Why I Support KONY 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

We grant makers, humanitarians and relief/development workers can be a cynical bunch and rightly so. We’ve seen earnest but naive people and organizations jump into the fray of some issue, splash big and burn out. We’ve seen slick plans and well-marketed campaigns that seem too good to be true because they are. We’ve embraced many issues ourselves thinking we would help to solve a problem or find the lever that creates big social change, only to discover it is much, much more complex than we thought and there are no easy answers or quick solutions. If we’re honest, we might have become a little disillusioned ourselves.

So, when a pop level advocacy campaign comes along that has great emotional appeal and a clear message of how you can help, our noses are already in the air. We’ve learned to be wary. The hunch is that a well-honed social media campaign that goes viral must be simplistic at best or deceptive at worst. There’s probably a lack of substance and the conclusion is that it will do more harm than good.

I wonder perhaps if this was the predisposition of many of the critics of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012. Perhaps if I hadn’t already had a previous granting relationship with them prior to this campaign I too would have fallen prey to my own cynicism. Predisposition based on learned experience can serve as a valuable filter of wisdom, but if not kept in check it can also obscure objectivity.

I have headed two different philanthropic organizations that have done a number of grants with Invisible Children over the years. We haven’t granted in the most recent years because our own geographic focuses have changed. That being said, I continue to receive annual reports, updates and occasional emails from the leadership about how some of the projects we helped seed fund are doing. I’ve also seen their work on the ground in Gulu, Uganda.

Enter KONY 2012. Over the last few days I have read through the myriad of responses, criticisms, critiques, position papers, and counter critiques. Given my “healthy” skeptical predisposition (see above), the critiques and criticisms have caused me to look again at Invisible Children and what I think of their latest effort. The last thing I want to do is support a cause that is essentially doing more harm than good.

And that, I think, is what it comes down to on this one. The stakes are pretty high. This is an advocacy campaign that may actually have the potential to keep pressure on public policy makers to continue to support efforts in Central Africa that may stop one of the worst war criminals on the face of our planet. A man’s whose atrocities are so heinous and so numerable it’s mind-boggling (e.g. abducting thousands of children, often forcing them to kill their parents and worse). So, to join the chorus of critics I would need to decide that Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 social media campaign is so wrongheaded, so distorted, so simplistic that it’s approach to stopping Joseph Kony’s reign of terror is actually more harmful than achieving that goal and should be abandoned or opposed. In other words, in this case, it might be worth shooting the messenger.

After reviewing many points and counter points; and, after running through a mental checklist of potential concerns; let me run through a few of the reasons that I continue to support Invisible Children and KONY 2012.

I have found nothing disturbing about Invisible Children’s financials. This is an issue that has been hinted at but without basis. No matter what article you read that may carelessly allude to it, as of this writing, no one has supplied any tangible information about how Invisible Children has mishandled or misspent any of their funding.

As you would probably assume, the philanthropic organizations that I have led, ask for extensive information including financial reports and audits with every grant proposal we consider. Once approved, we monitor closely how well the grant is spent. Without exception, I have been fully satisfied with the projects of Invisible Children that we have supported in the past, have seen them accomplish good ends and found them to be consistently financially responsible in accomplishing those ends.

One accusation that is getting passed along is that Invisible Children doesn't have an external audit, which is not true. I have their latest independent auditor’s report on my desk and it is a positive assessment (for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011). I believe the rumor stems from a misinterpreted Charity Navigator rating that gave them credit for having an independent audit but deducted some points within their rating system. Charity Navigator’s website states that they deduct points if "the charity's audited financials were prepared by an independent accountant, but it did not have an audit oversight committee. In this case, we deduct 7 points from the charity's Accountability and Transparency score." Sometimes a non-profit’s board of directors oversees the audit, sometimes it’s a subset “audit oversight committee”, but this does not mean Invisible Children is not being externally audited or held accountable. If they so choose, Invisible Children in the future can gain those “7 points” by ensuring a audit oversight committee, however it should be noted that they are regularly independently audited and their 990s and other financial information are all online for anyone to review.

I have not discovered anything that concerns me with Invisible Children’s programs. Another critique has been that Invisible Children perpetuates the "White Man’s Burden" approach or continues in the vein of colonialism. There's valid dialogue around this and I too believe that colonial approaches to humanitarian efforts need to be avoided. But when it comes to Kony 2012, I believe we are confusing concern about how direct aid and development work are done (helping Africans help themselves) with an advocacy and awareness campaign intended to elicit global (including Western) pressure to stop one of the world's worst war criminals. Joseph Kony is on the top of the list of the International Criminal Court's most wanted fugitives (meaning the ICC has issued a warrant for his arrest). Stopping him is a global priority. Additionally, the ideal approach being advocated by US involvement as well as Invisible Children is a coalition of Central African forces with US military serving as advisors (presently this is admittedly only the Ugandan military, for further reading see Resolve’s report).

And, as far as aid and development go, while the majority of Invisible Children’s work goes toward advocacy, the development that they have been engaged in is good both in its approach and content. I have seen it first hand and continue to endorse it. Even many of those who have some concern with the film, have no major qualms with the approach or quality of their on the ground grassroots programming.

The following is how Invisible Children responds to these concerns:

“Invisible Children's programs in Uganda, DR Congo, and Central African Republic are implemented with continuous input from, and in respect of the knowledge and experience of, local communities and their leaders. In Uganda, we learned very quickly that a top-down, Western approach was not the answer, and that local solutions were needed to fill critical humanitarian gaps. It is for this reason that over 95% of IC's leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans on the forefront of program design and implementation. In DR Congo, Invisible Children works with the Commission diocesaine justice et paix (CDJP), supporting projects that have been identified as priorities by local partners and that are responsive to local realities and needs. Invisible Children staff members in project areas consistently strive to ensure that they build the capacity of local partners and do not take on duties where local partners can more responsibly and effectively carry these out; the organization meticulously monitors and evaluates the impact of its work on the ground, partnering with Princeton in Africa and employing qualified Monitoring & Evaluation professionals.”

I did not find the message of KONY 2012 to be simplistic or distorting. Some critics have worried that the film didn’t include this fact or that nuance and therefore deem the film as simplistic or worse, distorting. I suppose this sort of critique could go on endlessly debating what was included and what was left out but it seems to me the central concern here would be, “Did the film simplify so much that it distorts to the point of deception or harm?”

I have seen many charities do this and this is anathema to my peers and me. Desperation for donations can lead organizations to quantify the ratio of dollars given to “lives saved” in such ways that are untrue. Likewise sometimes crucial aspects of stories are twisted or exaggerated in such ways that the reality of the situation gets blurred. Distortions such as these do indeed present a problem.

There are perhaps a myriad of opinions that would wish this aspect of history was included or that detail was nuanced better in the Kony 2012 film, but very few, perhaps too few to mention, would be comfortable with charging Invisible Children as distorting reality to the point of deception.

Instead, KONY 2012 seems to give an accurate picture of Joseph Kony, his history, what he has done and, in Invisible Children’s estimation, what needs to be done to stop him. In presenting something like this, there is always the balance between keeping the main thing the main thing, trying to ensure that you address all pertinent issues, but also avoiding getting lost in a quagmire of subset discussions.

After interacting with the charges that KONY 2012 might be too simplistic, I watched it again in light of those concerns. I began writing down ways the video outlined the history and current state of affairs with this issue and the response. I was actually impressed with how many facts, expert opinions, policies, nuances and details were woven into a cohesive understandable story. In my estimation, Jason Russell did a very good job in telling this story within the time frame allotted. It may not be an all encompassing look, but again, in my opinion, a targeted and adequate one. It should be kept in mind that Kony 2012 serves its purpose in the context of a movement that has already been in place, has generated tangible legislation and international support, and that they are now trying to ensure stays in place.

As someone who is geared toward suspicion toward pop level conversations and solutions especially as it pertains to complex social issues, my concerns were heightened when the accusations and critiques began to flow toward KONY 2012. I worried that perhaps I had been duped into not thinking deeply enough about this because of my prior history with this organization. As I have examined more closely criticism after criticism, I’ve been astounded to often discover the lack of evidence in their criticism (not always, but often). Instead it frequently seems to stem from a predisposition that assumes too swiftly that something so viral and popular cannot possibly also be valid and effective.

I’m not saying there is no room for debate on the best way to stop Kony; nor am I claiming there could be room for improvements. What I am saying is that while there maybe some complexities on the ground in the Central African region, no one would deny that Kony's reign of terror has been ongoing, heinously brutal and most would agree that stopping him is a good thing even given the complexities. He has made peace treaties and broken them. He has at times seemingly ceased his atrocities then simply moved his raids to other regions. Even now, however much the LRA has been weakened, the raids, brutality and abductions continue.

Bottom line, we can debate the effectiveness and merits of this latest campaign and dialogue about it. That is fine and it can be a potentially healthy dialogue. I’m open to be persuaded otherwise about this issue, but at this point, after a closer look at the criticisms, I have found the resistance to Kony 2012 is unconvincing. My concern though is that insinuations, allusions and assumptions frequently dominate the debate and create paralysis toward a cause that could very well serve to help end a ruthless warlord’s reign of terror against children.

 To conclude, I believe above all else that keeping global attention and pressure on this humanitarian issue is very important. Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 video has a targeted message and specific purpose to inform and raise awareness within a mainstream medium in order to put global attention on Joseph Kony and keep pressure on the international community (including but not limited to the US) to stop him. Until proven otherwise, I believe this to be a worthy cause and KONY 2012 an effective message that continues to garner my support. 

*For a research paper supporting the policy position of the KONY 2012 campaign, go here.

*To see how Invisible Children has responded to some of the main criticisms and critiques, visit here and here.

-Lance Robinson, President/Founder, Equitas Group

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26-Mar-2012 05:53 AM
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