The Corner

‘Kony 2012’: A Tragedy, and Wasted Charity

Over the past week, as Nina Shea noted yesterday, a video called “Kony 2012” has garnered tens of millions of views, and generated startling levels of awareness about what seems like a relatively obscure topic, a humanitarian crisis in Central Africa. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have been confused or deceived by the video.

An uninformed viewer of the video, produced by a group called Invisible Children, is left with the impression that, in Uganda, there is a rebel leader named Joseph Kony with an army of 30,000 children, who is displacing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees, in one of the world’s great humanitarian disasters. Further, no one knows about this, and if we apply enough pressure and raise enough awareness around the world, Joseph Kony can be stopped.

All of those things are either untrue or no longer accurate. Most important: The crisis isn’t anything like the video portrays, and there’s nothing one can do that hasn’t already been suggested and pursued.

Joseph Kony is a murderous madman and has committed humanitarian atrocities on a shocking scale, but he doesn’t head a rebel group with a political grievance (and never really did), but instead heads a dwindling criminal faction of several hundred armed guerillas. In the early 2000s, his crimes did in fact cause the internal displacement of more than 2 million Ugandans, but thanks to the efforts of the Ugandan military, he has since been forced out of the country, into the rural areas at the intersection of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This fact is mentioned about halfway through the video, in passing, as if it is of little significance — but most viewers have come away convinced that the problem we should be worried about is in Uganda. It’s not (though the Ugandan military is still involved).

#more#More important, the humanitarian crisis hasn’t simply shifted from Uganda to elsewhere; in Central Africa, Kony is still killing people, and he should be stopped, but he is inflicting nowhere near the suffering he once caused. In the past year, according to Invisible Children’s own website, the LRA has been responsible for 98 civilian deaths and 477 abductions. Tragic, but not earth shattering. Just as important, while the LRA is still active enough to contribute to the region’s instability, it isn’t displacing truly significant amounts of people (the original concern in Uganda).

In just the past year, off the top of my head, Bashar Assad, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban, Moammar Qaddafi, the Nigerian group Boko Haram, any of the Mexican drug cartels, and Sudan’s Omar Bashir have each caused far more civilian suffering and death than Joseph Kony and the LRA have. It’s counterproductive for humanitarianism in general that millions have come away from this video thinking that it’s one of the world’s worst crises.

The LRA is also hardly ignored by the world at large. This, in fact, is largely thanks to Invisible Children, and also to a range of American Christian organizations, who have made it one of Africa’s better-known crises, through smart marketing like the “Kony 2012″ video, and aggressive congressional lobbying. The video does note some of the victories won so far, including the 2010 congressional authorization of assistance to Uganda, and last October’s deployment of a hundred or so U.S. special-forces advisers to assist regional militaries in killing Kony, but it falls remarkably flat in what else might be done.

In fact, one almost gets the impression that the film was made mostly before President Obama agreed to deploy troops in Central Africa. The video triumphantly notes the U.S. deployment, but then continue to call for more awareness — not to call for more involvement (out of the question), but because, supposedly, we have to keep letting congressional leaders know that we care, or they’ll cut off support for the African mission.

The film claims with wild optimism that your efforts can result in Kony being arrested this year, when in fact the U.S. and the international community has been expending significant effort on an extremely difficult cause for years now, and for good reason. Long before the 2010 congressional authorization, the U.S. had a significant partnership with the Ugandan government and military, which has helped them address the LRA, and the U.S. provided significant support for a 2008 offensive against the group.

The ICC issued a warrant for Kony’s arrest in 2005, and Interpol (in some sense, the ICC’s cops) added him to their international watchlist in 2006 — regardless of how meaningful or effective such measures were, all of the international options have been exhausted. In 2006, in fact, a U.N.-authorized group of Guatemalan special forces were deployed in Uganda to track and kill Kony. They succeeded in engaging the LRA, but suffered catastrophic casualties, and failed to eliminate Kony himself (this isn’t mentioned in the documentary, presumably lest they have to admit that these humanitarian heroes had been trained at the School of the Americas). Any fair-minded observer of international relations would note that, far from being ignored, the LRA has received far more attention and intervention than your standard bloodthirsty African rebels. The video claims that it will “make Kony famous.” Kony already is famous — among the people who matter.

Finally, raising awareness in order to address the conflict in Central Africa isn’t just ridiculous because such awareness has already been raised; it also ignores a compelling case of self-interest for the United States’ limited involvement. Two of the countries involved, South Sudan and Uganda, may seem obscure and irrelevant to many Americans, but in fact, are key American allies in Africa, the former especially for its oil wealth, and the latter for its contribution to African security efforts in Somalia. This by itself shouldn’t necessarily justify American intervention, but the cause is not purely humanitarian; our allies asked for our assistance, and we’ve given it.

One last comment on the matter: Much invective has been spewed against Invisible Children for its supposedly irresponsible use of funds and small proportion of support spent on programming in Uganda. I don’t think this is necessarily a legitimate criticism: This isn’t remotely surprising for an international NGO, many of which spend huge amounts of money on overhead, so if one respects NGOs in general, one cannot dismiss Invisible Children as a particularly corrupt group. Further, they aren’t a humanitarian-aid organization; they’re an advocacy organization that’s trying to raise awareness in the U.S. At that mission, they’ve succeeded spectacularly — but deceptively and pointlessly.

None of this means we shouldn’t care about humanitarian crises, or shouldn’t support the efforts to kill Kony. But this is a particularly shameful instance of wasted charity.

Patrick Brennan was a senior communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and is former opinion editor of National Review Online.


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