Joseph Kony is a terrible human being. A Ugandan war criminal and head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Kony has conscripted tens of thousands of children to fight in violent guerrilla wars in Africa’s dreadful mid-section while prostituting young girls and committing some of the most diabolical acts in modern times. A radical Christian who believes he’s doing God’s work, Kony is a man who cannot suffer enough for his crimes. The recent film Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler of 300 fame, is based on the real story of Sam Childers, who fought Kony’s LRA in the southern Sudan. Now non-profit filmmaking entity Invisible Children has made it their goal, through a viral short film that is spreading quick across the internet, to bring celebrity to Kony through broad awareness in the hope that through their efforts, we can finally capture the elusive terrorist and bring him to justice. But is their solution valid, or are they simply wasting your time and money?
Get Off Your Ass And… Order Stickers?
Invisible Children’s angle is an interesting one. While the average American can’t grab a rifle and infiltrate the dense jungles of the sub-Saharan in search of the notorious Kony, this trio of filmmakers has a different approach: make Kony famous. In an endearing half-hour documentary, Invisible Children highlights Kony’s dreadful warpath. By turning him into a celebrity, we can build worldly awareness about him. As rather correctly stated in the film, Americans really don’t care that much about this kind of stuff. It’s a bit of a downer, to be honest. Americans already give themselves enough crap about deploying troops to well-known global hotspots like Iraq and Afghanistan, much less thousands of small ones in search of these despots. By targeting twenty heads of culture – from the predictable Bono to the questionable Rush Limbaugh – and sixteen policymakers – like John Kerry or former President George W. Bush – Invisible Children is obviously reaching to cover every form of media they possibly can.
So how can you make Kony a celebrity and assist in his ultimate arrest? Easy. You can sign a pledge on the group’s website, but… what you really want to do is indulge in the company store, which is found a quick click away from that same pledge form. Yes, that’s right, you too can own priceless war criminal-smashing attire like this:
For $30, you can acquire the short film’s recommended ‘Action Kit’, which includes bracelets and posters and other fashionable tchotkes with Invisible Children’s wordmark on virtually every item. A high-end package for $2,500 features every piece of flair in the store. In fact, each entry in the store has social media elements woven in so you’ll be sure to tell your friends about each and every one! In a main event on April 20th, the filmmakers want you to plaster your town, slice of suburbia, or parrish with their KONY 2012 artwork (taxpayer cost for cleanup: $TBD) to truly expose their media experiment to the masses. If Stuart Fairey approves (you may remember him for his iconic Obama poster or perhaps his other work), then you must too!
But Where Is All That Money Going?
While Invisible Children has provided financial statements over the past few years (although criticized by entities such as, oh, the BBB, for lack of transparency and external auditing), they have yet to provide a road map for what the funds received for their KONY 2012 campaign will actually be used for, with only a single, un-linked paragraph on their About Us page describing their spending and their blog’s wording similarly vague. Based on their 2011 financial report, their spending record doesn’t look great, though. Of $8.89 million spent in their most recent fiscal term, only $2.8 million (that’s less than a third) went to actually aid the people they so passionately advocate. Despite a list of charitable programs they support, including a high-frequency radio network, the bulk of their dollars went to produce their merchandise (partially through partnerships with PacSun, Billabong, and Levi’s) and fund their ‘awareness’ programs, including nearly $300,000 for their web and design work.
In a recent article regarding Kanye West’s personal charity, Fox News reported that of nearly half a million spent by the group, a whopping zero dollars actually went to charity. Zero. Nil. In the same article, watchdog Charity Navigator explained that a charitable non-profit like the Kanye West Foundation shouldn’t spend more than 15% on overhead, so when a charity like Invisible Children only performs at slight clip over a crappy celebrity trust, how much are they really helping anyone? Aren’t they really just showboating? Doesn’t their clever branding seem like a nice leg up for their next project?
Every aspect of the KONY 2012 campaign appears to be ripped directly from the (PRODUCT)RED playbook, coincidentally helmed by Bono, in which high-end financial and consumer product brands were recruited to produce RED-themed iPods, credit cards, and shoes, while portions of those sales (determined by each partner) went to aid humanitarian works in Africa. By going out of your way to purchase popular items, you were ‘part of the solution’, which is a very cool way to spin needless consumerism. As a consumer of the needless variety, even I was frustrated by it. While (PRODUCT)RED’s charitable effect was questionable, it sure gave a lot of popular companies reason to look compassionate while they spent more money promoting their RED-themed product than actually contributing to those in need.
Would This Even Work?
In their short film, Invisible Children claims that the merchandise they sell and the clever web site they support are used to impress the aforementioned policy and culture makers and, in a heart-pounding sequence, the charismatic narrator with the hipster glasses and the son he wants to leave a better world for demonstrates that their lobbying encouraged President Obama to send a detachment of American troops to train and assist regional armed forces to combat and eliminate the LRA and, ultimately, Kony himself. By purchasing more posters and plastering them anonymously everywhere, we can encourage politicians to spend money and votes to keep American troops in the sub-Saharan to track down Kony.
Yes, this is the backbone of the entire KONY 2012 campaign and it’s built on a premise that is entirely false.
While it’s romantic to believe that a group of passionate filmmakers went to Washington and got the Leader of the Free World to sent a special contingency to deal with Kony specifically, the reasoning was more ambiguous than anything. Osama Bin Laden had a massive compound in Pakistan and it still took us a decade to eliminate him. Guys, you may not realize it, but sub-Saharan Africa is a mess. Threats and despots exist everywhere. While you may think it’s classy or empowering to pin up posters or wear bracelets by these tragedy-fashionistas, understand that eliminating Kony can’t come close to solving the smallest problems in the region. African kids, based on Invisible Children’s spotty track record, aren’t going to be amused that you’re a fan of KONY 2012 on Facebook or telling your friends about this cool new cause you heard about.
If you still feel so truly passionate about the elimination of Joseph Kony, don’t cave to the casual appeal of this campaign. There are far more credible and effective charities that can help people truly in need; a quick Google search brings up plenty.
If you want to ensure that our best men will continue the hunt for Joseph Kony, continue to pay your taxes.