Invisible Children in Uganda: The Other Face of Kony 2012

Kony 2012 might have been an epic failure, but NGO Invisible Children Uganda’s greatest mistake might have been failing to draw attention to the good work it does in northern Uganda.

Almost a year ago, Kony2012, a YouTube short aimed at awakening awareness in Western youth to Uganda’s recent 20 years of mass atrocity, went viral. The video brought new attention to Uganda; warlord and International Criminal Court indictee Joseph Kony; and the YouTube short creator, American NGO Invisible Children. As fast as this attention intensified from nothing to a worldwide phenomenon, it fizzled. But, before it did, academics and practitioners globally condemned the video as unconstructive, obfuscating, dangerous, and a publicity grab for the head of Invisible Children, Jason Russell.

What went unnoticed in this pandemonium in the spring of 2012 was the fact that although Kony 2012 might have been misguided, the NGO Invisible Children Uganda may do good work in northern Uganda helping the conflict-affected region recover from its years of assault. It is also expanding its operations into the Congo with a reception centre for demobilized child soldiers. IC is, at least, considered in good esteem by many people on the ground in Gulu.

Having heard little of Invisible Children in the past 8 months, I was surprised to see Jason Russell on Ugandan national news earlier this month. In the days that followed, I did some informal investigation in northern Uganda to discover that Invisible Children is generally well-regarded, despite the poor reception of Kony 2012. One woman who told me she walked out of the local screening of the video praised the NGO for its scholarship programme to help students cover secondary and university tuition. From visiting the IC headquarters and later having an after-work drink with IC’s communications officer, American Bethany Williams, I learned the NGO has a wide range of programmes aimed to help develop and support northern Uganda in its post-conflict days.

Williams highlights the Village Savings and Loan Associations programme that helps groups of 25-30 people save money and withdraw small loans from the pot to start small businesses. IC Uganda also offers functional adult literacy courses. The NGO has also partnered with other organizations to promote better sanitation and hygiene in villages in northern Uganda.

There is much need in northern Uganda that has little to do with mobilizing Western youth to help catch Joseph Kony. Perhaps IC’s next step should be to bring awareness to the less sensational needs of a people who have suffered so much. One individual related to me, in a suspicious manner, a story about a boy the individual had hoped would secure aid from IC but who was unsuccessful in his application. The storyteller wasn’t the only one to suggest that there might be some corruption in IC’s awards process and still hold in high regard the work of the NGO. This combination of suspicion and praise is a testament to the great and continued need of the people of northern Uganda, years after the end of the conflict when many international NGOs have packed up and left or are doing so, and to the general state of affairs of a country where corruption is regarded as common-place and expected.

Personally, without any hard evidence to support my feelings, I believe the accusations of dishonesty in IC have more to do with disappointment on the part of hopeful applicants and expectations that corruption exists in every Ugandan bureaucracy than with institutional corruption. According to IC staff, acceptance into the programme is based on a combination of two things: academic performance and level of vulnerability. An individual with a high level of vulnerability would be a child who is an orphan, a head of a household, living with HIV/AIDS, who was at one point abducted by the LRA, and/or a girl who has children of her own. IC’s scholarship programme is no doubt overwhelmed by applicants who simply desperately want to get an education to try to make something better of their lives.

The important message from the combination of suspicion and praise, however, is that even in the minds of individuals who believe there may be inconsistencies in the NGO’s practices, there is also appreciation and recognition that IC is attempting to meet a tremendous need in the community.

In an era of short attention spans, a great failure of the successful Kony 2012 advocacy campaign was its neglect of the current serious needs of northern Uganda for the sensational and thereby misdirecting very limited concern.

Digital Editor

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