By Sarah Margon
Over the last few days, the Twittersphere has gone off the rails criticizing Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign — a 29 minute video about how Washington needs to continue prioritizing its work to end the brutal rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the LRA. This rebel group, originally based in northern Uganda but more recently in eastern Congo and the Central African Republic, has a long, sordid history as one of the most brutal guerilla groups on the planet. It has abducted thousands of civilians to serve as child soldiers, porters, and concubines and displaced hundreds of thousands of people hoping to avoid their brutal tactics. The Invisible Children video, which — as of this writing — has been viewed some 15 million times, focuses specifically on Joseph Kony — the group’s vicious leader who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005.
While #Kony2012 is trending on Twitter, the exploitative campaign video has also generated a steady stream of scathing comments from the wonkier among us. A broad range of experts — professors of African history, humanitarian policy advisors, and foreign policy bloggers — have expressed some very legitimate concerns about some factual errors and misrepresentations in the video that Invisible Children would be wise to address.
Additionally, a cringe inducing photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with automatic weapons in South Sudan indicates a worrisome propensity for juvenile antics instead of serious policy. Indeed, it might make for a cool scrapbook photo, but it is sophomoric for an organization that deals with life and death issues.
To be clear, factual ambiguity, exaggeration or oversimplification is an unacceptable practice. It doesn’t help the cause and in some cases can actually cause harm to those we’re trying to help as advocates are ill-informed and/or confused.
Nonetheless, over the last few years we’ve seen a number of self-declared policy experts eager to attack advocacy efforts of any stripe whether it relates to Sudan, the LRA, or any other pressing international issue. The idea that Americans can only speak out if they have 20 years of experience on the ground is as silly as it is undemocratic. Citizens have every right to express concerns about a tragedy far from our shores while expecting that appropriate expertise will be brought to bear by their elected officials.
Invisible Children have never been cut from the traditional Washington cloth — their advocacy is designed to appeal to young Americans. The group’s strength lies in their ability to connect with folks outside the beltway about something that doesn’t have a direct or immediate impact on American lives. To this end, Invisible Children has succeeded. They’ve connected with and inspired millions of Americans to be active and engaged on an issue that has historically been on the periphery, at best, of American foreign policy priorities.
Their grassroots mobilization contributed overwhelmingly to the passage of The 2009 LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act — the most widely cosponsored bill Africa-related piece of legislation in the last 37 years — and more generally to the ongoing prioritization the LRA throughout State and USAID, as well as to the President’s decision to deploy U.S. military advisors to central Africa. Of equal importance is that Invisible Children also supports an innovative radio program in the remote regions of eastern Congo. This program collects information about LRA movements, abductions, and defections and is often better and more up-to-date than the information obtained by the United States government.
So, instead of continuing to debate the strengths and weakness of the Kony2012 video, or attack Invisible Children for their lack of financial transparency, let’s figure out how to turn this momentum into a constructive opportunity that can result in smart policies that will have a positive, real-time impact in the affected areas of central Africa. Let’s harness this energy and turn it into something productive that ensures we’re telling the right stories, inspiring well-informed advocacy, and working together across governments, academia, grassroots activists, and local populations to help bring this chapter of the LRA — and the impact in affected areas — to a close.