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Visible children - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Visible children

[Update: For more recent posts on the 2012 campaign, also see here.]

Invisible Children, as many readers may know, is less a film than a social movement in the US. Three young filmmakers set out to make a movie about the Sudan. They didn’t find their war in the Sudan, though. They found it in northern Uganda. Their movie did more to bring the Lord’s Resistance Army and the war in northern Uganda to US audiences, especially Congress, than any other advocacy organization on the planet. That deserves credit.

But why oh why, I have to ask, does it have to be in ways like this:

Last week I bemoaned the new ‘abduct yourself’ campaign and film. Many asked why, including their Mission Director. Here’s what I wrote back:

Well, to be truthful, the hipster tie and cowboy hat was a little much. But there are more substantive things to be said about the new film.

There are a few famous TV documentaries about Africa, by the likes of Basil Davidson and Ali Mazrui. The funny thing about these shows is that they are less about Africa than they are about Davidson or Mazrui. The new IC film clip feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it’s about the filmmakers, and not the cause. There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That’s the argument that was made after the first film. It’s not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it’s time to start acting like grownups.

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.

There are a few other things that are troubling. It’s questionable whether one should be showing the faces of child soldiers on film. And watching the film one gets the sense that the US and IC were instrumental in getting the peace talks to happen. These things diminish credibility more than anything.

A little harsh, perhaps. Comments from readers?

420 Responses

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  2. What is to happen when soldiers come into combat with all of his youth soldiers at the front line. I wouldn’t expect any less from a selfish leader but for him to expect counter forces to battle against the young soldiers FIRST before they get to Kony. The same young children we are trying to save. Is the US willing to be apart of a war where children will have to be killed to get to Kony? I’m sure Kony will come to a ransom situation where he will have demands for every life of a child.
    Do the people of today truly know how to solve the issue at hand, even if they were able to have all the funds and control?
    I don’t think the people of this organization are completely fit to solve the issues at hand, nor the government. There is still too much that people have to go through before they learn how to solve issues as these. At least this horrible situation lends itself as a way for people of Africa to learn how not to flinch in the eye of injustice, as well for the people of the world. At least this organization helps modern youth to get involved in injustices as this. Helps them open up their eyes to injustice of our world. This too serves a purpose.

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  7. THIS POST SHOWS WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WORLD!!!! There are people out there that still see something like kony 2012 and then start questioning it. You think that you are so good, telling every body that its fake and it docent help and so on. I say that your a greedy bastard. Even if KONY 2012 is “misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous” what the hell does doing nothing solve! And if KONY 2012 is wrong why the hell don’t you do something about it instead of complaining that its not true. IF YOU DO NOT BELIVE IN KONY 2012 THEN MOVE YOUR BIG FAT ASS AND FIND ANOTHER WAY TO HELP THE WORLD, BECAUSE I PROMIS YOU THAT STAYING ATT HOME AND DOING NOTHING IS NOT HELPING ATT ALL!!!

  8. I totally agree about how hipsters are misleading and misbehaving filming their movies and selling lame t-shirts and causing many troubles for intellingent military analysts and proffesors, writing their disertations and analyzing situation with their studens, funded by their universities.

  9. Interesting development. Comments have been disabled for the Kony2012 YouTube video (now at 76.6M views). Last time I checked, there were thousands. Most of them pretty lame really, but there were still quite a lot of people who presented arguments and video responses disputing the facts and questioning the motives of this initiative. Some of those comments would get tens of ‘thumbs up’.

    To me, that’s an excellent example of how propaganda’s worst enemy is freedom of speech. A truly democratic ‘grass roots’ campaign would never try to shut people up, even if a good percentage of them were skeptical or downright aggressive.

    And here are my two cents on the Kony2012 viral phenomenon:

  10. After reading Keith Harmon Snow on the subject of IC I have to agree that various groups could be created or subverted for political agendas. (And, here I am talking about IC.) I remember seeing our news media not so long ago promoting the idea that we (the U.S.) should intervene in Sudan for humanitarian reasons. They mentioned that that was the only reason for doing so in Sudan as Sudan had no oil or natural resources that the US or our allies wanted (when actually Sudan has sizable oil deposits, as does Uganda.) My mouth dropped open as it was such a blatant a lie by our media that could be easily refuted by any Google search. Are these kids who run IC being used too or are they a new generation of propagandists? One wonders.

  11. Grow up folks and quit tooting your horn while putting down others for supposedly tooting their own horn. There’s no one ‘correct’ way to do anything. Everybody’s right (to quote Ken Wilber…check out Integral Naked or Integral Life websites..Or Ken Wilber’s own website). We all have a piece of the puzzle. If IC is a con game then I’ve been conned. So what. How about let’s try stuff that may lead to making things better. Like aiming for the true, the good, and the beautiful. We can all aim, can’t we? Or are we not supposed to aim until we think we’ve got it all down perfect? Here’s a hint. Perfection doesn’t exist.

  12. Sanity! Thank you! I am an African. I am East African. We have lived in the knowledge, experience and adventures of Joseph Kony and the bigger situation at hand for years. It has been quiet on that Western Front, and then…the invasion, the horrible perpetuation of fifteenth century primitive stereotypes, the horrible habit of another western brat inserting themselves into grand and great narratives (what’s with that, guys, why is there this desperate need to be heroes in other people’s stories?), the hand-wringing, the absolute nothingness that will unfold about a situation that we Africans have already solved by and for ourselves. Tedious, irritating. And here from our vast and glorious plains, we have a name for the kind of creature that seeks, perches upon and feeds itself from death, despair and tragedy: Scavengers. A memo t the American education system–please educate your children better–allow them to start with the fundamentals–the dignity of every human being.

  13. I don’t get the “White Man’s Burden” bit.
    I may not support IC but I applaud their intention of making Kony famous for being a mass murdering rapist hiding behind an enslaved child army.
    Just that has my vote – how the governments of the world decide to sort it out is their affair – the ICC has wanted action since 2005 and now, maybe, they have it.
    Personally I sense a little hubris on your part, white man..

  14. Cate: I like it that you list a number of “projects” that IC is involved in. With the kinda thinking they espouse, dont you think that the list you provide is also a list of how many people may be in danger as a result of ICs actions? Just to add that, through the lense of a kid, the film has very well infantalised a majority of the seemingly well-meaning American public and a good chunk of the 55 or so millions of people who have watched it–might you not think?

  15. From the Invisible Children 2011 Annual Report, some of their programs over the past few years:
    1) Legacy Scholarship Programs 648 total university; 3,204 total secondary to date)
    2) Schools for Schools – raising standard of education in northern Uganda (more than 1,000 schools linked worldwide to 11 secondary schools in northern Uganda)
    3) Teacher Exchange – 30 teachers from around the world travelled to Uganda to collaborate with Schools for Schools teachers.
    4) Mend – facilitate financial independence and development for vulnerable women (former abductees) in northern Uganda.
    5) Livelihood – savings and investment training for 1,200 war-affected Ugandans; Financial literacy (skills to read signs and reports, keep financial records and make educated business decisions); WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) in conjunction with charity:water, providing clean, accessible water to over 5,000 community members.
    6) Protecting Communities – Early Warning Radio Network connects towns and villages to security forces to provide warning of LRA activity in local areas and limiting LRA ability to strike unsuspecting civilians; Crisis Tracker provides real-time account of LRA attacks on civilians, giving governments & humanitarian organizations life-saving information.
    7) Encouraging LRA defections through FM radio and flier distribution.
    8) Rehabilitation center in progress to provide care for extreme trauma and intensive care, vocational skills and educational training.

    While we’re examining our navels, they’re doing something.

  16. I think the dialogue opened up by Invisible Children about the LRA, international development, and the ICC has been great. Kony 2012 has definitely caused some controversy, but taking a critical look at aid and development is very important. I am an employee for a NGO based in Uganda called BeadforLife. Kony 2012 is all about the people BeadforLife is directly serving in Nothern Uganda – over 5600 people in over 700 households. If you want to help people directly affected by the atrocities of the LRA in their rebuilding process, BeadforLife is a great organization to work with. We work with women who create beaded jewelry out of recycled paper, and harvest Shea nuts for soap, lip balm, and body butter. Host a free BeadParty to help introduce the products and the women to your community, and help women in Ugandan lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Learn more at

  17. @sean: do you really feel informed about the cause after this video? do you know now where kony is, what he did since he’s been driven out of uganda more than 5 years ago? (hope you got that – allthough it was only briefly mentioned in the film) do you know about the claims against the ugandan army (which IC wants to be supported) of having committed the same atrocities as the LRA? and what do you know about the consequences of them operating on forreign territory? and lastly: you did learn from the film that kony’s army is made up of child soldiers? did it lead you to the obvious conclusiion that with this approach you will have to shoot this kids (remeber: the ones you want to save) before you get to kony?
    I guess your posting proves a point: this video appeals (successfully) to emotions but doesn’t really bother with information or facts…

  18. The Assistant Yale professor’s critique actually turns out to be a convoluted and incoherent non-specific non-critique. Enjoy. He bemoans the “macho bravado” of the film and complains it “feels like the piece is more about the filmmakers than about the cause”. Oh really, yeah, darn, I was so focused on the filmmakers in the film that indeed I’ve no clue what the cause is, I mean they barely mentioned it at all, what was it again? Really I’ve no idea (note sarcasm).

    Please point out any part of what Prof Blattman says in his critique that you agree with or which has any bearing on the actual video/filmmakers…? His main objection appears to be, again, this uncomfortable notion of the “White Man’s Burden”. Blattman claims we should avoid “the savior attitude” and should know that “there’s something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa”. Yeah, sscrew that save the children idea, why should we care about poor African children, we’re so naive! The professor says “one consequence is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone”. Hm, yeah, this is such genius criticism, what could be worse than a bunch of young people (perhaps millions) on a mission to save children? Yeah, what a scathing critique it is, oh I’m going to demand IC return my donation right away!
    Um … so, am I the only one reading Blattman and wondering if anyone is actually buying his load of crap? Just because some people who are moved to help others may end up helping badly is not a valid reason to criticize those who seek to motivate people to help!!!! My God!! Motivating people to get involved & to help is a noble and good thing. If they end up helping badly, well, I’m not going to blame the people who motivated them in the first place!!!

  19. For 26 years, Joseph Kony, a junior Hitler if there ever was one, has been running amok in East Africa committing atrocity after atrocity. Most involve children. He has cut off limbs. He has raped young girls and turned them over to his so-called soldiers. He has forced young boys to kill their families. He has made it to the top of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) most wanted list.

    Along comes a couple of Generation Y guys, who could be spending their days on Facebook, or Twittering their friends, or lining up to get the latest iPod, or going on spring break hoping to meet some Girls Gone Wild. Instead, they form a charitable organization, Invisible Children, and get on the ground in East Africa to deal with some of the horrendous social problems caused by Kony. Problems that Africans seem incapable of dealing with themselves. Their charitable organization comes under scrutiny by a charity watchdog, and generally does okay. They have at least got Washington decision-makers taking small steps in the right direction. Invisible Children is considered legitimate in the halls of power. Invisible Children has the ICC top prosecutor on their side.

    And then along comes the self-appointed, self-righteous, raging, snapping hound dogs baying about some minor problems with this organization that has energized 40 million people of a generation that are often seen as self-indulgent, spoiled brats. What chutzpah and downright sleazy for some of these critics to be shrieking that this is all a scam.

    Frankly, I will overlook a lot with any group that is willing to stick its neck out in a meaningful bid to get this monster either into jail or six feet into the ground. We are about 24 years too late in dealing with Kony, but it’s better late than never.

    And lastly, this is the first time I’ve seen my 15-year-old fired up about a cause, so kudos to Invisible Children for that incidental benefit.

  20. True, there is probably plenty to criticise. But I think it would be a challenge to find many programs, charities or advocacy groups in the whole world that couldn’t be criticised on some front.

    You say there is room for ‘intelligent advocacy’ – that may be…but where is it? Who is going to do it? Do we shut down everything we consider less than ‘intelligent’ until someone comes up with just the right idea.

    Doug McKnight challenges people to find Uganda on a map. Fair enough. But without Kony 2012, would those people have ever even spared a single thought for Uganda, never mind it’s geography?

    The world is a mess. Sure, we might make it messier sometimes, but I think a whole nation, a whole world, finding passion and taking action over something, anything, has to be better than what normally happens – A whole western world sitting on the behinds in front of the TV, not even being able to locate their own city on a map. Surely getting people to think of something other than themselves is the aim, the supremely difficult but admirable aim, of any advocacy mission?

  21. America, before you get to emotional about supporting the Kony 2012 movement with your hasty facebook profile changes and your YouTube video shares, Id love to see you find Uganda on a map first.

  22. Very interesting point of view, truely. It made me think otherwise. Still….I think the mains characters in this story are the victims. AndI think that right nowthey don’t care about the good or bad things about Invisible Children. They need help, they can’t struggle on their own for the moment. And Invisble Children does help them, regardless the means. Which one of this fact are better: A twisted intention resulting in a good action, or a pure intention resulting in a bad or an inexistent action?

  23. I work at BeadforLife, a Ugandan NGO, and I think it’s amazing that over 50 million people have seen Kony 2012. Wherever you stand on this controversy, we think people talking about the best way to stop warlords and help people affected by conflict is a good thing. BeadforLife directly serves women who have been brutalized by Kony in Northern Uganda.

    For anyone who wants to DIRECTLY help women harmed by Kony, check out BeadforLife . org. We serve 5,600+ people by creating income generating opportunities, like purchasing their shea nuts. Our efforts empower them to improve their farms, address health concerns and support their families.

    Support the women who were affected by Kony. Host a free and easy BeadParty to share beads and shea products with your friends and communities.

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  25. If the end result is that Joseph Kony is brought to justice within a year due to this Campaign then it is money well spent and effort well spent no matter how many critics there are. Years can and have been wasted with so called intellectuals arguing about merit of an idea………. The IDEA is start here with the number one wanted criminal, l bring him in … put a time line on it and get it done……. then we can go to the second most wanted criminal……….Enough time has been wasted, we have the means to get the people behind a worthwhile cause so lets do it………

  26. When I staffed the phone lines for Amnesty I took a lot of calls from people saying they wanted to ‘help’ or ‘do something’. Once I figured out which crisis, cause or concern had inspired their call I’d offer to put them in touch with either the applicable Amnesty contact or the organisation(s) already working on that issue (ie: Care, Doctors without Borders). It was amazing how often folks would respond, “Oh, I want to do my own thing.” or “I want to start my own NGO”.

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  29. Thanks for writing this. While I’m not totally dismissing the video or the campaign or anything, I do have to say that it did make me cringe (at times) and this is exactly what was on my mind:

    “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions.”

    A little less of that would go a long way.

    My 2cents.

  30. This cause is great no matter the trifling..the problem as I see it, is that the backlash will harm more than help this cause…
    1) Selecting 4/20 as the date of action. Shouldn’t TODAY be the date of action. I have no issue with the whole 4:20/4/20 thing at all…but the change will occur only if both sides of THAT issue work together. This isn’t a “youth rise up for youth” vs. “the old guard standing watch and doing nada”. Granted there is a focus that the “occupy” movement cannot and will not muster, but the plan seems poorly and irrationally thought though….because…
    2) As the “Stop the war at any cost” day occurs, the will be repercussions. The potential of damage to private, public and government property is beyond obvious. As a small business owner, I am open to promoting pretty much any cause in my public space, IF asked, regardless if I agree or disagree with the message. Discussion is great…vandalizing my property that I have poured my soul into is NOT.
    The IC organization’s accounting seems transparent enough for me. But the fact they they have created this firestorm from a snazzy movie and the implication that stars and power brokers in DC are more or less on board, seems to indicate that a “steady as she goes” approach will benefit the organization and, most importantly, the families and children that have lived in this hell for a quarter century a lot more than a night of vandalism cool t-shirts with a staple gun and tape. Any day that a child in Uganda or the DRC suffers is a day way too long. However, rashness will only serve to create a “one step forward, two steps back” effect. The tortise wins the race.

  31. I gotta say he does bring a great point up, bringing in military action in any country is risky.It can have many more reasons than one and the effects of bringing in the military isn’t always what most would think, there’s a really light balance at stake. and Alex, don’t be so rebuttal, looking at all opinions are good, information is every where. Though I have to admit, the way the video became viral and spread so fast so quick is pretty interesting.

  32. I think there is some merit in this post, intervention needs to be carefully planned and executed as intervening nations can easily risk supporting a military which may not be acting in the best interests of the people it is there to serve.

    Calling for direct military intervention by this campaign action needs to take into account there may be underlying reasons why the US may wish to intervene – which may not necessarily be to directly assist the people of Sudan.

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  34. Why doesn’t anyone ever mention the “Christian youth group” origins of Invisible Children? Their films have always very carefully avoided religious
    reference, but having attended a couple of events six years ago where they toured a film around with a nice van that said “Invisible Children” on the side, I can pinpoint the origins of this organzation: young Jesus Camp kids who grew up listening to hip Christian indie bands. Their pet causes are
    Kony and also sex trafficking, mostly. Maybe they should also start advocating for persecuted Christians in Muslim countries (see the recent
    Newsweek cover story) or in North Korean labor camps, but that might out their religious leanings too much. The marketing of T-shirts with LRA guns on them is equivalent to leftist hipsters wearing keffiyehs in support of the Palestinians.

  35. @Alex Your anger seems pretty misplaced, brother. With an attitude like that I’m not sure why anyone should care for your rebuttal, either.

  36. I think that this entire article vomits arrogance from an assistant professor on the up and up who’s now being credited as a viable source of information on refuting the IC. You’re a joke through and through brother and no one gives a fuck about where you assist in teaching rich little twits about econ. i honestly can’t believe i read your bullshit opinion.

  37. I have not had time to read or look at the video yet but am sure nothing on this earth can ever, and I repeat, ever depict the heinous nature of crime, brutal killings that the people invisible children is trying to talk about. Am Ugandan, I live here in Alberta Canada, I have had the chance to be part of the teams that have visited northern Uganda and I know first hand, what happened.Am not defending the movie and the group that shot it but am saying it was so bad, words can not even describe the horror that the Northern part of Uganda was subjected to.

    Rape was normal, killings in the most gruesome way was okay, people had their lips maimed, heads crushed on a rock after rape, kids tortured, told to kill and split heads open to lick the brains,kids told to slit open thier own pregnant mothers,people who had lips locked with padlock,s I can’t tell it all but I just hated that man. I had a chance to hear stories from the world vision center in Gulu from kids that had been rescued, even adults and its horrendous.

    Am not sure about the timing of this movie as the war has long been gone from Uganda and rebels moved to Congo, so its a problem in Congo and not so much of a problem in Uganda, rebuilding the north is should now take center stage, a couple of displacement camps have been run down to give way to normal life. Its all I can say for now.. I have only moved here 9 months ago, so I still have the facts, we have kids we rescued from the war torn northern Uganda so am not talking from an uninformed perspective. I know it.

  38. Very well-written. I almost threw up over myself when I watched the video. Noone but a smug hipster from the west coast can be so proud over himself for discovering what he would have known about 10 years ago if he would have bothered reading a newspaper.

  39. The film has been made to attract people’s attention and in order to do this they need something catchy. Who would watch a boring documentary movie?! NO ONE. They need to be shared and they need media-power to go on with their purpose and finally arrest that bastard. However everyone know he is NOT the only bad guy on this earth and that many politicians should end up the same way, but now we have the chance to do something. Well, I won’t give any money cause i m not so rich to risk it BUT we have to SHARE that video and let people know this INVISIBLE problem.

  40. @Pete, are you aware that Chris Blattman and his wife lived and worked in Northern Uganda for many years doing groundbreaking research on war-affected youth? I was there and they did superb work.

  41. have you ever been to africa?!!! or seen what goes on?!! or heard the stories?!!! you can sit behind your laptop all day and talk aboutb how intelligent you are but your emotional intelligence = nil. you need to stop trying to impress us with your words and start taking some action. this is exactly what Invisible children are doing and YOU ARENT.

  42. you pompus people.
    you honestly belive that this is not helping? have you sen the news? ahver you seen facebooka nsd twitter. its getting big,. bigger than you would ever image, and well, to be honest, just take this down, because your only making yourselves look even more selfilsh, stay out of it if it is not positive for this campain.
    just go back to your homes, and stay there.

  43. Chris, thanks for making me think about this differently.
    I was raised by academics. they like to talk about stuff, but are poor at doing stuff.
    We need people doing stuff so the academics can study them to learn from their mistakes.
    IC are creating a world of work that you can study and see whether your ideas are correct.

  44. Yesterday social media went absolutely wild for Kony 2012, people that normally are disinterested in current affairs and had no idea about the lord’s resistance army all of the sudden felt compelled to make their voices heard and manifest their horror for such a barbaric war criminal who has been responsible for so much of the central African problem. I am a student of international relations and I have studied this problem in detail for the past few years but to be perfectly honest I did not know about the Congolese war until my first year in university. Noting that, this has been the bloodiest conflict in my lifetime, and it is directly correlated with the rare metals boom in the late nineties; when all of us in the rich world where suddenly infatuated by cell phones, game consoles and personal computers.

    The conflict is highly complex and has its origins in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. cross border refugees from Rwanda moved to Congo fleeing the horrible atrocities perpetrated by Hutu militias. There several guerrilla factions sprung up from a variety of African countries including Kony’s Lords resistance Army from neighboring Uganda. In order to protect civilians or so they said, actually they flooded the DR Congo in an effort to take a piece of Coltan and other metal mining.

    Now this article does not wish to recount what has happened or who is to blame or what the real problem is what it seeks to highlight is the incredible surge in awarness kony has had overnight and how the ‘critical’ voices have sprung up. By this I mean that as the wave kept exploding and more and more people caught on; it was those most politically aware that have stood up to slow this wave down by claiming that the finances of invisible children are not great and that they support military intervention and that they actively support the Ugandan military. My question is why? Why the attempt to be witty when all this does is slow down the massive upsurge in public conciousness. No by no means I refrain from the discussion and people should be critical but why is it that those who love politics get annoyed when people start caring. I say get your priorities straight and be pragmatic.

    We all know that getting people motivated about anything is very difficult and that it is very rare that people actively stop caring about themselves for halve an hour and mobilize to rise awarness of an issue. Today in a world of mass information where we are constantly filtering out content and trying to understand what exactly are our positions on certain topics specially since the cold war ended and no good and bad exists in the world anymore (it has never existed but before people felt the stupifing comfort of being in one side or the other) sometimes it is just easier to be complacent and apathetic even if you do want to act and change the world for the better. For some time now we the passive consumers have actively been told that if we try to change the world things will go horribly wrong we think that any actions might lead to further chaos. But then came the arab spring and it made us reevaluate the power of people and the blind stereotypes of the arab world and their cultural dislike of freedom. Today it is easier than ever to communicate our thoughts effectively and get people to agree on that basic ideals of justice. Social media provides what the public square provided a generation before and that is the capacity to see that there are other people that feel the same as you. This is why dictators hate freedom of association and try to make people isolated and avoid discussion.

    We can all agree that Joseph kony is not mickey mouse and as a critical thinker and student of international relations you question these things, it is very clear that the problems are not going to end if you stop one man i mean if anything things can get worst before they get better, the organization can become diluted or fragment, from the Colombian experience we believed that Pablo Escobar’s death would end all violence and then the Mono jojoy’s, Fidel cano’s and many others etc.. Ofcourse this was not the case, these men where only men and the conflict has underling causes that are far-reaching and should not be overlooked. And Kony is just that, one guy but he is a symbol, he is not single handedly responsible for all the rapes and murders and child soldiers. but you know who where just men, Gaddafi and Mubarak it is important not to forget what are the greater implications of this . This wave has clearly cost money and alot of thought went behind it. it is a single issue in a fucked up planet. But it represents the power that people are having by utilizing the tools of mass media. It is important to be critical but it is more important to understand the higher implications and priorities at stake.

    So I agree that there should be active discussion of how to implement the best way forward and people should be critical of what they support always questioning their believes but understand that by being witty and trying to undermine a good effort you are stopping a good surge of awareness. So what if it is just a fad get your priorities strait.

  45. The film doesn’t make me feel perfectly comfortable either (and not just because it showcases a psychpath warload and his victims), but it’s very unfair to suggest IC does bad or even harmful programming. If this is your point, then say it. Also, IC makes films and talks to policymakers in an attempt to help stop the persecution of people halfway around the world. What do you do?

  46. This is about humans standing up for humans, simple. It is about a new generation simply stating they will not stand for this kind of cruelty, in any country. It’s not a white man’s burden, it’s a human burden. Don’t you get it?

  47. Professor Blattman,
    I appreciate your remarks on this issue.
    Do you think the West or foreign NGO’s should play a role in this effort? If yes, how do you think it should be done differently? If no, why not?
    Do you think this film and movement risk more harm than good?
    I think with any project, any action, there are always things to criticize. And this is good for discourse, and expanding understanding of complicated phenomena.
    I know that even if the movement is successful in keeping US military advisers in Uganda, and they are successful in coordination the capture of Kony, Uganda and other parts of the region won’t be magically “saved.” They will still face great challenges.
    Anyways, thanks, and hope to hear back.

  48. The video is fuckin horrendous, the barbarity is unbelievable. I have to say I have always been a bit doubtful of some organizations, their methods and the real reasons why they do it but at the end of day what matters is the exposure, any publicity is good publicity. They forced a government to take action and more people are aware of the situation, that for me is all that matters, but most important it matters the most to the ones who suffer. Who cares if they do it for attention or fame?? What’s worse, doing it for fame and get it done or doing it for money and power like politicians and keep fucking people over?? Food for thought ;-)

  49. Most of the people complaining about Invisible Children are not doing anything about Kony. Misguided or not, at least IC has the guts to do something about it. So, if you people really want to help, do something instead of just beng armchair pundits.

    I am from Kenya, right next to Uganda. And maybe that doesn’t make me an expert. And maybe I know all about the white (wo)man and his savior complex.

    But regardless, I think for every single kid whose life is made even a little bit better by IC, I can stand their posturing.

  50. I just wonder if you think that you are more credible than Luis Moreno Ocampo?

  51. There was something deeply unsettling for me watching the Kony 2012 video. I knew about Kony and the LRA before this video. But Prof. Blattman captures it perfectly – it’s the “White Man’s Burden” attitude that pervades the film that I just found troubling. It reminds me of the civilizing mission of early missionaries and colonialists in Africa. Don’t get me wrong – I totally agree with the sentiment “Stop Kony and his cronies” but the execution of this video though may do more harm than good in the long run.

  52. Good God you are an idiot Mrs. Thompson. Where did you get your information on the “brainwashing” of the Ugandans? I also find it hard to believe that a bunch of hipsters living in SoCal are aggressively right-wing.

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  54. (1) Joseph Kony and his rebels must be stopped via an innovative strategy

    (2) The Ugandan Govt WILL NOT stop/catch him, because having him on the run is enabling them to get massive cash (aid) from USG (US Government). The minute the Ugandan Govt catches Kony, funding from USG will DRY UP.

    (3) Invisible Children is a group of aggressive right wing, religious fundamentalist Christians with the sole GOAL of converting all of these vulnerable Ugandans to Christianity. They are without the decency to be upfront about their intentions and motivations. They are opening Jesus schools all over the affected provinces, completely manipulating the public and the Ugandans. IT IS SICK WHAT THEY ARE DOING. They need to be called on it, but unfortunately they are a group of very well funded, brainwashed born again Christian teenagers – so watch out.


  55. Shumbwa Banda’s comment has it right, as a Yale professor you should realize your words have unique power and instead of just writing something that others will use to cuts off this organization at its knees, maybe you should have taken the time to engage it and recommend some steps to channel this unprecedented awareness to what you think is a better path forward

  56. More bleeding heart liberal idiots trying to make a buck at the expense of others, all while keeping up the appearance of being compassionate to the masses. Give me a break

  57. Your post was not harsh–if anything I found it restrained. Your comments and concerns are considerate. They are particularly refreshing to me as a young woman who majored in African Studies, lived and worked in West Africa, and daily interrogates my own place in the complicated discourse of international aid and advocacy. So, thank you.

  58. You have a very westernized view of Africa. I would know, I’m African. No, we don’t need saving, but by God we know when something is wrong and what is and has been happening in Uganda, DRC, CAR and the surrounding countries is wrong. I’m from Zambia and I’ve been taught to fear going into DRC for 2 reasons: 1) the LRA has caused such havoc there it’s not safe for anyone and 2) a very good family friend was killed because of something linked to the LRA. So be careful what you say about something that has raised awareness of something that I have been educating people about for a while now. You hear about how terrible Osama Bin Laden was or Saddam Hussein but remember that the USA created Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was terrible but the reason Iraq was invaded was for oil and nothing else, whether there is evidence or not, we all know it.
    You may not agree with some parts of this campaign but acknowledge the fact that the awareness raised in 2 days was long overdue.
    And another thing, the term ‘developing nations’ is incredibly insulting. What the world classes as ‘developing nations’ are regions that were invaded for personal profit and, while there is enough blame to go around, the problems they face now are a product of those invasions and mismanaged ‘grants’ of independence.

  59. Maybe a bit harsh. How receptive and responsive to complexity do find the majority of the American public?
    They (IC) want to put pressure on the US to continue helping the Ugandan forces to find Kony. I see the dangers – money to violence, etc. But I also appreciate the need to find Kony and bring him to justice (along with ICC most wanted #2 and others). Think about Eichmann; his capture, trial and hanging were cathartic to many victims. Additionally, we ought be as committed to bringing Kony to justice as we are to bringing Saddam or Bin Laden to justice. I like their message of global responsibility to each other, a message that transcends borders. Does IC really have the power to catapult the US into a situation reminiscent of Vietnam? Will direct aid ever be enough if the LRA is permitted to continue? Why are we more determined to undermine AL Qaeda than the LRA? Self interest?
    So maybe a bit harsh, but you know more than I do. And if you know more that IC, please suggest an alternative. I see the KONY 2012 activity as generally positive, but certainly do not wish to support violence or do more harm than good.

  60. Thank you for an interesting comment, Chris. I just recently heard about this campaign and feel pulled in both directions. For one thing, it’s really important that the world gets to know, and if it were so that the organization Invisible Children would highlight that as their agenda, the giving process would of course be totally optional, and I personally think that’s an important aspect to cover. But I doubt that this is communicated well enough to the givers, when there seems to be a lot of critisism about too little money going directly to the children. If it is so that most of the givers truly believe that based on information from Invisible Children, it seems like the givers are being mislead. It seems to me that’s a big part of the reason there’s a debate. But then again, who can say what are in the organization members hearts? If they’re just trying to give their best in the fight against injustice, then God bless them!

    And I love that you take the white-man-aspect into consideration Chris! If there’s prejudices elsewhere in society, I guess the can sneak into this as well.

    Kindly regards, Mary
    (I’m not a native American so I don’t know if my English is correct…=)

  61. The jab at hipster fashion was unnecessary, but if you have a problem with that, you’re probably overly sensitive. Otherwise, I think he made an excellent critique. I’ve been active in IC at my college for several years, but I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with their simplistic and egocentric approach. While I’ve carefully examined the schools-for-schools program and I consider it a great success, even a good model for other NGO’s, much of the state-side advocacy is arrogant, obnoxious, and simplistic to the point of being dangerous. With the pressure for the US to invade Uganda (that’s what sending your military into another country means), in a manner reminiscent of US actions just before the Vietnam War, I have chosen to separate myself from the movement. It’s very sad to me that an organization that launched such a successful program for educating and rehabilitating kids in a way to get them on their feet rather than keeping them dependent, has become distracted with militarism, self-glorification, and an unfounded faith in any teenager’s own personal capacity to “save the world.”

  62. Dear WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) People… :
    It’s always hard to criticize this kind of “movements” in which rich kids buy some psychological-middleclass-absolution and their 15 minutes of fame of course, but I’m glad someone is doing it.
    All these movements make me feel sick, the poor analysis and professionalism. And the worst part is that these movements make damage to the real ones.
    Its like the RED product movement (the master movement to profit the psychological-middleclass-absolution), come on are you joking? Bono here is a little tip, you want Africa free of diseases, well get them out of poverty. How? Well regulating all these companies that exploit people in these chaotically implemented states, yeah! the people that builds your RED products!.
    This Hipsters are a profitable joke , there are probably going to make a film about 12 years slaves in Burkina Faso and buying Victoria Secret thongs to their girlfriends to celebrate the opening night. (Yes the one 100% cotton maded by a slave kid… check the etiquette!)

  63. White Man’s Burden? Since when does seeing atrocities such as devastating rape, child abduction, mutiliation, etc not transcend skin colour? I find it extremely egotistical and naive for you to assume that anyone’s motivation for wanting to cease such crimes is based on race. Now who is trying to simplify a complicated issue? When I watched the film, even after knowing about Kony, I never once thought, “Wow these guys are really out to make THEMSELVES famous.” How can you watch a young, orphaned child cry whilst wishing they were dead and think that it isn’t sincere. Child soldiers are not new. Even “hipster documentation” of it isn’t new either (see: VICEtv). While the Ugandan military may or may not be doing the same thing, which is where the controversy now lies, the thing to remember is this: This sets the precedent for the first time in our nation’s history, that you don’t have to threaten a country’s national security or have a wealth of natural resources for them to get involved and stop atrocities from happening and doing the right thing. The LRA may be the FIRST, but this definitely doesnt mean they are going to be the last. But it HAS to start somewhere. 26 years have gone by with politicians all agreeing that something needs to be done and doing little or nothing. Raise awareness. If you don’t want to give money to Invisible Children. It’s simple: DON’T. But educate yourselves, education those around you and persuade your government(s) and leaders to start doing SOMETHING.
    The plight in Uganda is severe, and it is going to take GENERATIONS before they are on the right track. The organization behind the movement (to me) is less important than the movement itself. If Invisible Children is the first one to raise awareness, then so be it. The secret is out. Instead of spending all of your time and energy trying to tear down a group of people who are TRYING to make a difference, in whatever small measure, how about you start doing YOUR part?

  64. I’m not sure any of us can claim the makers of this film are egocentric or full of hubris just from watching a film. They obviously constructed it the way they did–from their perspective–for a reason. Otherwise they wouldn’t have included the son’s perspective so much. First of all, the film served to summarize several years of the work they’d already done. What other pronouns are they gonna use? Second of all, the film was supposed to focus on the next movement they were going to start. Again, what other pronouns are they gonna use? It wasn’t really a documentary about children in Africa as much as it was a documentary about the next movement taking place in America. When the filmmakers were trying to juxtapose two different life experiences, they did so successfully. The narrator repeatedly said, “If this had happened in America…” The focus on his family and his life was intentional, not egocentric. The Kony 2012 movement is centralized in our realm anyway–he’s advocating for people to act in the cities in which they live. It only makes sense that his video successfully show the two different worlds–the one suffering under Joseph Kony and the one that he is asking to respond to Joseph Kony. It’s an artistic move, if you ask me, and it works.

    Whether what they are asserting is White Man’s Burden or not, don’t you think humanity is meant to help one another? Maybe not, but does it HAVE to be called WHITE Man’s Burden? Can’t it just be Man’s Burden? And maybe their passion isn’t hubris–perhaps it’s derived from their well-intentioned compassion and desire to see these people brought to justice. How can we judge what is motivating them? Isn’t that a little prideful and arrogant ourselves?

    And sure, there are MANY “Konys” out there. Joseph Kony is just ONE of the many issues. But we have to start somewhere. Putting a name to a movement is a logical (and artistic) step. He’s just the name and the face to the movement in America. IC knows how this generation in America operates; we need images and tangibility. It’s not as if, if we found other members of Kony’s army, we would just ignore them and say, “No, it’s Kony we’re after! You can go free!” Don’t take the name of the movement so literally. It’s the concept that means something. We’re not just after Kony here. We’re want justice. We want evil stopped. Kony just happens to be the head honcho.

  65. I take issue with the point that many critics are bringing up about the “White Man’s Burden”. I don’t believe such a thing exists. I think that this is about people seeing an injustice, being moved to action against that injustice and doing what they can to combat it. What is wrong with other people wanting to help others out, regardless of their race? The people of the United States are constantly being ridiculed and criticized because of how wealthy of a country we are and the overwhelming amount of stuff that we have and our unwillingness to help those in need. Yet, when a group of people get together and attempt to do something about it, they are criticized and ridiculed for things that they may not be able to prevent (such as the looting and raping issue of the UPDF (I mean, three guys against an entire country’s army? Really?). I’m not saying that everything about this movement is good; there are always pros and cons. However, awareness about the issues in other countries is a positive thing and I think nit-picking organizations like this one that are well-intentioned and striving for good is detrimental and destructive.

  66. I’m so happy my own lone so-called hipster argument has been corroborated! This documentary was almost focussing more on the director than on Kony and the children he abused! “Me, I, my child” are the most common words spoken by the director, and he’s constantly in pictures and clips, pointing to megalomania in my opinion. Maybe someone should tell him its not about him at all.
    Also, isn’t Kony just a symptom of another problem, namely a very unstable and lawless region? These warlords are striving for power in a power vacuum, so even if he’s captured and tried, wouldn’t someone else just take his place and carry on with the reign of terror? Obviously a campaign with a slogan like “lets get him” will be more popular than one like “Lets provide advice and expertise to provide better institutions for more stability”.
    Also, aren’t there many other Kony’s out there? Why focus specifically on one?

  67. I think it speaks volumes that the film is made by a couple of film majors. Its manipulative in a positive way and has evidently spread like wildfire. Though I think the film simplifies the situation somewhat, overall I think that the more people know about the LRA the better. Eventually, this might lead to a durable and lasting solution.

  68. Speaking off the cuff and with whatever rolling hyperbolies applicable;

    Yeah, they’re a bit cunty, but it’s difficult to draw the distinction of whether the savior attitude is derived from either a misplaced feeling of white, western superiority and simple, paternal or otherwise inter-personal identification with said mutilated and coerced fucking children. I don’t see harm in this whatsoever.

    I suppose what I find most distasteful is the way my limp-wristed, sissy, wet-diaper wearing and ineffectual generation chooses to solve problems, domestic and international.

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  70. I would just like to point out that the comments coming from all of those who just watched the Kony 2012 video and this article are referring to two completely different videos. This article was written in 2009, not yesterday or on the 5th when the video came out regarding Kony 2012.

  71. I think anyone who does nothing for too long and then see’s someone else making a difference resents themselves and the people actually trying. Not only have they raised awareness, and albeit some of their tactics are offensive or crude, but they are getting people involved on a global scale. That is something none of the people who are commenting have ever done, and probably never will do because you are all too busy sitting behind your computer’s waiting to judge people.

  72. This is stupid. For someone to complain about a cowboy hat and a hipster tie? Get over it. Why do you care about what they’re wearing? It has nothing to do with the cause. And it also sounds like you were already a cynical bastard before watching the video if you found the video to be more about the filmmakers than the cause. That’s your fault. I learned a lot about the cause and my last concern was with the filmmakers. All I could think about was the boy Jacob, his family and the monster that they’re trying to catch. If all you got out of it were some hipster twats trying to make a famous indie film or w/e then that’s your problem.

  73. Too harsh. The point of the video and of the Kony 2012 movement in general is to raise awareness so that he can be arrested, and I think it’s doing that extremely well. Everyone I know of who has watched the video not only didn’t know who Kony was before and now do, but they all felt greatly moved and inspired by it and want to get involved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a bit of ‘macho bravado’ in a video if it’s for a good cause; because it doesn’t just relay the facts like documentaries etc. do, it counteracts the sense of hopelessness one feels at learning of such terrible things with a feeling of hope and strength. Learning and seeing how those few young people have already made such a difference is extremely encouraging and makes people more likely to support such a cause because they believe that there is actually a point to it.

    I also feel strongly against your idea that ‘There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa.’… I think you have projected your own cynicism onto what is usually a worthy and innocent cause. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to save lives… and I don’t think it has ANYTHING to do with a ‘white man’s guilt’… I’m not completely sure what you mean by that but it seems to suggest that people like me can only feel charitable in a way which is derived from guilt (at being more well-off?) whereas I like to have a bit more faith in humanity and believe that people can feel genuine compassion and a desire to help others.

    I agree that the ‘saviour attitude’ can potentially be dangerous in the sense that it would be impossible to enter every country which we see a problem with and try and help the people (and moreover, who is to decide when we actually have a right to do this?) but I believe this is one of those situations where it is in EVERYBODY’S (well, except Kony’s) interest to intervene. The Ugandan people hate him, his child soldiers and sex slaves hate him, we hate him, and the US has the power to help, so why not?

    I think you have just tried to over-complicate the matter. This man is committing terrible crimes and everyone who knows who he is wants him stopped. The video is to raise awareness so that more people DO know who he is and can pressure authorities to stop him. It seems quite simple to me.

  74. There is a place for human rights activist and a place for academics. Yours is in the classroom, I encourage you to remain there. Let us do all the hard work; we’ll make the history, you can talk about it.

  75. Preaching to the converted but lets not forget that war in central african states is fuelled by rocketing rare earth mineral prices, prices driven high by our desire to consume electronics, especailly laptops and computers that all this social media relies on. Look to the causes of problems, not the symptoms. Efforts for a moral global economy cannot rely on commercail activism.

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  77. Yeah Chris you are totally right, when will people just give up? The worlds an awful place can’t people just accept that and move on?

    Total sarcasm by the way, it’s fine that you feel how you do but offer me a solution instead of your negativity. I might be more inclined to listen then.

  78. I appreciate your thoughts and understand a part of you perspective. But would you honestly prefer to wait until the wold solves its problems itself?? maybe we wont “Save all the children”, and maybe there are self important, egotistic people involved in the movement but who are you to say that is all it stands for? Some people may just be sick of sitting around, living their lovely selfish lifestyle and just want to TRY and make a difference. Fair enough maybe we wont save the world, but at least we didnt sit by and let it destroy itself.

  79. Chris – the shirts are, definitely, hideous. But, as for the other criticism of IC… I think you need to do some actual research or make some substantial claims. Clearly, there is more to a book than its cover. IC might have questionable marketing in the States, buts its programming in Uganda is much, much different. IC would be the first to admit that they made a lot of mistakes, especially as they got started. But, the organization has changed dramatically and really is involved with many projects similar to that of the organization you were traveling with AVSI.

  80. Excellent response. As mentioned on ‘Wronging Rights’Blog – I had similar thoughts (and made a serious compliant to CIDA) about a Canadian NGO back in 1996. The overall aim of IC may be ‘worthy’ (if that is even always/ever a good thing?) but that does not mean it is, or should Be, immune to criticism.

  81. i’d only learned of “therescue” via twitter, and though it seemed like a worthy cause, something about the campaign and the organization rubbed me the wrong way and i couldn’t quite put my finger on it. thanks for this post, as it helped clarify it for me.

  82. I think people need to quit complaining and bashing (Oops I meant to say dialoguing) about people trying to help and create a better world for everybody. For those of you who are against what IC is doing, I have one question for you. What are you doing to make a difference in this world, for someone other than yourself?

  83. Although, if you had read my post, you’d know that I’m actually not a fan of Habitat as an organization. My argument was against blindly criticizing people who choose to fundraise by staying outside for a night.

  84. Matt C., that would be Ms., not Mr., thanks for making your priors known.

    Are you aware that Habitat works in the U.S. of A., as well? And that, in fact, building in the U.S. rather than abroad is what campus chapters focus on?

    And that it does more than build houses, as I alluded to?

    Or are you talking of things you know nothing about?

  85. Since I do not know the Uganda culture, and this shirt may be offensive in Uganda, I probably would not wear it there.

    Since I do know the culture in America, and I believe this shirt would most likely not cause fear nor would it be offensive, I would wear it here.

    Ultimately, this is a matter of opinion, and I don’t think it is offensive. You do. I’m not scared of the shirt. You (or someone you know) is. Ok. Its not that big of a deal.

    Its a very “American” thing to be offended by things and be much talk and not much action. If you are acting on your care and concern for Ugandans, then I commend you. If you aren’t, then I scold you for starting this debate at all.

    “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.” -Frederick Buechner

    ONE MORE THING: And finally, to the person that implied that Ugandans simply shrug disapprovingly of the film: I certainly believe that (sometimes) happens, but it is not a matter of being “offended” as much as it is not having the cultural context in mind. To give an analogy: When I lived in London, ten Americans and I saw “Napolean Dynamite” in the theatres. Most of the Londoners in the film walked out before the end; our few Londoner friends explained that they probably simply thought it was really, really, boring. The same thing applies to IC. Ugandans are not offended, nor do they hate IC for making it, its just a different cultural context and audience in mind. I think that those who shrugged do it because they don’t understand how their daily life impacts us so strongly. They certainly aren’t mad at IC, they really could just take it or leave it.

    The film was made with an American audience in mind. They do not purposefully show the film to Ugandans, and when they do, it is those that they trust they can explain the cultural differences to. We scream and laugh at chicken’s heads getting cut off; Ugandas treat it like an American child would to his mother boiling an egg: it is nothing to them. Just momma cookin’ some dinner.

    We must understand that cultures are different and that there is an young, American audience in mind, both with the T-shirts and the movie.

    One question: do you really know someone who is scared by the shirt? There are other social clues (facial muscles, past relationship with the person, general demeanor) to tip someone off to fear. If one of my students (I am a high school teacher) came into class wearing that shirt, I seriously doubt any of the other students would be scared. Most likely, based on Invisible Children’s audience, it would be a very “non-scary” person. Just one example of the type of person it could be is like this one: a girl who is 17 years old, 5’5, 123 lbs, long straight brown hair, pretty face, on the varsity soccer team, B+ student, extremely nice to everyone, volunteers with Invisible Children, cares about Africa and the homeless. I doubt that any of my other students is scared of her. If that student of mine goes to Uganda, I assure you she has the sense not to take that shirt with her.

    IC, I always have, and always will, love what you are actively doing and the lives you are impacting, both here in America and in Uganda, in positive ways.

    Oh, and I love the brilliant response on the behind the scenes page… Was it Professional? No. Did IC ever claim to wear ties and write bullshit corporate, generic, bland, Robotic-sounding responses? of course not. So they will not respond in that “professional” context even though their work is one of the most professional and respected in Uganda.

  86. My question since stumbling across the new “marketing” tool (t-shirts with “I Heart the LRA” for IC’s “The Rescue” tour as been the following:
    Would you wear this in Uganda around people are now displaced in their own land because they had to flee from the LRA; whose parents were macheted to death by the LRA; who hold babies who are products of rape by the LRA; who are child soldiers aducted and brainwashed by the LRA?

    Would you wear this shirt in Uganda?

  87. I can understand what’s being said here, especially the “I’m going to save Africa” attitude. This is obviously the wrong approach to take, but looking back at the history of IC, I don’t think this was ever their intention. I’m very familiar with the organization and I’ve worked closely with them. In fact I’d say I’m an avid supporter. I’ve seen all the videos including the rescue. If you look at the rough cut the point was to let people know what was going on. The children, and even adults, that the guys came in contact with begged and pleaded with them. They asked the guys to remember them, and to tell their story. That’s what the organization’s goal was, simply to tell people, not to save Africa. As the story spread and the organization gained support, it also gained a voice. These three guys, along with the youth of America have been able to give a face and a name to those who have been forgotten. I think that was the heart of the guys starting out (but I shouldn’t really be speaking for them) and I think that’s what they’re trying to continue. Not everyone knows about what’s going on and I think it’s still our job to tell the story of the oppressed whether in Uganda or elsewhere. It is my belief that if I know something terrible is happening, and I do nothing to help, than I am the root of the problem, I am just as bad as the oppressor. I feel that by partnering with IC my voice will be heard and I may be able to bring light on the subject. Nothing that I do will save anyone, but it may bring about action and I believe that positive action is positive power.

  88. THANK YOU. I have lived in northern Uganda and am appalled by these shirts. I have been in touch with IC representatives all week via phone. It has sadly proved as fruitless as when I spoke to my Congressmen about northern Uganda last February.

    Thank you for your intelligence.

  89. Again, yes, you can actually be more truthful than IC about the realities of what is possible with aid work AND still get our money, just be creative.

  90. Can’t say anything new here, I do agree with the criticism and you phrased it very well, I was curious as to how IC managed to attract all those supporters. And lets face it, most of those kids are shallow, self-absorbed brats, with cash.

    Apart from the cringe-worthy movies they add a more personal touch with their bracelet movies. If any of you know of them. It’s a bracelet with a DVD of a particular aspect which gives faces that you can become attatched to, making you want to donate your money.

    I noticed many NGOs won’t do this, stating things like ‘there’s more than one child who needs help’ etc. Boring as hell if you’re a kid who wants to connect with another kid. It’s hero worship, like being a fan of a star, you want to know what’s happening to them all the time.

    Like Sunday (the black bracelet) who is cute as hell imo and I was worried about him so I donated money to IC because it would help him and other kids my age. And I was even sent a reply email when I asked what had happened to him after the DVD was made. I bet there were hundreds and hundreds of other kids out there who held an affinity with one Bracelet Child or another and gave plenty of money.

    Now a few years later I see IC has some serious faults but either way they’ve got flair, even if it makes people cringe, but it gets attention and kids have a lot more money than adults realise. Yes even though we’re always asking are parents for cash, even us kids who are ‘poor and on handouts at gang schools’ (me) have spare cash.

    Want more money for your NGOs? As a kid this is what I want to see:
    Other children, no not those ones with flies who are under 10yrs. We’ve seen that already. Show us teens! Ones with likes and dislikes that we can get to know and like or hate.
    Remember our attention spans are around 0.5 of a second so make it catchy.
    NO boring details, we don’t care. Keep it snappy.
    Remember to put cool music, real music that we know and like.
    We will go without lunch to give you money.

    IC sticks in your head, however much it makes adults cringe. I thought almost everything teens do will make adults cringe….whatever else they are, thay have our attention.

    The attention of the biggest consumer group around, no small feat, maybe Save The Children could get some child and teen mascots that we can relate to too.

  91. Fundamentally, many advocacy groups are perpetuating (or in IC’s case, literally selling) a myth: that there is a pot of human rights gold at the end of the advocacy rainbow, and it can be reached if only enough US under-21s become “aware”.

    This advocacy approach takes as a given that:
    1) Complex African conflicts are resolvable via Western diplomatic pressure.
    2) The US has the diplomatic means, contextual understanding, and influence necessary to apply such pressure in a constructive and useful way.
    3) The US will choose to apply such pressure, provided that enough under-21s send postcards to Congress and the White House.

    I’d suggest that all three premises are open to serious dispute. But the advocacy groups find themselves trapped, because once you’ve created your student constituency, you’ve got to keep feeding them hope – even if you know it to be false hope.

  92. I think the crux of the issue is the question you pose in the post. Namely, could IC actually have been so effective were it not for the media style that earns them immense criticism from academic and advocacy types?

    I think the answer is mixed. I don’t think it does the complexity of the situation justice to write them off as ill-informed narcissists. Nor should we simply accept the massive influence they have wielded (utilizing an innovative model) without recognizing some shortcomings. The problem is that debate has been polarized, and I imagine the folks at the IC offices are tired and dismissive of the same angry criticisms.

    But for the people posting here, I think there has to be a recognition that there is a strong justification for parts of their MO that make many squeamish.

    IC has brought an entirely new constituency to these issues – in a recent survey of their supporters, something like 75% have no interaction with any other nonprofits or causes. While there is no doubt room for discussion about the sustainability of this movement (will their supporters continue to be engaged with issues post-IC?) as well as its intellectual honesty at times, their work has educated and galvanized hundreds of thousands of people about the LRA and northern Uganda. And it HAS had an impact – on US policy, and through their education programs on the ground. And even more than that, it expands the realm of the possible in terms of creating new allies here in the US (dare I say around the world, given their recent launch of a world tour?) in the fight for peace and development in Africa, with demographics that otherwise would be staying away.

  93. Fortunately, the internet connection in Gulu is not so great, so Ugandans are removed (at the moment) from this virtual reality.

    IC up in Northern Uganda (which is indeed a different reality, except for when the filmmakers and volunteers drop in) is setting up some legitimate programs, such as their scholarship program which involves considerable mentoring and follow up BY Ugandan nationals. Does this sort of marketing delegitimize the good work? Certainly leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.

    I’ve asked some Ugandan employees of IC what they think about the film. The response is shrugged shoulders. They disagree with the representation but perhaps think this is a necessary evil to get muzungu money to build schools and carry out their programs. I don’t think there is much room for constructive criticism by nationals in how IC is represented to the broader world.

    I guess what also saddens me about IC is that they really have been so damn successful at it. Perhaps this is more a statement about us all.

  94. I think you are quite nice to them, at least as long as sentences like this: “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa.” describe reality.

    Which it often, unfortunately, does. I believe this excellent statement from Lila Watson still describes the issue pretty good:

    “If you have come to save me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

    If you are not there on equal terms, your “objects” are better off if you are not there at all.

  95. Mr. Econ PHD non-raging hippie activist, are you really using Habitat for Humanity as an example of a good intervention? Using inefficient volunteer student labour instead of the dirt, dirt cheap labour in the recipient country?

    –Another Econ PhD

  96. I think you are spot on. Not at all rude, and I have the same feelings about IC. I have not seen the new film because frankly, I was appalled by the first. I was volunteering in Gulu at the same time as Adam Hooper (above…Hi Adam…), and my sentiments were/are the same. IC volunteers were seen as young hooligans, not much more. This also made it difficult for us, as young white volunteers, to gain the credit we wanted as a new NGO.
    However, as you have also stated, their ability to raise awareness about this situation in the US is worthy of praise.
    I have been arguing with people about IC for years. I am thankful for this blog.

  97. thank you for this. those t-shirts are disgusting. i haven’t seen the film – i saw a preview online and was horrified. met some of the IC people in DC for lobby day two years ago and when a teenager in the audience asked how they can help, the response was “go there.” my jaw certainly dropped. i’m all for the activist movement, and IC has done a great job with organizing young people around a cause, but i think the mission has definitely slipped away. congrats IC, you raise tons of money and awareness – just as you said, chris, now it’s time to start acting like grownups.

  98. Oh, please. I’m offended by the commenter who attacked a Habitat event. I don’t know how it works on your campus, but that description is really ignorant and — yes — condescending. The people who do these things (I didn’t) typically are doing so to *raise money* to *use* in a Habitat activity — either building houses, lobbying for affordable housing (and yes, successfully — the chapter on my campus had the city agree to build over 100 extra units due to its campaign alone) or what have you. While I don’t like Habitat personally because I think it puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility and typically shies away from the government having a larger role (its leadership is mostly conservative), it’s hard to argue that the fundraising is bad. Each person who sleeps outside might raise (again, I don’t know about your campus) $200 for the night spent chatting with their friends, and the people from whom they solicit donations are then more likely to support Habitat or other affordable housing NGOs rather than other causes. If you think affordable housing is more important than other issues, then sure, why not do it.

    It’s only people entirely uninvolved who would be so condescending and presumptuous so as to suppose that those who are actually involved think that their night outside is like being homeless. The people involved on my campus, they were more aware that it was nothing like being homeless than anyone else. Talk about offensive and condescending! But they did it (and yes, in the face of widespread mockery) — not for showing off how sensitive and kind they are but so’s to be able to extract money from their friends and families for a concrete and transparent cause they wanted to support and had seen results from in the past.

    I didn’t do it and I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not going to assume that the people who do are doing it because they’re misled little self-absorbed lambs. They see an outcome they want (money for their cause). They see a way to get it which is familiar from high school X-a-thons. You can debate whether this is the most efficient way to raise money, but don’t assume these people aren’t self-aware. (Or that they’re uninformed about the issues — just dragged in for the day. Do you really think people will bunker down in the snow outside in the middle of winter overnight with 10 strangers for a cause they just heard about, to feel sexy? Honestly? And as the night and the cold wears on? These are people who have been invested in the cause for a while, who know each other, who know the issues, and who certainly know more about affordable housing than you do.) There might be more productive things to do, but they’re doing the best they know how. There’s a reason it’s youth — it’s people who feel they can’t get substantial amounts of money in other ways. What they do know is that when they get personally involved in something, their friends and family (the latter especially) give them money. It’s just a different market. You could model it with them being low-skilled workers who don’t have training for other things, who get a lot of utility from doing things in groups, and who lack information about just how much they’ll raise (over-optimistic) and how much time it’d take to earn that money through a job. But it’s for a concrete goal, and they’re well aware it’s not like being homeless. The critique that they’re making assumptions and they’re self-promoting? Could be said about the commenter.

    — Econ Ph.D. student, not a raging hippie activist.

  99. I absolutely agree (though I haven’t seen the new film).

    I talked with aid workers in Gulu and the rest of Uganda in the first half of 2007, and IC was met with unrestrained and unparalleled scorn. I was told their NGO was an outcast in northern Uganda–“nobody in the NGO community even knows what they *do*” is, if I recall correctly, an exact quote. I remember myself yelling at my laptop screen when I finally watched IC myself–your own sentiments mirror mine.

    The movie did little to project the lifestyle of northern Uganda and everything to broadcast the filmmakers’ ignorance–especially the naively optimistic launch of their “movement” towards the end. Everything about IC reeks of “zero research,” yet it’s supposedly a documentary.

    I consider Invisible Children “questionable” at best when pondering the dilemma, “does aid do more harm than good?”

    As for other advocacy projects: did Gulu Walk not make a mark in the United States? I found its positive effects were clearly visible in Canada and Uganda (notably Kampala, arguably far more important in terms of helping Acholi and Lango people than US Congress), all with a more humble and methodical approach. (All Canadians and most Ugandans I met had never heard of IC, while Gulu Walk seemed to have made camp in the backs of some people’s minds.)

  100. Fantastic. As an undergrad at Michigan, I work with an advocacy organization, and sometimes I run into some really dumb ideas – one of which reminded me of the IC thing. The students working for Habitat for Humanity here are holding a 24 hour sit in on the Diag (the central part of campus) so that students may ‘understand what it is like to be homeless’. Not only is this terribly offensive, and condescending (as if 24 hours outside on a campus can teach what it’s like to be homeless), it also has that essence of what you said – it’s time to be grownups. Long story short, I loved your response.

  101. Perfectly put. My first reaction on seeing the first film was very similar; it was a self-centered, indulgent mess. Great point about the slightly exploitative tendencies, especially of showing the kids’ faces.

    Parking lot sleepovers do absolutely nothing to actually help the children of northern Uganda.

  102. I’d be interested if you thought this coverage was better than no coverage.

    This criticism reminds me of the string of posts about development tourism. No doubt people with a lifetime of knowledge are valuable, even invaluable. However, not everyone is in a position to make the sacrifices necessary. What I don’t like is any claim that, just because I or others have not devoted ourselves fully to the cause, our efforts are naive and counterproductive. I would think a basic awareness is better than nothing at all, but I stand to be corrected.

    P.S. After the beers in Sydney, it would be great to catch up next time you are in DC.

  103. The mass marketing of a humanitarian cause inevitably cheapens and simplifies it, no? You sentimentalize; you sloganeer; you deploy (if you’re lucky) a Hollywood star or two; you promise your facebook followers that solutions are at hand, if only the government does x or y or z. Condensing a human rights report to a bumper sticker is not a job for the squeamish. As long as the marketeers don’t totally distort the reality, or call for counter-productive measures, what harm is done–except to those of us with more sophisticated palates?

    My quarrel is different. Our real problem is not that our activists Disneyfy their causes; it’s that they are too polite, too respectful, insufficiently insubordinate. We need human rights versions of Act Up and GreenPeace, we need fewer petitions and more guerrilla theater. Candidate Al Gore, for example, was embarrassed into reversing his position on intellectual property rights for AIDS drugs in Africa only by the disruptive demonstrations of few determined activists. And what sort of actions would have been appropriate during the Rwandan genocide? Given how the US and the UN responded–what wouldn’t have been?
    –Emin Pasha,

  104. Well said! It needed to be said, and you didn’t come across as rude, if that’s what you were worried about.

  105. Professor,

    My first reaction to the letter was: YES, EXACTLY. But looking back, not so long ago, I was also a very naive teenager with good intentions but little idea how to act on them. I think examples of programs that are boastfully about “saving Africans” but have done more harm than good would be very helpful.


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