Saturday, March 17, 2012

Kony 2012 Video

**NOTE** I wrote a week ago, and then the power went out. And then it went out again. And again. Thus, I gave up posting my thoughts until today.

At this point, the Kony 2012 video is probably a thing of the long-lost-past in the rest of the world (rendering my post irrelevant), but here in Uganda it remains a hot topic. In short, the government is angry. In a radio report I heard yesterday members of parliament were discussing the issue. Long story short, the video makes Uganda look like a war-zone and frightens would-be tourists away thereby hurting the economy. My point: when the news stories fall out of the main CNN, FOX, BBC, REUTERS, NYTIMES, ABC, etc... headlines, American's often think, "Hey, everything worked out!" But often, it didn't, as is the case here.

Last week a video was released by an NGO in Uganda called Invisible Children (IC). The video went viral on YouTube, and if I understand correctly, there has been a sudden avalanche of support from the American people who want to donate money to IC which would enable them to put more pressure on the US government to increase the US military efforts currently under way to capture Kony.

But you probably already know that.

A few days ago, a friend suggested the following in her facebook status (paraphrased): Before you buy into the hype and jump on the bandwagon, a more critical inspection of Invisible Children is in order. She then suggested that there are many other charities in Africa that are worthy of donations and that the public should look into them. Finally, she asked me, based on my experiences in Uganda, to comment. Never one opposed to voicing an opinion, I jumped at the opportunity.

What lies ahead of you should you continue reading?

(a.) Thoughts on the IC - Kony 2012 video
(b.) What does IC do?
(c.) More thoughts on the video
(d.) Thoughts on aid in Uganda (which are applicable to aid in general)
(e.) “Devon, I want to help. How can I help?”

(a.) Thoughts on the IC - Kony 2012 video

Before I left home, I watched a film called "GO" about IC bringing twelve students from the USA to Uganda to see where the money they raised for the "Schools for Schools" program was going. With a solid narration, an awesome soundtrack and creative videography - not to mention key-words including Child Soldiers, War, Joseph Kony, War-Ravaged, HIV/AIDS and Poverty sprinkled liberally throughout - the movie was incredibly moving, leaving some of the people I showed it to speechless and others in tears.

What was I thinking post-“GO” as I boarded a plane for Uganda?

“Holy shit. Half of the country I am moving to is at war!!!”

Like so many other misconceptions I had about my future service, I could not have been further from the truth, and it was Invisible Children that had happily lead me astray.

Uganda has (many) problems, but right now, war isn't one of them.

Is there a war in Northern Uganda? No.

Do villages in the north reflect the devastation of the war? As far as I’ve seen in my travels, villages in the north look about the same as villages in the south, east, or west: Lots of mud huts and houses, and the buildings that are falling in on themselves do so because they are not maintained.

Are their child-soldiers roaming around killing innocent northerners? Absolutely not.

[Note: It warrants mention, however, that there are Ex-child soldiers that are being reintegrated into society. As you can imagine, they are in need of serious counseling to overcome all that they have seen and participated in.]

Are there men lurking in the nighttime shadows of Gulu trying to abduct children into the Lord’s Resistance Army’s ranks? No, no, no.

Therein lies Invisible Children’s dirty little secret:

There are no more INVISIBLE CHILDREN in Uganda.

Is Joseph Kony in Uganda? No. He left years ago. He is now in the Democratic Republic of Congo (or so it has been reported).

[Note: That doesn’t mean he isn’t a bad man who is still doing bad things. But should the USA continue to go after all bad men who do bad things? Our government’s world-police mentality it is one of the things for which I catch the most flack for when I announce that I am from America (which is getting scarier and scarier to do, by the way…).

“Why did you kill (Person)?!”
“Why are you fighting in (Place)?”
“All you want in America is (Thing… typically OIL).”

I’ve heard them all and more time and again.]

[Another Note: What Northern Uganda lacks in guerilla warriors and horror, it makes up for in idle people, again, like much of Uganda. With all the atrocities of the war, NGOs rushed to Gulu and other northern cities to begin doling out food, money, etc... to victims. After years of taking, people began to see that if they sat around long enough, a white land-cruiser would pass by offering handouts. The more miserable they looked, the more terrible their story, the more access to aid they got.

A nasty downward spiral ensued.

Case in point: A school is overcrowded, and a new building is desperately needed. What should be done is for the village to get together, pool their resources and begin building. What actually happens is that the village puts up with the overcrowding until IC or another NGO comes along and offers to pick up the tab.]

What do I think about the Kony 2012 video?

It’s 30-minute lie that has made part of Uganda look like hell and has thus done damage to the Ugandan people. IC is using fear-mongering, playing to an audience eager to be indignant.

In my opinion, the video should be completely disregarded.

But forget my opinion: What do the Ugandan’s think?

Every Ugandan I know was angry when they found out that the US had sent soldiers here to assist in the tracking down of Kony (Well, almost all. I did meet one soldier who was happy to receive our weapons and the instruction on how to use them. But in terms of getting out into the field and using them, he was confident that the Ugandan military could work without the US advisers). Why? Because they all think that the real reason the soldiers came here was to gather intelligence about the oil reserves discovered in the North West.

I was peppered with more questions:

“Why would the US send soldiers to Uganda to track Kony when he has gone to Congo?”

“Where was America when there was actually war here?”

Good points!

The Ugandan take on the IC Kony 2012 video: OUTRAGE.

This about sums it up:

(b.) What does IC do?

What does IC do? They build schools. Are they nice? Yes, very. My buddy works at an IC-funded complex that makes me drool. Solar power, a beautiful library, incredible classrooms, a nice science lab... BUT it is ranked almost DEAD LAST out of the nearly 1200 Ugandan schools receiving "Universal Secondary Education (USE)"-funds by the Ugandan government.

Buildings don't make a school; teachers do. A good teacher conducting class under a mango tree does more for Uganda than a bad teacher in a shiny classroom.

So what does IC really do? They build buildings.

Where does the money that should have been ear-marked by the government to build that school go? No one knows.

In the end, IC is like any other NGO. They need money to continue doing what they think is "good." Unfortunately, whether or not they are actually helping or hindering Uganda’s development process doesn't factor into the equation so long as those running the company, the volunteers and aid-workers get their monthly pay-check.

(c.) More thoughts on the video

What shocks the hell out of me is the extensive publicity that IC has gotten out of the video. Think about it: A small-time guerilla leader who years ago terrified the northern region of Uganda now has a YouTube video with 70 MILLION-plus views!!!

Is there a single video about any present-day lunatic than can claim as much airtime?

And frankly, I can’t understand how people outraged about Kony today but haven’t batted an eyelash over:

(1.) The atrocities (mass murders, gang-rapes and pillaging) happening every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo

(2.) The goons that run around Zimbabwe doing Mugabe’s dirty deeds (i.e. killing anyone that even resembles opposition), or Mugabe and all his violence and bad governance in general

(3.) The genocide that has gone on for decades in The Sudan

(4.) Every corrupt government on this continent that continues to keep their people in the dirt

Or elsewhere:

(1.) A ruthless and unstable dictator in North Korea

(2.) Iran developing nuclear power

(3.) The Israel/Middle-East conflict

Or… perhaps most importantly, as from it stems - has stemmed and will stem - boundless suffering around the world:

(1.) People who worship some higher power but call it by different names refuse to stop killing each other because they have FAITH that everyone in their club is right and everyone else is wrong

Why did the Kony video go viral?

Because Invisible Children knows how to SELL!

They canvas the streets, produce videos and hurl their propaganda all over the internet in such a way that creates massive resonance among their audience.

If only they sold something worth buying… Just imagine the positive effect they could have on other pressing world issues by invigorating the American public, uniting them in a cause and focusing their energies towards positive action!

“Hey, IC! Please make your next video about Global Warming. But please do not release it on Al Gore’s birthday. Thanks.”

(d.) Thoughts on aid in Uganda (which are applicable to aid in general)

In the last two years, my opinion of aid in Uganda – which I now believe can be applied to Africa and even developing countries in general – has changed dramatically. When I first arrived, I was of the mindset that Uganda could use all the help it could get from the developed world to grow and become developed itself. The solution: Money, people and resources.

Today I’m of the mindset that Uganda has, in abundance, its own money, people and resources to shape-up and join the “developed world” (whatever the hell that means: Constant access to ridiculously inexpensive cheese? Fifteen-thousand different types of T.V. dinners? A population with a70 + % overweight/obesity rate?), and that is the last thing NGOs and the representatives of the government want the first-world Givers to find out.

Outsiders have been throwing money around here for far too long. The Government shirks responsibilities because outside donors pick up the slack. The divide between rich – who are buying luxury jets - and poor - who lack access to clean water - is appalling and growing. HIV/AIDS is on the rise once again, as people believe Anti-Retrovirals are a cure - research shows that a patient on a consistent regiment of ARVs will live as long as the average man/woman not suffering from HIV - and thus the fear of the virus is gone.

I've conducted teaching seminars at primary teacher's colleges and secondary schools here and asked the question "Who in this room fears HIV/AIDS?" to rooms filled with hundreds of students and not one of them raised their hands.

Hmm... not the answer you might expect.

Thus, I can no longer subscribe to the “give all that you can”-mindset because I’ve seen that the resulting mentality on the receiving end is “take all you can get.”

The surest way to ensure that I child never grows up is to foster a feeling of complete dependency. The same is true of developing nations.

Unfortunately, the biggest donors (USAID, UN, CHINA, WHO) are more politically motivated. Quid pro quo – “We’ll give you X-billion dollars if you fight so-and-so and let us keep a military outpost within your border.” If we don’t offer it, someone else that we’re competing with will, and then we lose our bargaining chip.


So... I recognize that foreign aid will not soon disappear. The question then becomes: What kind of aid should we give?

(e.) “Devon, I want to help. How can I help?”

What’s that you say? You want to help a developing country but you no longer want to send money to Invisible Children, Save the Children, Christ for Children, Mohammad for Munchkins, Buddha for Babies, Prophets for Progeny, etc…?

Pack your bags, and go there!! The greatest resource we can offer to countries in need is our people.

Blend in as best you can, and teach about yourself and our cultures back home. Be a role model. Inspire. Walk with the locals, sit with them, and learn their language and their culture. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Get angry with them. Feel what it is to be an outsider, to be gawked at, to be pointed and shouted at, laughed at, grabbed, poked, and petted. Hole up in your room, and feel the loneliness fully. But trudge on. Make a foothold. Plant the seed of trust, and when it begins to grow introduce solutions not to the problems that you see in the lives of your new community but what they see as problems.

There are plenty of programs that you can join (Peace Corps, Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO), Engineers/Doctors without borders, etc…) that can get you on track to an experience you’ll never forget.

If you can’t go abroad, find a volunteer in the field and ask them how you can help. A Peace Corps Volunteer can do more in a small community with a one-hundred dollar donation than an NGO can do with one-thousand or a corrupt government can do with one-million. would be a great place to start that search.

Most importantly, educate yourselves on issues abroad. Take the “Kony 2012”-esque videos with a grain of salt. Diversify your news providers. And go read more about the good/evil sides of foreign aid (Check into “End of Poverty,” “White Man’s Burden,” “Dead Aid,” and, one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read, “The Road to Hell: The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity.”)... see if that aid-money you wanted to send might not be better invested into your own country.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)