A video titled Kony 2012, about the crimes and human rights abuses committed by a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony and his fighters from the Lords Resistance Army, became a surprise viral video hit two years ago. It was viewed tens of millions of times around the world.
Those who clicked on Kony 2012 learned how Kony and the LRA had become a scourge on both Uganda and surrounding countries, committing mass rape and torture, disfiguring people it had captured, taking young people away from their families and villages and turning them into child soldiers.
Kony 2012 wasn’t produced by the United Nations, or a well-known humanitarian aid organization like Doctors Without Borders. It was the creation of a small non-profit group in San Diego called Invisible Children. Staffed by people largely in their 20s, Invisible Children said it produced Kony 2012 and created a wider social media campaign to bring greater global attention to Kony's crimes, especially among young people. Invisible Chidren hoped that attention would eventually lead to the capture and trial of Kony and his followers.
The group was praised for the video. But that praise was quickly followed by a backlash. Many slammed the organization for being amateurs and dilettantes, filled with idealism but not terribly well-informed about the social and political complexities that had created Joseph Kony and the LRA. Other critics questioned how much time and money Invisible Children was spending on producing slick videos, live events and Internet campaigns — rather than actually helping the victims of the Lords Resistance Army thousands of miles away.
The criticism of Invisible Children became so intense so quickly that Jason Russell, the director of Kony 2012 had a temporary mental breakdown and was arrested for screaming and walking naked on the streets of San Diego. The incident was captured on video and ended up on the celebrity gossip website TMZ.
Two years after the video's release, Invisible Children is still operating and says the furor created by the film had a big impact. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons and we’ve come a long way in our own maturity," says Ben Keesey, the co-founder and CEO of Invisible Children. “We’re still young, but we were really young back then.”
Invisible Children says it wants to prove its critics wrong and show that it’s more about substance than flash. From it’s offices on the gentrifying edge of downtown San Diego, Invisible Children directs anti-Kony and anti-LRA operations in Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, all places where Kony and his forces are thought to be hiding out after fleeing Uganda.
As part of those efforts, Invisible Children keeps a staff of about 80 people on the ground in Africa. They run programs dropping leaflets from airplanes to encourage LRA soldiers to lay down their arms, and setup a high frequency radio network so that remote villages can report LRA activities and movements.
Unlike other NGOs, which usually try to stay neutral in conflict zones to do their work, Invisible Children doesn’t apologize for actively supporting efforts to track down Kony, with help from both the US military and national armies in the region.
“Invisible Children does not claim to be neutral. You know, we are not in this conflict saying we are not going to take sides,” says Sean Poole, the anti-LRA program manager for Invisible Children.
But Invisible Children still has its critics. J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council says he would love to see Kony captured or killed. But he questions Invisible Children’s continued focus on the warlord, considering all of the other problems facing the region now.
“In the Central African Republic, where Kony is likely hidden, we’ve got massive atrocities going on between the Christian and Muslim communities; some are calling it a genocide. So if one is really interested, altruistically, in the welfare of these people, one should probably ask Africans themselves what are the biggest threats to their security, their livelihoods and what they would like to see dealt with. And I highly doubt that many in the region would identify Joseph Kony as that threat today,” says Pham.
But Keesey says Kony and his followers have committed too many heinous crimes to ignore.
And he doesn’t apologize for his group’s single-minded focus on the LRA. “Our mission is very clear, the end of the LRA. That’s our day job. That’s our night job. That’s our weekend job. How do we take one horrific problem off the problem set of the world and see an end to Africa’s longest running conflict,” he says.