I honestly was not expecting this sort of response when I wrote my letter. It has only been a day and my letter seems to have, somehow, “gone viral”. Thank you to everyone who has read it. I am grateful and humbled that so many people took the time to read my letter. (For those of you who have asked, I have not received an official response from Jason Russell or even a confirmation that he has read it).
All of this activity has also entailed receiving many messages. I appreciate them all and I apologize that I have not addressed them. The past day has been so overwhelming that I needed some time before I could properly respond and react.
The biggest question that I have been asked is:
As my professor, Mahmood Mamdani, once said, “Certain assumptions drive research efforts, solutions and so much effort is expended in solving the problem as opposed to defining the problem. Once you have defined the problem, 90% of the solution is already there. Most of the time the solution is in the problem’s definition itself” (Columbia University, 10/20/10).
I believe this is important advice because I think often times there are actually more problems within the “solution”. Therefore, I suggest that the next step is to further explore the problems and continue to ask questions.
**I would like to clarify, I am not saying that we should “simply sit back and let people die”. I am saying that we should make sure that we fully understand the situation and the consequences of our actions, so it is not our very actions (no matter how good the intentions) that are actually responsible for more deaths. This way we can be sure we are responding to problems, not causing problems. However, for those of you who are still antsy, I will reassure you somewhat by saying that we are currently working on something…
For now, for those of you who are concerned and curious, I suggest that you begin by doing your own research. So, that you can make your own informed opinion based on your research and not merely on what Jason Russell, a journalist, or some random 22 year old college blogger has to say. I believe that the words of experts, scholars, and people with lived experiences are the best way to form these opinions. (I would like to clarify that I am not implying that these are three separate categories).
If you would like a starting point, I would recommend reading this piece written by AdamBranch.
Adam Branch is senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda, and assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University, USA. He is the author of “Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda” (Oxford, 2011).His work has focused primarily on the politics of human rights intervention in Uganda.
*I have also copied and pasted the text below (updated version):
Adam Branch March 11, 2012 Kampala, Uganda
From Kampala, the Kony 2012 hysteria was easy to miss. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, I don’t watch YouTube, and the Ugandan papers didn’t pick up the story for several days. But what I could not avoid were the hundreds of emails from friends, colleagues, and students in the US about the video by Invisible Children and the massive on-line response to it.
I have not watched the video. As someone who has worked in northern Uganda and done research on the war there for over a decade, much of it with a local human rights organization based in Gulu, the Invisible Children organization and their videos have often left me infuriated—I remember the sleepless night after I watched their “Rough Cut” film for the first time and then tried to explain to the audience of students what was wrong with the film while sitting on stage with one of the filmmakers.
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so convincingly by those on-line critics who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves. They have pointed out what is wrong with the group’s approach: the warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, their portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans. As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.
But, as I said, I wouldn’t have known about Kony 2012 if it hadn’t been for the flood of emails I received from the US. And that, I think, is telling. Kony 2012 and the debate around it are not about Uganda, but about America. Uganda is largely just the stage for a debate over the meaning of political activism in the US today. Likewise, in my view, the Kony 2012 campaign itself is basically irrelevant here in Uganda, and perhaps the best approach might be to just ignore it. This is for a couple reasons.
First, Invisible Children’s campaign is a symptom, not a cause. It is an excuse that the US government has gladly adopted in order to help justify the expansion of their military presence in central Africa. Invisible Children are “useful idiots,” being used by those in the US government who seek to militarize Africa, to send more weapons and military aid to the continent, and to build the power of states that are US allies. The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy—how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarization with or without Invisible Children—Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier. Therefore, it is the militarization we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.
Second, in northern Uganda, people’s lives will be left untouched by this campaign, even if it were to achieve its stated objectives. This is not because all the problems have been resolved in the years since open fighting ended, but because the most serious problems people face today have little to do with Kony. The most pressing are over land. Land speculators and so-called investors, many foreign, in collaboration with the Ugandan government and military, are grabbing the land of the Acholi people in northern Uganda, land that they were forced off of a decade ago when the government herded them into internment camps. Another serious problem for northern Uganda is so-called “nodding disease”—a deadly illness that has broken out among thousands of children who had the bad luck to be born and grow up in the camps, subsisting on relief aid. Indeed, the problems people face today are the legacy of the camps, where over a million Acholi were forced to live, and die, for years by their own government as part of a counterinsurgency that received essential support from the US and from international aid agencies.
Which brings up the question that I am constantly asked in the US: “What can we do?” where “we” tends to mean relatively privileged Americans. In response, and as a contribution to the debate going on in the US about Kony 2012, I have a few proposals. The first, perhaps not surprising from a professor, is to learn. The conflict in northern Uganda and central Africa is complicated, yes—but not impossible to understand. For several years, I have taught an undergraduate class on the conflict, and, although it takes some time and effort, the students end up informed enough to be able to come to their own opinions about what can be done. I am more than happy to share the syllabus with anyone interested! In terms of activism, I think the first step is to re-think the question: instead of asking how the US can intervene in order to solve Africa’s conflicts, we need to ask what we are already doing to cause those conflicts in the first place. How are we, as consumers, contributing to land grabbing and to the wars ravaging this region? How are we, as Americans, allowing our government to militarize Africa as part of its War on Terror and its effort to secure oil resources? These are the questions that those of us who represent Kony 2012’s target audience must ask ourselves, because we are indeed responsible for the conflict in northern Uganda—responsible for helping to cause and prolong it. It is not, however, our responsibility, as Invisible Children encourages us to believe, to try to end the conflict by sending in military force. In our desire to ameliorate suffering, we must not be complicit in making it worse.
The second biggest question I have been asked is my citations. I apologize that I did not provide them in the previous letter. Here is a list of my sources:
Finnström, Sverker. Living With Bad Surroundings : War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
Branch, Adam. Displacing Human Rights : War and Intervention in Northern Uganda. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Nibbe, Ayesha Anne. “The Effects of a Narrative: Humanitarian Aid and Action in the Northern Uganda Conflict”. Diss. University of California, Davis, 2011. 3456852
My own research that I conducted in the summer of 2010 and 2011 in Northern Uganda that focused on the effectiveness and role of NGOs, especially Invisible Children (even though it is actually a corporation) in the area. I will provide the report upon its official completion.
Lastly, my mentors and close family and friends in Uganda.
Again, thank you again for your support. I really appreciate it. It has been exciting to be a part of this process of questioning, problematizing, debating, sharing, and learning. It really goes to prove that we are not only capable of, but also demand, a higher level of discourse than that of a toddler. (No matter how cute he is).
After being bombarded with your KONY 2012 crusade, I have no choice but to respond to your highly inaccurate, offensive, and harmful propaganda. I realized I had to respond in hopes of stopping you before you cause more violence and deaths to the Acholi people (Northern Ugandans), the very people you are claiming to protect.
Firstly, I would like to question your timing of this KONY 2012 crusade in Uganda when most of the violence from Joseph Kony and the LRA (The Lord’s Resistance Army) has subsided in Uganda in the past 5 years. The LRA has moved onto neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic,and Southern Sudan. Why are you not urging action in the countries he is currently in? Why are you worried about Kony all of a sudden when Ugandans are not at this present moment?
This grossly illogical timing and statements on your website such as “Click here to buy your KONY 2012 products” makes me believe that the timing has more to do with your commercial interests than humanitarian interests. With the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and the waning interest in Invisible Children, it seems to be perfect timing to start a crusade. I also must add at this point how much it personally disgusts me the way in which you have commercialized a conflict in which thousands of people have died.
Secondly, I would like to address the highly inaccurate content of your video. Your video did not leave the viewer any more knowledgeable about the conflict in Uganda, but only emotionally assaulted. I could not help but notice how conveniently one-sided the “explanation” in your video was. There was absolutely no mention of the role of the Ugandan government and military in the conflict. Let alone the role of the U.S. government and military. The only information given is “KONY MUST BE STOPPED.”
I would like to inform you that stopping Kony would not end the conflict. (It is correctly pronounced “Kohn” by the way). This conflict is deeply embedded in Uganda’s history that neither starts nor ends with Kony. Therefore, your solution to the problem is flawed. There is no way to know the solution, without full knowledge of the problem itself. We must act on knowledge, not emotions.
Joseph Kony formed the LRA in retaliation to the brutality of President Museveni (from the south) committing mass atrocities on the Acholi people (from the north) when President Museveni came to power in 1986. This follows a long history of Ugandan politics that can be traced back to pre-colonial times. The conflict must be contextualized within this history. (If you want to have this proper knowledge, I suggest you start by working with scholars, not celebrities). President Museveni is still in power and in his reign of 26 years he has arguably killed as many, if not more Acholi people, than Joseph Kony. Why is President Museveni not demonized, let alone mentioned? I would like to give you more credit than just ignorance. I have three guesses. One is that Invisible Children has close ties with the Ugandan government and military, which it has been accused of many times. Second, is that you are willing to fight Kony, but not the U.S. Government, which openly supports President Museveni. Third, is that Invisible Children feels the need to reduce the conflict to better commercialize it.
This brings me to my third issue, the highly offensive nature of your video. Firstly, it is offensive to your viewer. The scene with your “explanation” of the conflict to your toddler son suggests that the viewers have the mental capacity of a toddler and can only handle information given in such a reductionist manner. I would like to think American teenagers and young adults (which is clearly your target audience) are smarter than your toddler son. I would hope that we are able to realize that it is not a “Star Wars” game with aliens and robots in some far off galaxy as your son suggests, but a real world conflict with real world people in Uganda. This is a real life conflict with real life consequences.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is offensive to Ugandans. The very name “Invisible Children” is offensive. You claim you make the invisible, visible. The statements, “We have seen these kids.” and “No one knew about these kids.” are part of your slogan. You seem to be strongly hinting that you somehow have validated and found these kids and their struggles.
Whether you see them or not, they were always there. Your having seen the kids does not validate their existence in any shape or form or bring it any more significance. You say “no one” knew about the kids. What about the kids themselves? What about the families of the kids who were killed and abducted? Are they “no one?” Are they not human?
These children are not invisible, you are making them invisible by silencing, dehumanizing, marketing, and invalidating them.
Last year I went to Gulu, Uganda, where Invisible Children is based, and interviewed over 50 locals. Every single person questioned Invisible Children’s legitimacy and intention. Every single person. If anything, it seemed the people saw Invisible Children as a bigger threat than Joseph Kony at the time. Why is it the very people you are trying to “help” feel more offense than relief with your aid?
“They come here to make money and use us.”
“It makes us feel terrible to be presented as being so stupid and helpless.”
These are direct quotes. This was the sentiment of the majority of the people that I interviewed in varying degrees. I definitely didn’t see or hear these voices or opinions in your video. If you are to be “saving” the Acholi people, the very least you can be doing is holding yourself accountable to them and actually listening to what they have to say.
This offensive, inaccurate misconstruction of Ugandans and the conflict makes me wonder what and whom this is really about. It seems that you feel very good about yourself being a savior, a Luke Skywalker of sorts, and same with the girl in your video who passionately states, “This is what defines us”. Therefore, I can’t help but wonder if Invisible Children is more about defining the American do-gooders (and making them feel good), rather than the Ugandans; profiteering the American military and corporations (which Invisible Children is officially and legally) than the conflict.
Lastly, I would like to address the harmful nature of your propaganda. I believe your actions will actually bring back the fighting in Northern Uganda. You are not asking for peace, but violence. The fighting has stopped in the past 5 years and the Acholi are finally enjoying some peace. You will be inviting the LRA and the fighting back into Uganda and disturbing this peace. The last time Invisible Children got politically involved and began lobbying it actually caused more violence and deaths. I beg you not to do it again.
If you open your eyes and see the actions of the Ugandan government and the U.S. government, you will see why. Why is it that suddenly in October of 2011 when there has been relative peace in Uganda for 4 years, President Obama decided to send troops into Uganda? Why is it that the U.S. military is so involved with AFRICOM, which has been pervading African countries, including Uganda? Why is it that U.S. has been traced to creating the very weapons that has been used in the violence? The U.S. is entering Uganda and other countries in Africa not to stop violence, but to create a new battlefield.
In your video you urge that the first course of action is that the Ugandan military needs American military and weapons. You are giving weapons to the very people who were killing the Acholi people in the first place. You are helping to open the grounds for America to make Uganda into a battlefield in which it can profit and gain power. Please recognize this is all part of a bigger military movement, not a humanitarian movement. This will cause deaths, not save lives. This will be causing more harm, than good.
You end your video with saying, “I will stop at nothing”. If nothing else, will you not stop for the lives of the Acholi people? Haven’t enough Acholi people suffered in the violence between the LRA and the Ugandan government? Our alliance should not be with the U.S. government or the Ugandan military or the LRA, but the Acholi people. There is a Ugandan saying that goes, “The grass will always suffer when two elephants fight.” Isn’t it time we let the grass grow?