Pleasantly surprised by Kony 2012...

(TB: this is a guest post by Pastor Lucas Weeks) 

Three weeks ago, Invisible Children, Inc released a video entitled Kony 2012 about Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa. (If you haven't heard about the Invisible Children, or about Joseph Kony, you can check out the back story here on Wikipedia.) The aim of the video was to raise awareness about the conflict and about the children that suffer in its wake. The movie has garned lots of attention, including over 17 million views on vimeo and many millions more on youtube. It has even been called "the most viral video in history". Not all the attention has been positive, though... 

Since releasing the video, the organization has had to answer critics on a range of issues, including its finances, governance, and actual effectiveness on the ground. A heavily promoted screening in Uganda infuriated audiences, many of whom picked up rocks to throw at the movie screen. Invisible Children, Inc has responded in a number of ways, including this post on their website, and this video by their CEO.

Full disclosure: I'm a second generation missionary kid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so I have a natural interest in the goings-on of central Africa. I have also spent a lot of time thinking about what role American Christians should have in Africa. To say that I'm "jaded" about foreign aid to Africa isn't exactly accurate... I'm straight-up opposed to most of it. (If you know anything about the history of the DRC, you might understand my position.)

Still, I saw the original Invisible Children documentary back in 2005 or 2006, and I found it moving. My curiosity about this recent movie was piqued by the criticism of it found around the web, so I watched Kony 2012. Then I watched and read the answers to the criticisms. I think there are a few important things to learn.

I thought that I was dealing with yet another naive, save-the-world non-profit. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find what appears to me to be, on the whole, a pretty good example of a well-run aid organization.

Its goals are clearly defined and fairly narrow in scope, and its finances seem to be in order. They have published detailed financial information about all aspects of their organization for all the world to see. When answering questions about their finances, the CEO wasn't the least bit defensive. The highest salaries within the organization are around $90,000--well within the bounds of the radical low end or poverty level for multi-million dollar non-profits (including nationally known organizations promoting the work of Reformed teachers, preachers, and writers). Invisible Children, Inc. don't appear to have skeletons in their closet and they don't seem to be the least bit offended that the watching world thought they might.

The application to the recent discussion about John MacArthur and the NIV2011 should be clear, and has been written about already. It's no shame to have the integrity of your organization questioned, and it's honorable to humbly submit to public scrutiny (much more scrutiny from brothers in Christ and fellow ministers of the Gospel).

The debate also introduced me to the new word 'slacktivist'. I think it's a very good and helpful word, and it partly explains why I'm opposed to much of the current aid to Africa. The word refers to an "activist" who supports feel-good causes "that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction."

I have no doubt many people around the world who support Invisible Children, Inc., are slacktivists. In a sense, this doesn't bother me since it's inevitable. I'm sure there are "slacktivists" within your church and mine, and it's our job to call them away from their hypocrisy to true faith. The real question, as far as Invisible Children, Inc., is concerned, is whether or not the organization itself is actually doing good, fruitful work. An afternoon of research leads me to think that they are.

Invisible Children, Inc. has made its share of mistakes and they are certain to make more of them. The public viewing of Kony 2012 in Uganda that infuriated audiences was simply a mistake. The movie is aimed at American teenagers and college students, and I'm convinced many of the Ugandans who watched it simply didn't understand it. It's purported goal is to "make Kony famous", which may sound like a positive thing if you don't understand that the point of making him famous is to bring him to justice. You could fault Invisible Children, Inc. for this and many other reasons, and some of your criticism would probably be right. On the whole, though, they seem like a quality organization.

They do have two significant flaws, though, and these flaws are common to just about every American aid organization operating in Africa. Though they may get Kony in the end (and I pray that they will), these flaws will keep them from causing lasting change in Africa. 

First, all the organization's top brass is American. To some degree, this may be inevitable, so I don't really fault Invisible Children, Inc. for it. An American NGO is going to be run by Americans. It makes sense. But I'm convinced that real, lasting change in Africa must and will, God willing, be led by Africans.

Second, the African within Invisible Children, Inc. who has the highest level of leadership "on the ground" in Uganda is a woman. One thing I always watch for whenever I evaluate aid organizations in Africa is the proportion of men to women in leadership. It doesn't surprise me the Uganda country director is a woman, but I do find it sobering. I have no doubt she is an efficient, faithful, hard-working woman... but it won't work. Lasting change in Africa will not be led by African persons, but African men.

If the hearts of fathers must be restored to their children in these United States, they must be restored to their children in Uganda as well.

    Comments

    Excellent, Lucas!

    The co-author of "Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children", Faith McDonnell, is a friend of mine. We have discussed how much of the criticism of Kony 2012/IC is misplaced. I haven't done much research myself into the organization. It was enough for me to know that Faith and Abp Henry Luke Orombi backed them for me to suspect much of the hysterical criticism was misplaced.

    Thank you so much for this measured assessment.

    In regard to aid and how it holds Africans back, may I recommend "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo (Zambian) and the work of James Shikwati (Kenyan). Moyo is the author of the book, "Dead Aid" and Shikwati is an advocate of free trade. It is also instructive to poke around the internet for the arguments between William Easterly (White Man's Burden) and Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty).

    Speaking of aid... my family and I give money each month to support a girl in Africa through one of the big parachurch organizations that does that kind of thing. I've begun to wonder though what it is we're doing through this: this girl apparently has no father--and thanks to us she doesn't need one? I wonder if this kind of support ends up strengthening families or making them worse. In the immediate term it provides food and education for a kid, but I'm afraid our money may be a barrier rather than a help for fathers to take their place in their families.

    In short, I'm afraid we may be contributing to the fatherlessness of Africa by our aid.

    It's almost like fatherhood is so expendable it can be easily replaced by just $28 per month.

    That can't be right!

    Very sad. Fame is a hard taskmaster and, sadly, the web makes it much, much easier to get your fifteen minutes. Let us pray for the brother.

    Love,

    Hi Daniel,

    Doesn't your speculation about whether the support you give to this girl and whether it makes her father expendable depend a lot on the context of the situation (which you probably know much more about than anyone else does)?

    Is the girl's father disabled, fighting in a civil war, murdered, or dead from AIDS, or an infectious disease that could be easily cured in the West? Has he abandoned the family and married another woman? Are there child support laws (or at least customs to support a family in circumstances of abandonment) in her country like we have? Has he abused her, her mother and/or her siblings?

    Are divorced women seen like damaged goods to the extent that they have little or no chance of remarriage? Is the same true for widows?

    I see your point and understand where you are coming from, but IMHO there have to be more holistic answers and ones that aren't one-size-fits-all for every culture.

    This seems to be fertile territory for missionaries to work with new male Christian converts.

    My .02,

    Sue

    Michael,

    Yikes! Joseph forwarded that news article to me, and it makes me very sad. I'm not sure if this changes anything about my analysis of the organization, or about their work in central Africa. There's no doubt that it raises concerns about the future of the organization, though. I'll think on it.

    Ms. McKeown,

    These are all good questions. My point wasn't that no one should give financial support to Africa. My point is that you would think that in putting families on life support by replacing a husband and father with $28 per month, we would realize we're propping the foundation up with rickety boards and that there's an urgent need to work to restore fathers to their families. My remarks were based on my observation that there seems to be no such urgency, either on the part of the big donation organizations or on the part of us, the donors. In fact, the donation organizations are working to spread the $28 per month model farther and wider. It's not that this in itself is bad. Many places it may indeed be necessary at the current moment. But who's going to rebuild the foundation? Or the next time the hurricane comes through, will we be a whole continent of FEMA trailers and get blown right out to sea?

    At some point, I think that must cease to be the loving action.

    "Lasting change in Africa will not be led by African persons, but African men."

    Um, excuse me? Women can be just as effective leaders as men can. Why think they can't, when all that does is make you seem hateful and ignorant?

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