I first found out about Invisible Children my sophomore year of high school while researching charities and nonprofits to feature in a story for the holiday issue of our school newspaper. The more I read about them on their website, the more I realized that this was more than just a section of my story, but something I needed to take action on. I saw that the group did tours across the country of high schools to play the documentary and something in me pushed me to talk with my school principal and administrator about bringing it to my school.
It was a huge step for me to even speak up on a human rights/humanitarian issue that I wasn’t an expert in, but I maintained my courage, practiced my persuasive speech to explain why bringing the Invisible Children documentary was necessary and beneficial to our student body. Before I knew it, I was helping organize teachers and classes to watch this documentary that our principal said was extremely eye-opening and impressive.
I never wanted the recognition though. I never wanted people to know I was behind it all. I just cared about the fact that my peers would be learning about something half way across the world, a conflict that was destroying the lives of the people of Northern Uganda and taking away the right of children to go to school and learn in peace like we did.
Once the day of the screening arrived, I was nervous to meet the roadies who all turned out to be such nice, genuine and passionate people. The documentary came, people went, asked questions, bought products, walked away with a buzz and I thought that would be it. We’d go back to our normal lives and my one day as an activist, of feeling like a globally-conscious public servant, would finally end. But there was more.
Invisible Children pushed me one step further when they announced the start of their Schools for Schools program, an initiative that would partner Ugandan schools with American schools to rebuild and fund construction, supplies, wells, books and education supplies. Once again, I don’t know why I didn’t just read the email and forget about it, why I didn’t think that this was enough for me and I should wait for someone else to take the responsibility for supporting peace and helping the children in Gulu.
Instead, over the next three years, I led the Invisible Children Club at my campus, organizing fundraisers, awareness campaigns, change drives, book drives and read constantly about the conflict to better inform myself, my peers and the community. We raised $10,000 after three years, put on three benefit concerts, collected 20,000 books and had several media pieces on us. I learned a lot about myself, the criticisms humanitarian causes receive, the power of student engagement, how to plan events, deal with bureaucracy and administration and feel like a part of a movement. It changed me in so many ways and helped inspire me to study journalism and international affairs to raise awareness and create better policies for a better world.
Receiving the letters of gratitude and photos of Gulu High School with our school’s name as one of the partner schools made me feel like our efforts truly made an positive, tangible impact. This is what a lot of people who spent time, money and effort on Invisible Children remember I’m sure. How the movement made us feel, how it inspired us, how it empowered us. But after high school, after you graduate, what happens?
I wasn’t involved in Invisible Children when I got to ASU. I saw a weak presence of it, noticed posters every now and then, read an announcement weeks too late about a screening for a new documentary released. I did donate once or twice, but mostly I read. I read and read and read about the news of the peace process, the growth of the conflict, what Kony was doing next and only eventually when I disconnected the issue of the LRA in Uganda with Invisible Children, did I begin to see a bigger story that I hadn’t heard about.
I’ll admit I did become jealous and frustrated with myself when I saw that youth across the country continued to maintain their support and passion for IC, going to their conferences, lobbying legislators, going on trips to Uganda etc. I felt like I wasn’t an honest, serious humanitarian because I wasn’t dropping everything and leaving school to rally people around the issue anymore.
When the news broke that Obama was sending 100 troops to Uganda to track down the LRA, I was excited and thought this would be a great, strategic effort and finally show international solidarity in the campaign to stop Kony from his brutal war on innocent people in Central Africa. I didn’t realize I was supporting increased militarism, which I was vehemently opposed to when it came to Iraq and Afghanistan. For some reason, when it came to Uganda, I had a blind spot. I felt like I understood what had been going on there, that we had no part in the violence but we could have a part in ending it. Sure, war was bad, but if it was for humanitarian intervention, then it was okay, right? We had a responsibility to protect; never again was our mantra.
When the Kony 2012 video came out, that soft spot I had for IC was touched again and I blindly shared the video again on my Facebook page, tagging a few of my friends that had worked tirelessly with me in high school for our fundraising for Schools for Schools. I was uneasy by the use of Jason’s son and the easy steps given to stop Kony, but overall, what I took away from the video is that Kony needs to be apprehended and brought to justice to give all his victims relief. I thought about how all the work we had done needed to be shared with the rest of the world. But once again, there was the problem.
It was always about us. Even my dad warned me about how we were so caught up in being the best, the school that raised the most money and won the competition. Our memories, ideas and thoughts of IC were about how we felt. If we felt good about what we were doing for IC, then certainly the children in Uganda were feeling good about it too, right?
I am not the white, liberal, do-gooder that many of the critics believe is the soul of the supporters of the Kony campaign. I’m a first-generation Eritrean-American Muslim girl, but yes, even I can fall prey to the neo-colonial, simplified narrative that charities can tell. I was guilty of the savior-complex despite thinking I was so much more educated and above that nonsense.
In actuality, I do not know what it was like to grow up in a conflict zone or live under an autocratic regime like my parents. I do not know the full history of the United States and European powers in Central Africa and the corruption we played a part in. I knew about Rwanda and Somalia, but Uganda? Thank you U.S. education system for depriving me of learn about world geography or history or imperialism. The more I began to read, the smaller I began to feel. Hopeless and foolish.
Kony 2012 is now one of the biggest social campaigns ever, but still receiving vicious backlash from academics, aid professionals, journalists and Ugandans themselves. IC is being called an inaccurate, irresponsible, neo-colonialist, militarism, Christian fundamentalist, anti-gay scam. Reading that is very hard for me, as someone with a background in fundraising for them and being known in my community and school for my connection to the organization. My desire to go into humanitarian and development work practically stemmed from my involvement.
So is my desire to go into that profession now ruined? Were my naive, idealistic, good intentions to eliminate conflict and support the restructuring of civil society for nothing? We know the good that IC was-and is-capable of but we also see the problems in their mission, their approach and the consequences of some of their activities. The fact that the founders are trying to respond to people’s questions is a good move in the midst of this chaos. I worry now that so many people like me will feel stuck or paralyzed out of fear of doing the wrong thing after this controversy.
There’s never going to be a perfect NGO or aid initiative, in my opinion. We should be constantly learning, evaluating, and questioning our motives and practices. Right now, I’m interning at a reputable humanitarian organization and refugee resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee, and feel very proud and comfortable with my association.
But what happens if some scandal breaks out and I’m left to decide whether I want to continue supporting it or not? It could happen in the future, nobody knows, but what we need to remember is that we’re all human. Aid work may start with good intentions, but it requires transparency, thorough research, and needs assessment to really matter. Even though we feel empowered, we need to make sure that the people we’re serving are always at the focus of what we do. It’s about them, not us. We need to listen to their wants and needs, respond to their concerns and not impose our ideas and beliefs arrogantly.
Here’s a great article on how to give constructive help published by Anne Richard, vice president of government relations and advocacy at the IRC.
If you have read any articles with thoughtful, constructive criticisms that pose solutions and don’t just put down people who supported Kony 2012 or IC, please share so we can figure out what to do now.
UPDATE: A good op-ed by Professor Mahmood Mamdani on what was missing from the video.