Monday, March 12, 2012


‘What’s all this Kony2012 stuff eh?’ I was on a snowboard in the French Alps last week enjoying a restorative break from emails and our social networked world. I have been asked for my thoughts and listened to others opinions and I have felt an impending sense of dread about watching the video. I have just watched it.

I really don’t want to be overly cynical and especially don’t wish to criticise anyone who, with the best intentions, has supported this campaign. I’m glad that people are talking and hope this conversation will continue to delve deeper, to explore, to broaden our minds and to move our hands and feet.

A bit about my background (skip this bit if you’ve heard it already!)
Overall the Kony 2012 campaign is entirely surreal to me. My major interest, research and passion over the past few years has been on raising awareness about children who have been affected by war and attempting to provide the best possible assistance to them. I have heard hundreds of stories from young people about killing, rape, mutilation, looting, beating and grief. Many evenings over pints with local friends in Uganda and the DRC I have asked questions about the political, spiritual and cultural forces that have caused this trauma.

It was meeting victims of the LRA in northern Uganda that helped me decide to quit teaching and study for a psychology doctorate. In 2010 we worked in Gulu, northern Uganda, with over 200 former child soldiers and other war-affected children. After that we spent a couple of years designing interventions that to the best of our ability were evidence-based, culturally-appropriate and effective in treat trauma and psychological distress in former child soldiers, sexually-exploited girls and other war affected children. Last year we spent 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo delivering and evaluating this intervention. It was the first group intervention to be developed for child soldiers and evaluated in a controlled trial. Since then we have published papers and spoken at conferences, universities, churches, radio and newspapers in an attempt to raise awareness and encourage others to do similar work. My friend and colleague Paul is currently working with former child soldiers and their families in Dungu, DRC.

I mention these things not to compare or draw attention but rather to show my amazement at the great power of a 30-minute video clip in getting people talking. Our own travels and work pale in comparison to the 30+ years of life that has been dedicated by other amazing people who have quietly lived for others through the worst years of the wars in Uganda and the DRC.

The Kony2012 clip is powerful, firstly because it is extremely well-made and secondly because it is simple, black+white and clear. One of the reasons that I have found it difficult to tell our stories at times is because there are so many nuances, intricacies and shades of grey. I will be clear on this one though. In my opinion the Kony2012 campaign is oversimplified, self-aggrandising, patronising, irrational and seeks to re-write history in a misguided attempt to shape the future. I could let all of this go if the greater good were to raise awareness and encourage young people around the world to stand against injustice. I can’t because I truly believe that this campaign has the potential to cause more harm than good. Here are the reasons why:

1. The Acholi people of northern Uganda that I have spoken to fear Kony rather than hate him.  Kony, like Alice Auma before him, is one of their own. He stood up against the government that were oppressing them. Since then he has become a madman/spirit/devil/psychopath (take your pick) and has committed many atrocities on his own people. However it is Ugandan government and the president of 26 years, Museveni, that is the real enemy of the people in northern Uganda. I wrote this on my blog from Gulu in 2010:
Living with the people here reveals a story which is so different than its portrayal in the media and the safety of other parts of the country. The situation is full of such deep spiritual, political and tribal complexities that it cannot be explained by the simple notion of the madman Joseph Kony and an army of child soldiers. The vitriol of most people is reserved not for Kony and the LRA but for Museveni and his government’s army who have persecuted these people, inflicted many of the same atrocities as the LRA and forced 1.8 million people to live in squalor and dependency in the disease and death-infested IDP camps.’
The aim of all of the posters, wristbands, videos etc of the Kony2012 seems to be to support Museveni the Ugandan president through American military support. Musevni has directly or indirectly caused many deaths in northern Uganda & the wider region. He recently spent $740 million on six fighter jets and other military equipment. This could have eradicated many of Uganda’s public health problems. Sending more money, arms or American advisors is likely to further destabilise not just Uganda but its neighbours.
2. Kony and the LRA are not in Uganda anyway. 10 years ago this campaign may have been effective, drawing global attention to both LRA and Ugandan government atrocities. But the LRA have not been there for 6 years. Gulu is thriving. You could go there now for a nice safe holiday. Ugandans no longer want to be defined by Joseph Kony or Idi Amin. Also, this video massively overstates the role of Invisible Children in Uganda’s past and its future. Hundreds of American and European students have been to Gulu over the past 6 years to do research. NGOs and local government in the north, are working on rehabilitation, education, sanitation, health, vocational training, resolving land conflicts etc. International campaigning beyond this is not useful. I understand eager tweeters wanting to help end a war in Uganda. They are unaware that this war is non-existent. Invisible Children are well aware of this and completely gloss over the facts before doing their money call.
        3. Kony and the LRA are reckoned to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC has been the setting for the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II with local and international, government and rebel forces fighting over the DRC’s vast mineral wealth resulting in an estimated 5.4 million ‘excess deaths’ from 1998 to 2007 (Coghlan et al, 2007). This is the biggest death toll in any conflict since WWII. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is thought to have the largest concentration of child soldiers in the world, from as young as 7, fighting or living with at least nine separate armed groups (Bell, 2006; Wessells, 2006).  The LRA are just one of these groups and Kony is just one of these commanders. Out of thousands of child soldiers in the DRC maybe a few hundred are LRA. It is Western greed for mineral resources and the corruption of African leadership that is prolonging this conflict. This is the reason that children are being used as child soldiers. Why is no one talking about this?
4. Not all child soldiers are abducted. Many of those we worked with joined voluntarily or were recruited. Reasons for joining armed forces include: poverty, hunger, being orphaned, separation from parents, lack of education, a need for protection, revenge, power, excitement and political socialisation (Betancourt et al, 2008; Wessells, 2006). We need to consider and intervene with these underying issues. Children are makers of meaning who are often influential actors, not passive participants, in political conflicts.
5. In 2009 a significant oil deposit was discovered in Uganda near the border with the DRC. Past history has made me very suspicious about any US military involvement where oil is concerned. In any case there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that the US are going to pull out their advisors, especially with elections looming. So why are we being asked to ‘make Kony famous’?
6. In their response to criticism, Invisible Children state that around a third of their profits go to work on the ground. Is this supposed to be good? The three main folk in IC pay themselves almost $90,000 per year. That’s before the sales of these ‘Action Kits’. Make of that what you will. I do know of some good work that Invisible Children are doing in the DRC. I’m not sure why don’t they promote this more.
7. Africans are not helpless, hopeless victims. They can find solutions to their own problems. We can support, as we would with any country, but we can’t do it for them. There is an incredible culture of forgiveness among the Acholi people. Almost everyone I spoke to in northern Uganda (the actual victims) wanted Kony and the LRA to come home, to go through traditional justice practices such as mato oput, rather than the ICC.
8. Introducing more violence to stop violence is not the answer. This blog by someone living close to where the LRA currently operates describes this really well-
9. [From my younger, wiser brother] I'm sceptical of a increasingly prevalent attitude amongst our generation that believes we can change the world without sacrifice and without prayer and without considering the facts deeply. There is much good in the world of social-media but our social activism cannot be armchair activism alone. Will my like, share or retweet actually solve that regions problems? Surely we need a bit more depth than this?
10.  [This point is more about personal annoyance than the danger of this campaign!] I realise the video was intended to be short and snappy to grab attention. Surely though a few more actual facts and footage from Africa would be preferable to bouncing American students, smug senators and family videos. 
Sorry for the length of this. I should have made a video instead! Like I said at the start I understand the reaction and support of the campaign and would never criticise anyone who tweeted or shared in it. I do believe that in the West we need to look at how we are causing and prolonging conflicts in other countries rather than trying to fix them. This new power of social media activism is scary but I’m choosing to believe it could be positive and powerful if the light is pointed in the right direction.
Further reading if you wish:
- You can read stories from northern Uganda and the DRC if you look back through this blog. Some of them are harrowing.
- I have written a literature review on children and war that I can email.
- We have written empirical papers from our trips for journal publication that I can also forward.
- If that’s not enough I would recommend Michael Wessell’s book ‘Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection


Ellen said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this Brother - it helped me clarify my uncertain thoughts on the campaign.

Brian said...

Thanks for this John it is a very helpful, insightful and balanced article. Peace to you

Chris Scorah said...

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your blog and your research. I too wanted to like the video before I watched it but it never sat right. Thank you for articulating why. I've been really struggling to process my own experiences of the DRC in 2009, and would love it if you emailed me those docs your mention in your blog?

Grace & Peace,
Chris ><>

Anonymous said...

Hi John - thanks for posting an excellent article. This articulately sums up much of my thinking on the situation, but with evidence and experience behind it. I've been following the whole thing with great interest over the past week - I find the whole debate fascinating. I think the most positive thing to come from it is that people who have never considered the issues around conflict/Africa/development, etc, are looking at this campaign in a critical way - I appreciate that people are thinking and talking about the depth behind these issues for the perhaps the first time. Unfortunately, I suspect the majority of individuals will take the video at face value. This is probably one of the best links I've come across -

Matt said...

It seems that wherever the United States destroys "evil governments", anarchy takes over. Extreme groups take over power and people were better of with a dictator. If you take something away, you plant something good instead, otherwise evil will backfire on you 7 times worse.

Anonymous said...

I've been to Uganda (not Gulu) I love the sound of what you have chosen as your vocation- keep it up. It is complicated and Kony is not the only culprit. The west is not as pure in motive as we appear. I have watched the video. The campaign started in Uganda but does not portray itself as a Ugandan campaign. You say that the president is the main enemy who is opressing them but then claim that the Ugandans are not helpless and hopeless. This does not mean that Kony is not worth pursuing as an enemy of the people and a major source of evil and oppression. Voluntary child soldiers are no less victimised. It is difficult to use social activism to change complex issues in foreign countries but it may help with "simpler" issues. Surely a central africa without Kony is better than one with him in it. I understand your skepticism and I sympathise but I think you are being overly critical and possibly writing out of a degree of jealously. I am a childrens doctor and I am confused why you- who have seen the pain inflicted by war are not furiously angry enough at Joseph Kony to support Kony2012.

Lyn said...

Thanks, John, for your honest and thoughtful contribution.
I hope this gets a wider airing, and that some serious people might choose to follow up on your offered further reading, at least. Though I know that reading more does not make a difference where it counts.....!
I would like to read your literature review and maybe consider your empirical papers from your trips, though! In the hopes that all this social network coverage brings more people into the frame who CAN do what is right in God's eyes for the affected children of all these regions.......Thank you again for your positive contributions!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining.

J-Mac said...

Thanks for the input folks. The worldwide conversation has been worth having I feel. I'm sorry to respond to the only anonymous commenter but...

I have worked with children raped and mutilated by the LRA, that have watched their parents heads get blown off, been forced to beat their best friends to death or be killed themselves, been forced to cut up the bodies of their enemies. I am indeed furiously angry with Kony and have dreamt in the past of going after him myself. I would love to see a central Africa without Kony AND the other rebel and government warlords.

However I don't believe Kony2012 is the answer. The ultimate goal of this is campaign is to prevent the removal of the US advisors which was never on the cards anyway. So what is the point ultimately? Any military attack on Kony will result in the killing of the child soldiers that stand around him. Is this the goal? Supporting Museveni is backing a dictator who has history and possibly the will to destablise an entire region.

I'm aware that voluntary child soldiers are victims as are other non-combatant war-affected children which is why we worked with all of these. This is also why I can't support a campaign that I feel is more likely to cause harm than good. I could be wrong but I'm sure you as a child doctor understand these motives.

I'd like to respond to the jealousy suggestion but am genuinely unsure what it is you think I'm jealous of?

lisa said...

This is really helpful. I appreciate your on-the-ground perspective. We've lived in East Africa for the better part of 20 years and we're often frustrated by the way things here are portrayed elsewhere. I do believe that IC mean well and I do pray for Mr. Russell's protection and return to health.