staffers in Gulu and San Diego, wants its followers to go forth on April 20 and cover the earth with Kony 2012 posters and stickers. They want to “Make Kony famous” and are enlisting celebrities to amplify the message. IC says that once everyone knows how awful Kony is, the world will demand retribution.

All else being equal, my guess is that the world would be better of with Joseph Kony in prison. But I don’t have a sophisticated understanding of central Africa, what Kony’s current strength is or what it would take in blood and treasure to catch him. Would the cost of a manhunt across an area the size of, say, Texas, where there is zero infrastructure, save lives or is Kony just rotting in the bush somewhere? I don’t know. Neither does IC.

IC has an enviable ability to draw attention to itself. It should offer courses to other NGOs in social media and video editing. But that doesn’t mean IC knows the material. Until they bother to make a case to people more discerning than Gavin, I think Glenna has best captured what they’re about.

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_Alex Halperin is a senior editor at Guernica. He’s on Twitter: @alexhalperin_

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