I opened my Facebook yesterday and was greeted by a flood of Kony 2012 faces all over my news feed. I watched the 30 minute documentary, and then thought about it for a bit. How did a 25-year-old conflict suddenly become so popular? How did the video go viral? Of all the documentaries I’ve seen, this was definitely nowhere near the top. And it’s not like Joseph Kony just abducted hundreds of children; he’s been doing it for a while now. Yet obviously, regardless of all that, it’s an amazing cause. It’s not like Invisible Children are greedy pigs. They unquestionably have good intentions, and while they do glorify themselves a bit too much, they are clearly trying to do good.
The question is, are they succeeding? They’re definitely raising awareness. But the problem with these massive campaigns whose main goal is to simply raise awareness is that people often tend to forget that simply raising awareness doesn’t in and of itself change anything. Everybody was extremely aware of the fact that US and EU troops were murdering Iraqi civilians, but that didn’t stop any of them from dying. People are often quite aware of massacres, but that rarely has any effect on the massacre coming to an end. Raising awareness is only useful if people act upon it. If, once they are aware of the problem, they then do something about it – start donating some money somewhere, volunteering for a while, or collecting money on the streets. Simply changing your profile picture to ‘Kony 2012’ won’t do very much for a child being abducted by an extremist religious terrorist, except inform your friends that you know about it happening.
Now this is where the arguments start. For some reason, it seems that people think that since Invisible Children were so good at raising awareness about Kony’s disgusting crimes – which they were undoubtedly good at – then they must automatically also be the best cause to donate to as well. But that isn’t necessarily true. There is a big difference between raising awareness and saving children’s lives. To raise awareness, you hand out leaflets, put up posters, share the documentary, and change your profile picture. But to then go on and make a difference to orphaned child soldiers, it is necessary to actually start doing something: donating money to a charity, for example, or, if you’re really dedicated to the cause, fly off to Uganda and join an NGO there. Just because Invisible Children are the best at raising awareness, does not mean they are the best at making a difference to the children in Uganda. To understand who is, it is important to do just a little bit of research into what different charities are in the region, and what they are doing. If Invisible Children were the only charity in the whole area, then obviously they would be the best ones to donate to. But they’re not, so once you’re aware of the problem (probably thanks to Invisible Children, who did a great job of bringing our attention to the conflict) and are willing to make a difference, say, by donating some money every month, it is important to see where your money will make the biggest difference.
This is not to suggest that donating money to Invisible Children won’t make any difference at all. Of course it will. It will obviously save some children. It will probably save many children. But when you buy a TV, you don’t just buy the first one you see, thinking that either way it will allow you to look at a programs on a screen. You try to buy the one with the best quality for the best price. The same thing applies to charities. Just because a charity is making a difference, doesn’t mean you should be donating to it. If there are charities in Uganda that can do a much better job with the same donation (and there are several), then donating to them will ultimately save a lot more children. Not doing so will also have a negative effect in the long run, because it allows ineffective charities to continue to be ineffective. If people are going to keep donating to charities that are inefficiently using their money, then what incentive do they have to stop wasting money? Some local charities that have been making a massive difference in the country for a long time are Art for Children, the Uganda Red Cross, Friends of Orphans, and Children Chance International. But they don’t even have to be local to be the most effective. Going on some independent charity watch website, such as this one, is a good way of checking out what charities are doing the greatest good with your money.
It is extremely important to distinguish between raising awareness and actually making a difference. Awareness is only helpful if people are going to act on it. And assuming that just because a charity is good at advertising their cause makes them the best ones to donate to is dangerous. Invisible Children received a lot of criticism for their financial record. People responded by posting their financial record all over the place. Excellent. They have a public financial record. Does that necessarily make it a good financial record? Certainly not. And is it, in actual fact, a good financial record? Comparing it to some other charities seems to show that it definitely isn’t the best. For one thing, they spend 16.24% on “management & general”, 3.22% on fundraising, and 7.87% on “media and film creation”. That’s 27.33%, which is hardly impressive. Oxfam came under significant pressure from the public a while ago because they were supposedly spending way too much on administration costs, and they were only spending 17% of their revenue on those same things. And that’s including all of their ‘raising awareness’ programs, which were not included in the Invisible Children statistic. Include that, and they spent 62.86% of their income on things that don’t directly help any children. The remaining 37.14% is spent on “Central Africa programs”, which means they either don’t do anything at all to help Jacob and Uganda (Uganda isn’t in Central Africa) or else is a pretty ignorant mistake on their part.
To sum it all up, don’t donate to Invisible Children unless your specific intention is to raise some more awareness. And even if that is your intention, that’s not the best way to do it. Share their video on Facebook. Change your profile picture to the ‘Kony 2012’ images that are circulating. Attend the ‘Cover the Night’ event and put up posters. That’s all great. But when it comes to donating your money and actually making a difference for children like Jacob, take a little bit of time to think, and research what other charities are doing similar, better, things in the area before jumping on the bandwagon and getting swept up in the latest fad.
And lastly, the fact that the entire ‘Kony 2012’ campaign has angered many Ugandans and the documentary has mostly been met with criticism in the country it is supposed to be helping says something. Who exactly are Invisible Children trying to help? Ugandan children, or our consciences?
March 8, 2011 / Julian Modiano
Links to some interesting articles, some supporting and some criticizing Invisible Children
You Don’t Have My Vote; written by a Ugandan activist
We Got Trouble; published on Tumblr, and received significant attention
Visible Children: Viewed Critically; published as a response to the above article
Respect My Agency; written by another Ugandan activist
Critiques; written by Invisible Children themselves as a response to criticism
On Kony 2012; posted on The Daily What
Kony 2012: What’s the Real Story?; general news from the Guardian