"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


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!


Anonymous zulusafari said...

I'm happy to see a critique of IC. We ALL need it from time to time. I think you guys have missed the boat on a few big things that skewed your portrayal of IC.
First the organization is no where near a traditional NGO, and you are treating it and critiquing it as such. There is zero publication to this, but the heart of the organization is Christian and works and operates with that worldview. That's the first HUGE difference.
There is no doubt this organization's founders are quite young and were very young at the outset. They are all media and film makers (Christians) foremost and not humanitarian workers. In this they are formally uneducated about working in NGO context and running a large company/non-profit.
What they have got right is advocacy, as you pointed out. They hit the nail squarely on the head. They found out they could take this film as use it as a mouth piece and energize a movement with and unreached and unenergized segment of the population.
I am in the mission world, doing media, living in Sudan (the place they IC guys wanted to go but were not allowed and settled on Uganda). I have followed IC for a few years lamenting that more non-profits and mission orgs cannot do the kind of marketing and advocacy IC has managed to do.

I don't think the average Ugandan, no matter how educated and what life they have in Uganda could know how or what to market to American adolecense. We don't want to be offending them (the Ugandans) but at the same time, perhaps they misunderstand the message. The kids get it, but the Ugandans misinterpret it. They are not the target audience.
I remember a friend who started a non-profit for porn addition, etc. He actually went into the LA porn shows with his own booth and ministered to the industry inside the industry. Here's the crazy part.... he printed Bibles that said 'Jesus Loves Porn Stars' on the front cover. I know that more than a few Christians and churches were furious about it, but the message was on target, truth and proper for the market audience. It was a hit. I give that example to say that just b/c a Ugandan is offended doesn't mean that shirt isn't doing great things for him.
Even if it stops at awareness, that youth is going to grow up and be wiser, more knowledgeable and more apt to take part in advocacy, donations or working in a needy place.
As you point out, it's unfortunate that they are telling the same story (the film) today that is outdated. Though they have made numerous short films that are more relevant and they don't push the original film as they used to.

You asked for a video tutorial of Uganda's history??? They have one. Don't recall it's name, but I've seen bits here and there on all their more recent short films.
There is no doubt they have targeted and gone all out on pushing the hip and cool style of promoting the travesties in Uganda. There's not problem with that as long as the accompanying message is proper.
I think their lobbying bent is perhaps a bit misguided, but I think everyone would admit that it's the few crazy radicals who help create radical change. There's no doubt most of Africa doesn't need change, but radical change.
Lastly, on your note about grabbing attention of West Coast hipsters verse Uganda. In my young experience, it's become obvious to me that an organization that works in Africa (as an example) has one face there and a TOTALLY different face in the US or their donor country(s). This again goes back to one of my original points, it's two different audiences. There's nothing wrong with two different faces as long as your message and what you are doing align, it just looks different.
I long for the day when mission organizations have the leadership and desire to do the quality work that IC does in it's advocacy. They know there audience well and have met their 'needs' to get them interested and involved. So far everyone else has basically failed at this all together.
Being critical is good, but be sure to have the proper context of the organization before going at them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 8:29:00 AM

Blogger Kabiza Wilderness Safaris said...

Thank you for your refreshing different article regarding Northern Uganda.
I have a website where in 2005 I wrote an article regarding Kony and the LRA and child soldiers, in order to clarify the present situation, the rebuilding, the peace that has been there for over two years, the amnesty program, the wishes of the Acholi people and much more.
It is funny how the followers of one organization who have never set inside of Uganda, much less the north of Uganda get such twisted views regarding the present state of Uganda.

People, young people, primarily in the USA have been feeding on dis and mis-information regarding Northern Uganda, I do not find that with Europeans, or Australians, or from other parts of the world(I am an American)
The blogs I read regarding norhern Uganda, Kony, the LRA at times make me want to scream. Where do they get this, American Press which does not check facts but prints press releases.
NGO want to keep Northern Uganda in a state of war, since it means more fund raising.
Uganda has enough of a bad image with Idi Amin, Aids, Joseph Kony and the LRA.
Thousands stay away from visiting Uganda and helping the Economy of Uganda through tourism. Murchison Falls is open and running in spite of erroneous reports regarding its safety...there are other tourims destinations in the North that could employ many more if...
But the campaign of dis-information roars on...and the Minister of Tourism wonders why?

As far as the disparaging remarks of Chairman Mao...he is an honest man, who some call the Obama of Uganda. He has a clean record unlike many other politicians.

The T-Shirts -The Acholi people would shudder...and proves the article Commercializing Children's Suffering Is Macabre: Written by Juliane Okot Bitek, in the Black Star News correct. She is an Acholi Woman living in Vancouver, Canada.

Thank you from Kampala...jon

Thursday, June 11, 2009 11:46:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Dustyn and Erin have limited internet access right now. I'll let them respond to most of these points, but a few things:

@zulusafari - There are plenty of Christian organizations out there. I make no distinction as to religious affiliation or the lack thereof when evaluating whether an organization is being effective or not. I don't treat IC as a missions organization because IC doesn't present itself as a missions effort Having good intentions isn't enough to excuse incredibly culturally-insensitive behavior. I think we'll just have to agree to disagree about messaging; it seems to me to be very bad form to send Americans wearing those t-shirts into Uganda (as IC does).

@Kabiza - Glad you liked the post. More information all around can't be bad for any of this. I have a really hard time understanding why IC keeps pushing an outdated message.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 12:01:00 PM

Anonymous zulusafari said...

Are we talking about effectiveness or their method of work? The meat of this post seems to attack their methods, not how effective they are. I doubt anyone could argue how effective their advocacy has been in the US. I'm clueless as to their measurable effectiveness has been in Uganda.

I agree that wearing those shirts into Uganda is 'bad form' if not outright offensive and insensitive. They're great for the market in America, not great for Uganda.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 2:48:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll admit that I know little about this subject, and have solely been following it on this blog, so not to stir the pot but:

"I doubt anyone could argue how effective their advocacy has been in the US. I'm clueless as to their measurable effectiveness has been in Uganda."

If the organization is set up to advocate FOR Uganda, isn't it supremely important to measure how effective they have been there? Is the argument that they are great at advocacy, or great at marketing? Sure, folks buy the t-shirts to be cool. But if it's effective in the US yet isn't effective in the very country the organization is advocating for, isn't that a massive fail?

Not trying to argue; just felt that was a valid question.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 3:23:00 PM

Anonymous Sara Ross said...

Great comment on Anne Jackson's blog. Glad to find you.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 3:41:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks, Sara.

Zulusafari, @awesomeave made exactly the right point. What difference does it make if they're effective in mobilization in the States if it doesn't help matters on the ground? And the fact is, despite all the pressure on the U.S. government by IC's advocates, not much has really changed as a result of their efforts. (As Erin and Dustyn point out, they've had success in education programs and the like, but not in the larger political goals or the stabilization of the region as a whole.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009 5:24:00 PM

Blogger Paul "Paco" Miller said...

"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."

I used to be a big fan of IC, but then I took time to actually research the actual history and started to find they didn't do so great a job of portraying all the facts. But what really turned the tables for me was going to see Archbishop Odama speak. Here is a great man who has truly devoted his life to working for peace in Uganda. The funny thing is he never mentioned IC and IC never mentions him. As great as IC is at motivating American youth, I'm struggling to find good evidence of what they have done to make real progress towards peace. It is people like Odama that are really leading the peace movement. But I guess it's not as cool for American youth to hear about the work of old Africans as young Americans galavanting through the jungle.

And to excuse marketing that is offensive to the very people it is supposed to be advocating for, by saying they can't understand how to market to American youth or understand it (no matter how educated) is unacceptable. That in itself is degrading to Ugandans.

Great post guys. Thanks @texasinafrica for sharing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009 8:39:00 PM

Anonymous zulusafari said...

I'm thinking of a MUCH bigger picture when I talk about advocacy. The long term effects of that & not just what IC is doing on the ground or what their US market is doing today, but how that will effect them, the decisions they make, where they put their money, how they raise their kids in the future when they are adults. Ultimately it's about changing and growing one's world-view, one that is VERY small & limited in the US culture.

If you're only looking at what IC does in Uganda as a measure of effectiveness, that's fine. But it's not what I'm talking about at all. I'm talking about advocacy standing alone. I see their advocacy not just effecting people getting involved through IC, but people getting involved all over the world with lots of organizations for the rest of their lives.

Friday, June 12, 2009 4:25:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

But is teaching people to be involved with culturally-insensitive organizations that don't always do their homework really a good lesson to learn? I agree - forming habits of advocating, spending differently, and being aware of poverty are important and we should encourage it. But we should encourage RESPONSIBLE advocacy in those who are just learning how to do it, too. Teaching people to give money and time willy-nilly doesn't help anyone.

Friday, June 12, 2009 12:27:00 PM

Anonymous AgentA said...

You said that Norbert Mao "was appalled" about the situation with the "I Heart the LRA" t-shirts.

There's a picture on I.C.'s Behind the Scenes blog of Jason, Bobby, and Laren WITH Mao, who has one of the said t-shirts on.

To quote the caption of the photo: "The honorable Norbert Mao in the “I HEART THE LRA” t-shirt:

-He said to us, “This is what I have been telling everyone for years… we need to love these ones out of the bush. That is the only way this war will end. This shirt, especially when you read between the lines brings that message home, and we hope it reaches the ones who are still away.”

He requested this message to be postered all over northern Uganda.

We are helping him to accomplish his mission.

…and we got an amazing 30 minute interview as he wears this contreversial t-shirt.-

I know this isn't Uganda but I get the core message of the shirts that ARE geared towards the college/high school age era. I.C. has used that marketing very effectively. While I can't prove that all of the money gets to Uganda, I can say that for me, the VARIOUS AND UPDATED I.C. documentaries have been very effective in showing me that there's more than just me in the world.

Friday, June 12, 2009 10:27:00 PM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

I will only respond to AgentA, due to time constraints and the fact that TiA responded well to everything else.

Yes, I've seen the blog post and it is quite upsetting on a couple of levels.

We corresponded with Mao after being told he approved the tshirts. He said he did not and said he would ask IC to "stop dancing on the graves of our children."

This is disturbing for a couple of reasons because 1.) IC went into Uganda and convinced Mao. If you are advocating for people you shouldn't have to convince them that you're right, you should listen to what they think is right.

2.) Mao says he wants the message posted all over Uganda. If he means "I Heart the LRA" that is terrible. There are better ways to promote national reconciliation and understanding than through shocking, offensive slogans.

Thank you all for your comments and thanks again to TiA.

Saturday, June 13, 2009 1:40:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Also, I can't personally attest because I haven't had opportunity to see it, but I hear through the grapevine that IC has a video up portraying an abduction without any disclaimers. If this is so -- I'm speechless.

Saturday, June 13, 2009 2:33:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dustyn, this is so upsetting. I cannot believe that people would disclaim something like this. Well, actually it's hard to believe that they'd be filming a real abduction...it must have been fake. What kind of disclaimer were you looking for? "No real or former child soldiers were hurt in the making of this video"? Seems like this type of video is pretty self explanatory, but then again maybe we should include disclaimers on every piece of media ever made.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 6:28:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Or maybe once again, stop trying to sensationalize everything. Just a thought.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 11:19:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Anon, there's a major issue with filming children who are being abused, which is what I'd argue happens to abducted children. You wouldn't show something like this if it were an American or Western child, so why is it okay to show those images of a Ugandan child?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 1:04:00 PM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Thanks, TiA.

I fail to understand how people don't understand that sensationalizing another's suffering is sincere or OK. That's what boggles my mind most about all of this.

Maybe I can get some more insight into this tomorrow.

Sunday, June 21, 2009 9:27:00 AM


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