Invisible Children Makes Ugandans Invisible

by | March 19, 2012
filed under Feminism

Kony 2012 Poster

by Jessica Critcher

As I started to write this post, I was trying to articulate exactly what bothered me about the controversial Kony 2012 video that recently took the internet by storm. Then on Friday, Jason Russell, director of the video and co-founder of Invisible Children, made my job a lot easier. He was detained by police for disruptive behavior, including masturbating in public.

I had been trying to put it delicately, but at this point, the comparison is hard to ignore. Now that it’s out there, I can’t get it out of my head: Kony 2012 bothers me because it’s like a white guy masturbating in public. The film is supposed to raise awareness about conditions in Uganda and bring attention to Joseph Kony, a violent dictator. The idea is that if he is famous, he can be brought to justice. While it did raise awareness, it also stroked Russell’s ego, and many have been critical of the film’s approach.

For one thing, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda. What’s more, bringing him down will not undo the damage he has already done, and it will not help survivors of violence in Uganda rebuild their lives.

For another thing, much of the film’s focus is on Jason Russell and his young son. By denying Ugandans a voice and any sense of agency, it is implied that Africans need to be saved by Americans. The idea that Africans are in need of our pity is ignorant and condescending at best. Visible Children, a Tumblr set up in response to this campaign, points out:

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”

Rosabell Idaltu Kagumire, a woman from Uganda, offers a very impassioned video response to the Invisible Children hysteria. In part of her response, she says:

If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story. You should not be telling my story if you don’t believe that I have the power to change what is going on. And this video seems to say that the power lies in America, and it does not lie with my government, it does not like with local initiatives on the ground. That aspect is lacking, and that is the problem.

In a less subtle response, a screening of the film in Uganda ended with villagers throwing rocks at the screen. Apparently they were less than pleased with having their story twisted to fit the story Jason Russell was telling.

It doesn’t help that the same day Russell was detained by police, George Clooney was arrested for protesting in Washington DC. While he was striving to raise awareness about conditions in the Sudan, the media attention focused primarily on Clooney. It would appear that Westerners like the idea of caring about problems in Africa, but only if there is a white man involved.

Despite this harsh criticism, the people responsible for this campaign (and those that were inspired enough to share the video) are probably motivated by a genuine desire to help. If Invisible Children left a bad taste in your mouth, there are still things ordinary people can do to help survivors of war and violence in developing nations.

I recommend reading Half The Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sharyl WuDunn. The focus of this book is on global violence against women, but the solutions offered can help people of all genders. If this trend of online activism has you motivated to help right now, you can read this excerpt from the book’s epilogue called Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes.  It has been proven that millions of people can be motivated to care about the suffering of others—the effects of that remain to be seen.

(photo by Collin Harvey via Flickr)

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  • Kai Jordan Tate Pedersen

    Responding to this is futile, not to mention way too late, but I’m going to do it anyway because I’m a human being, and we human beings are fickle, emotional beings with an immeasurable talent for wasting time.

    Your article is riddled with so much misinformation it’s a wonder you don’t hold yourself to a higher standard, as you write for a magazine with such a noble focus. Let’s start at the top. Joseph Kony is not, and has never been a dictator. (To be honest, when I got to that part of your article I was truly skeptical that you ever watched any of Invisible Children’s documentaries at all.) Joseph Kony is the cult leader of the Ugandan-based, anti-government rebel group The Lord’s Resistance Army. (Please note that when I say “Ugandan-based,” I mean that they were a group born in Uganda and their goals as an organization are rooted in Uganda.) No, “much of the focus of the film” is not at all on Jason Russell and his son. The film features Jason Russell and his son, the former as the narrator having dedicated his life to telling this story, and the latter being used to contextualize it through the eyes of a child. Furthermore, you bring information to your reader as if you think it’s contrary to the positions of Invisible Children. “For one thing, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda” you say in your third paragraph. This is another passage that really leads me to question your dedication to tell the full story about this organization and their video because in the very documentary you are criticizing, Kony 2012, they are very clear that Kony and the LRA have moved out of Uganda. This is not something that Invisible Children isn’t being truthful about, it’s piece of the narrative they are very careful to include. I’d like to look at your third paragraph in a broader context because your third paragraph is the climax of everything this piece as a whole gets disastrously wrong.

    “For one thing, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda. What’s more, bringing him down will not undo the damage he has already done, and it will not help survivors of violence in Uganda rebuild their lives.”

    Do you have any idea how ridiculously ignorant this statement is to anyone who’s spent longer than a week thinking about this conflict? Joseph Kony no longer being in
    Uganda does not make his war crimes (war crimes, remember?) any less punishable, and they do not make him and his army any less dangerous. You’re right, bringing him down will not undo the damage he has already done, but you say that as if it makes him worthy of an ethical pardon. You do know that he is the number 1 most wanted person in the world by the International Criminal Court ( (the chief prosecutor of which was in the video passionately advocating for Kony’s capture)? Finally “it will not help the survivors of violence in Uganda rebuild their lives…” are you kidding me? Are. You. Kidding. me?

    Well, you won. We didn’t get Kony in 2012, and the media crucifixion of Invisible Children in the months following the campaign led to their rapid financial suffocation. Because of this, we have a small case study. So. Your honest hypothesis is that if Kony had been captured and the LRA disbanded it wouldn’t have at least had a chance of prevented this:

    There have been at least 432 LRA incidents, 30 civilian deaths, and 1,432 LRA abductions ( Invisible Children’s announcement to shut down their U.S. operations. Do you honestly believe that, if we had captured Joseph Kony and disbanded the LRA in 2012 or 2013 it wouldn’t have prevented any of them?

    Invisible Children partnered with World Vision Uganda to build and assist in the operation of The Children of War Rehabilitation Center (, which I’m sure you did your due diligence and read about before you wrote your piece, has assisted over 18,000 LRA affected Ugandans… “rebuild their lives.” Do you really believe their lives were unaffected by Invisible Children’s work, or the broader effort to disarm, degrade, and destroy the LRA?

    A few points before I conclude: the film never denied Ugandan’s a voice. I don’t know if you noticed from actually watching the film, but they interviewed Ugandans. Something I highly doubt that you know about the Invisible Children story is that they stumbled upon the story of Kony and the LRA in the early 2000s after Jason Russell and a few of his friends were personally invited to Uganda, by a Ugandan woman named Jolly Okot Andruvile ( who— I have personally heard say— invited them because she wanted this story told. She is one of Invisible Children’s Co-Founders; which, again, you must have known from researching this piece.

    The white man was invited by a Ugandan. Why? Probably for the same reason that (I assume) you want men to be feminists… because they have power.

    Ma’am, I am an extremely liberal political scientist with a highly anti- Eurocentric view of history (and current affairs). I’m also a personal friend of Jason Russell’s. (Kony 2012’s success did not stroke his ego, it traumatized him). I’ve also been a supporter of Invisible Children for nearly a decade. It matters not what Ivy League professor’s vague quotes you use. They don’t know the issue, the organization, or its leaders* like I do. Your “white man’s burden” allegations have absolutely no basis in reality (though they are valid concerns).

    Let’s be very clear about something. When you say that Jason Russell’s filmed naked breakdown makes criticizing his charity work easier you are attacking someone
    with a mental illness ( He is diagnosed bipolar. Kony 2012 is not like a white guy masturbating in public. That’s an offensive mischaracterization of everything that happened (and, frankly, if more white guys got off to ending child soldiery, slavery and prostitution the world might be a better place), but what is, by far your most egregious mistake is this:

    It is a travesty you believe the campaign that reduced LRA killings by 93%, and brought 67% more child soldiers home ( wasn’t worth the alleged “stroking of one man’s ego”.

    When Kony 2012 happened I was 18… It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of invisible Children. I saw their first documentary, Rough Cut, in 2006 or 7. But watching that video, and putting up posters all night in downtown San Diego a few months later made me (and tens of thousands others) feel like the world was finally ready (after a thousand years of same old, same old) to be a better version of itself. I pity you because you missed out on that… (

    …instead we got criticized into irrelevancy for the crimes of being white (thousands of us were not), being men (thousands of us were not) and being Western (thousands of us were not). I think that entire process was far more about your own ego, and your sense of emotional and intellectual security than it was about ours, or Jason’s. You got your mainstream media train ride, though, resulting in the destruction of one of the best charities on earth ( I hope it was worth it to you.