guest post: the problem with visibility
Today I'm very pleased to present a guest post from Dustyn Winder and Erin Bernstein. As students, they got interested in the situation in northern Uganda and started spending time in the region, learning about local peace building initiatives. They've also risked the wrath of the celebrity-advocacy culture by pointing out some of the problems with Invisible Children's approach to the crisis in northern Uganda. I asked them to guest post today about specific reasons the organization's approach is less effective than it could and should be, and - for those of you who complain that we never offer solutions around here - ways IC could do better. Here are their excellent thoughts on the subject (I couldn't resist adding emphasis in bold on some of their best points!):
With the talk of “badvocacy” flooding the international aid/development blogosphere during the past few months, we feel called (by Texas in Africa, mainly) to discuss San Diego-based NGO for northern Uganda, Invisible Children, its most recent “Rescue” campaign, and the upcoming “How it Ends” Uganda lobby days.
When we learned of IC’s April 2009 rallying campaign, “The Rescue,” and the two controversial t-shirts to go along with the event, we contacted multiple people at IC’s headquarters to ask what it would take to remove or redesign the shirts. In hindsight, we realized that it was naïve to ever expect the shirts to be changed or taken off the market. After all, a lot of money had been poured into designing and producing a shirt that would appeal to the American adolescent.
Therein lies the problem.
It seems IC has been blinded by its accolades and fan-clubs, paying more attention to what grabs the attention of West Coast hipsters, rather than seeking to know what would best work for northern Uganda. With a mentality like this, anything can be justified and anything goes.
Invisible Children spends far too much time fretting over the sensibilities and fashion of America’s youth, rather than focusing its efforts on the plights and cultural comfort levels of the “beneficiaries” of their advocacy.
When we first heard of the campaign, we called IC’s headquarters expecting an explanation for the campaign’s audacity. We were informed that the shirts had been approved by notable northern Ugandan leaders, including Chairman Norbert Mao, Gulu District Chairman and Uganda presidential candidate for 2011.
In correspondence with Mao, we learned that he had not, in fact, been consulted about the shirts and instead found them appalling. Angered that IC had used his name to defend their program when under attack, Mao contacted IC’s offices and told them to “stop dancing on the graves of our children.”
When we informed Jason Russell, one of the filmmakers and founders of Invisible Children, about our conversations with Mao, he argued that, as a politician, Mao’s word could not be trusted. Russell also confirmed that he had come up with the “I Heart the LRA” idea on a whim and was not sure if any locals outside of IC’s payroll were consulted and approved the shirts.
This is a symptom of the larger problem at hand. Not only does IC fail to base its decisions on what Ugandans think is best for them, the organization also make efforts to explain away any dissent. IC has become a brand with machine guns and cameras as its apparent logo and celebrity filmmakers as the protagonists against the evil LRA. The war is no longer about the people versus the LRA; it has transformed itself into something far too sensationalized and, at times, seemingly insincere. Poole, Russell, and Bailey v. Kony.
IC claims to be educating a band of “revolutionaries” consisting of youth, celebrities, and celebrity youth, who have been known, on occasion, to prove how little the actually know. This is evident in Disney star Miley Cyrus’ appeal to fans and Twitter followers to “buy one of [IC’s] bracelets to end a war in Uganda! :)”
For many of IC’s supporters, their only source of information regarding child-soldiering, northern Uganda, and violence in the surrounding region is IC’s flashy website, which focuses more on the organization and its founders than its supposed cause. Many of those wearing the shirts and following IC still believe what the movie Invisible Children: Rough Cut tells them: children are still commuting to town centers due to the war in northern Uganda, which is raging violently. The movie was filmed in 2003 and was outdated when it was released in 2006, as hostilities in northern Uganda ended in 2006, with night-commuting also stopping around that time.
To top it all off, the “How it Ends” lobby days later this month have a $60 price tag for kids to lobby their representatives. This, along with the sensationalized misinformation, is the wrong way to educate impressionable minds.
Despite these concerns, Invisible Children is achieving good works on the ground, though local sentiment toward the organization can often be unfavorable. Its micro-finance programs can be commended, as can its Schools for Schools program, which benefiting head teachers consider to be one of the best education programs for northern Uganda.
And this is why we are as concerned as we are. IC has great potential and opportunity to do good. The organization has successfully motivated masses of young people to be globally and politically active. Advocacy, however, does not end at trendy t-shirts and cool graphics.
If Invisible Children would focus its efforts on its own projects, which have proven effective in some cases, it would gain legitimacy as an organization and broaden the horizon for its avid followers, allowing them to understand more of the complexity of the regional war.
IC must also revamp its education program for its young activists. It is vital that those advocating on behalf of a cause know where the LRA is currently active, how the Ugandan government has failed to protect its own people, how the United States is involved, and what steps have been taken to reconstruct northern Uganda (i.e., through the Peace, Recovery, and Development Plan). It is vital that they understand that the key peace builders are not Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole. The key peace builders are Bishop Ochola, Archbishop Odama, members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, and many, many others who have lived through the war.
Invisible Children has paved the way in using media for social change. It would be a wise decision for the organization, then, to use its media talents for the sake of education. A video tutorial with detailed history of the war in northern Uganda and surrounding regions that focuses on the real-life happenings rather than the filmmakers’ personal journeys is imperative.
Even a remodeled website like IC’s former underground website, “Vanguard,” which was available only to those truly concerned about northern Uganda, would be beneficial if stripped of its militaristic language and imagery and made accessible to all who visit IC’s main website. Why the information on that website (i.e., how to be an activist, details of the war in northern Uganda, and accurate updates on the situation in Uganda, DRC, and South Sudan) was kept secret from the slews of people who visit the main website still doesn’t make sense to us. Being knowledgeable should not entitle you to secret club membership.
All NGOs have their pros and cons. At least Invisible Children is taking action and encouraging young people to do the same. The organization is young, though, as are its founders, who are filmmakers with no education in development, humanitarianism, human rights, or advocacy. None that we’re aware of anyway.
There is still room to grow and improve and gain respect by the people on whose behalf they advocate. We hope, then, that Invisible Children takes the advice of informed colleagues. If not, the children may remain "invisible" while the organization continues being entirely too visible.
Thanks so much to Erin and Dustyn for this thought-provoking post. Dustyn is live-tweeting from Uganda this month; if you're at all interested in what's going on there, you should definitely be following him on Twitter. You can follow Erin for great thoughts on peace building as well!