An Open Letter to Invisible Children Supporters

Dear Supporters of Invisible Children,

A lot of you may be confused at all the criticism that Invisible Children (IC) has faced as of late. Perhaps you feel that this criticism is coming from people who fail to understand the mission and nature of IC. Alternatively, perhaps, you may feel that this criticism – while having some merit – has been unfairly blown out of proportion.

What I think needs to be understood is that there is no such thing as black and white. Invisible Children, as an organization, isn’t some nefarious evil group robbing people of their money. But, at the same time, Invisible Children isn’t an organization that can claim to be the most efficient or on a path that does the least harm.

I want to briefly touch upon 3 points which I hope explains why some of this criticism exists. And why it’s important.

1) Accounting Practices

I’m not going to go into the fact that only 37.12% of Invisible Children’s donations actually goes towards helping people in Africa. You’re an Invisible Children supporter – you accept the organization’s stance that it does more than just aid and that it uses its donations elsewhere.

Nor am I going to go into the fact that Invisible Children has failed to get a very strong rating as an organization on Charity Navigator. You are an Invisible Children supporter and, as such, accept the organization’s claim that a few small changes to its Board will resolve this issue.

Instead, I want to talk about the videos they make. You can start with this one:

EDIT: Since drafting this blog post, Invisible Children have removed all traces of the above video from the internet. The above is a screenshot of said video. Link no longer works as of March 15th.

As you can see in the above [edit: all traces of this video were removed by Invisible Children as of the evening of March 15] video, neither Uganda, Africa, Kony, or Child Soldiers are mentioned in the video. Rather, amongst the singing, dancing, and epic slow motion walking – the focus is on Invisible Children at all times.

Under Invisible Children’s accounting practices, this is considered part of their program expenses. This is because making videos – even videos that make no reference to Uganda or Africa in any way whatsoever – is part of Invisible Children’s primary mandate.

However, if any other charity or organization were to make a similar video, this would be considered a marketing and fundraising expense. So, while I understand that you as an IC supporter see the logic in IC’s explanation of this as a program expense, I hope you understand why those focused on aid & development would not.

It’s also important to note that, because of this, Invisible Children’s assertion that it can improve its Charity Navigator (and other watchdog) ratings may not be as clear cut and easy as they would have you believe.

2) Objections from Local Populations

If you haven’t already, please watch this:

And then watch this:

And then this:

Don’t get me wrong: I know Invisible Children supporters feel these videos are cherry-picked. I know many supporters cite the videos IC is posting of Ugandans as a counter-balance to this. And I know many of you will point out that Kony 2012 was intended for an American audience of mostly high school and college students.

I have two things two say about this.

First and foremost, what should be the top priority to any individual or organization working to serve those in the developing world are the views, attitudes, concerns, and objections of those in the communities that are directly affected by such work.

If people are throwing stones and near-rioting over a video created by an organization – that should be taken as nothing short of a complete crisis for that organization. And supporters of said organization should be seriously pausing and reconsidering their continued support of said organization.

But many of you may not be doing that. Many of you may be explaining away these Ugandan objections by pointing out that Kony 2012 was meant for you as an American high school or college student. And thus, for those who are not the intended audience, such reactions can be dismissed due to a lack of context.

Here’s the thing though: Invisible Children didn’t just air this video in a private screening. They put this on the internet for the world to see. Not just you, not just me, but anyone on this planet with an IP address. And because the internet is a free and open space (for the most part) you can’t control who sees this.

If you, as an Invisible Children supporter, are condoning IC putting up videos specifically targeted to YOU on a GLOBAL platform then you are basically sending the message that America is the center of the universe and that the sensibilities of Americans (and not the sensitivities of Ugandans) are what matter the most.

3) Oversimplification

If you are an Invisible Children supporter, you probably have one of two explanations to dismiss the argument that Kony 2012 is overly simplistic. Perhaps you dismiss it as the fact that different people will have different solutions to this problem or that Kony 2012 was meant to be about awareness and not analysis.

First, there is a very very very very good reason that many Ugandans do not support IC’s proposal of a military action to arrest Joseph Kony. This is because any military action will result in combat loses for Joseph Kony. If Kony has a child army – this means that children will be the front line victims to any military action.

This is why everyone from aid experts to former child soldiers are pleading to anyone who will listen and insisting that Kony 2012 may actually do harm to the most vulnerable of groups affected by Joseph Kony. The Kony 2012 movement is essentially one that is pushing for a resolution that will guarantee child deaths.

But, more importantly, to accept the argument that good awareness doesn’t need to express the complexity of the problem means that we accept the premise that things need to be dumbed down in order for us to care about something or be inspired to act.

The truth defies simplicity and simple stories can lead to overly simplistic solutions that end up doing more harm than good. And, while there are many people inspired by Kony 2012 to learn more, there are even greater number of people who merely saw the video, failed to see the complexity of the issue, and are moving forward with great conviction and activism.

Invisible Children wants to prove that there is a generation on this planet that can re-shape the world for the better. That’s a noble goal. But let’s prove that generation doesn’t view itself as the center of the universe, nor is insensitive to international concerns, and is willing to analyze the complexity of the reality before acting.

  • http://hyrcan.com/ Hyrcan

    It appears that the Invisible Children organization has started to remove videos they’ve produced. If I were a donor, I’d start asking why. Why take down videos that you spent donations on making?  

    The obvious reason in this case it because it fuels the complaints about the organization blowing funds on superfluous music videos their donors would likely see as a complete waste…

    They aren’t all gone mind you… they still have loads out on Vimeo, some of which you can download… like this gem.

    http://www.cloud.invisiblechildren.com/videos/3765084
    ( http://vimeo.com/3765084 )

    Which is for the 2009 tour. They don’t spend the entire video driving around in vans emblazoned with the Invisible Children logos, lip syncing a song. However, they do end the video with a bunch of people charging the beach with a collection of Euro-centric Flags (flags of the destination of the tour), followed by “coming to a shore near you” … 

    The imagery seems to be lost on the Invisible Children group.

    Jump First, Fear Later?  

    More like Jump First, Think Later… if at all.

    More background of why this is dangerous from Dr. Adam Branch: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/201231284336601364.html

  • sittingonanmm

    I really appreciate your input on this subject, Shawn. I believe this is an important conversation to have, particularly because there are a lot of young people that don’t know what should be expected from a charity or non-profit. I include myself in this category because it wasn’t until I learned about UP that I started thinking about this. You pointed out to me the huge fault that exist in guilting people to donate and in portraying people who receive the help as hopeless, powerless and voiceless victims. 
    Raising awareness can be hard because of what you point out – should things be simplified to begin with, to get the attention of people? It’s easy to think that they should be. However, it is not right to do so. I completely agree with you that an organizations’s main concern should be the people they are supposedly helping, but I do think it’s easier than it seems to lose track of that when getting too involved in how to make an organization efficient.
    All in all, I think that the Kony 2012 campaign is helping a lot of people think critically about how to think about non-profits and charities. So if what, at least some of us, can get out of it is this conversation, then good for us. Of course, by this I do not mean that we should stop there – but it’s a starting point.

  • http://akhilak.com/blog Akhila

    Great post Shawn. I completely agree with what you’re saying and feel the oversimplification of the conflict as well as the lack of local support/ownership over these projects are huge problems with IC’s videos and campaigns.

  • jaden f’thewin

    but isnt it all a bit out of date as kony left the country six years ago? dosnt it make it as valid as a stop hiltler movement?

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn Ahmed

    Hey Jaden – I didn’t touch on that because any current Invisible Children supporter will accept the organization’s justification for a focus on Uganda in Kony 2012. So I didn’t want to belabor that point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexisjw Alexis J. Williams

    I’ve been looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this, and I totally agree. The over-simplification of it is what really bugs me the most. I mean, sure, it’s understandable that explaining this complex of a situation to an American audience would require trimming down the issue a bit — but that’s no excuse when the final cut of the video is 24 minutes long.

  • Rebecca Akrofie

    Oh THANKYOU! THANKYOU for your wisdom! I have been studying the Northern Uganda conflict as part of my degree and really do not see how fighting fire with fire is going to help the situation. IC have no idea what they are doing- this is obvious, attempting to pull at the heart strings whilst spending donations on nonsensical films that anger and upset local populations.

    The International Criminal Court recently convicted a Congo Warlord- after 6 years of trial proceedings. International Law DOES have its flaws. But this bunch of Jolly Americans are just a joke.

  • http://twitter.com/butnikr Ryan B
  • http://twitter.com/iElffia Erica

    I’ve been looking forward to see what you would say about this. As per usual, you didn’t disappoint with thoughtful and educational commentary and explanations.