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A 30-minute video released Monday has already received 37 million views on YouTube alone. That’s as I type this; tens of thousands, perhaps millions more will have seen Kony 2012 by the time this is published.

The short film aims to increase awareness of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerilla group that began in Uganda and has enslaved thousands of children across Central Africa. The US-based charity Invisible Children has been drawing attention to the situation since 2005. According to its own website:

Invisible Children uses film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity.

Now, through the Kony 2012 film and campaign, Invisible Children wants Westerners, especially Americans, to demand action from politicians and see that rebel leader Joseph Kony is found and arrested by the end of the year. But while the video’s viral success is undisputed, the methods and goals of Invisible Children are not.

I first paid attention to Kony 2012 when Boing Boing called it “a viral mess” and linked to a few reports critical of the campaign. I glanced over the coverage and turned to it later again when a Facebook friend republished a comment by Star Trek actor George Takei:

Many fans have written and commented about KONY 2012 and Invisible Children. I applaud the fact that fans are researching and thinking critically about the movements they are asked to support. I caution, however, that “research” should not be limited to articles on reddit or tumblr, or blogs that cite political science students in Canada.

The dismissive tone of the comment prompted me to investigate. After watching the half-hour campaign video, I began looking at the counterarguments with this Tumblr post, written by the political science student in Canada Takei alludes to; from there I found several other articles that seem to raise legitimate concerns. I don’t want to reject Kony 2012 out of hand, but I do want to summarize the main criticisms and share some resources so readers can do their own research.

Criticisms of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 include:

  • IC spends most of its money on awareness efforts, chiefly films and campaigns such as Kony 2012, as well as admin and infrastructure; but are awareness and advocacy, as opposed to on-the-ground action, actually helping?
  • It advocates a military solution, which could inflame the situation, endangering children and leading to more violence
  • An arrest operation could directly lead to children’s deaths, as many of Kony’s soldiers and bodyguards are children
  • It works with the armies of Uganda and Sudan, both of which themselves face allegations of human rights abuses, including rape and looting
  • It presents the capture of Kony as a one-step solution to a complex situation
  • It exaggerates or misrepresents the extent of the LRA’s current activity
  • It misrepresents the amount of work being done by the US, by both government and nonprofit organizations
  • The film uses emotional manipulation to gain support
  • Its tactics reinforce Western power (we can save Africa) and minimize the power of Ugandans and other Central Africans to help themselves
  • The ultimate effect of the campaign is to make supporters feel good, but the gains of such exposure don’t outweigh IC’s annual $9-million budget

Invisible Children has redressed the balance and officially responded to some of the criticisms on its website.

I’ve chosen this year to examine a charity a day as a kind of spiritual discipline for the 40 days of Lent. For the first time I’ve started looking at the work of charities and nonprofits systematically and critically — and with Kony 2012, I’m encouraged to see such a high-profile campaign provoking such widespread scrutiny.

With that in mind, I want to list some resources that — when you’ve browsed Invisible Children’s own resources and watched the video — will give some alternative perspectives on what’s happening and what needs to be done.

Grant Oyston: We got trouble (contains some useful links)
The Guardian (rolling blog on the subject)
Worst Idea Ever? (from  the Wronging Rights blog, which also offers a rather funny satirical “Kony 2012 drinking game”)
Yale prof Chris Blattman: Visible Children
Justice in Conflict: Taking Kony 2012 down a notch
Mediacology: #Kony2012: Viral cause célèbre
Foreign Policy: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)
Standpoint: Kony 2012: Overrated
Foreign Affairs: Obama Takes on the LRA (from November 2011, but relevant)
The eXiled: Altar Boy vs Altar Boy in Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army & Joseph Kony (republished from 2002, but relevant background)
Invisible Children: Official response to critiques

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