Thursday, March 08, 2012

Critical Thinking & Kony 2012

It never ceases to amaze me that in this day in age, with access to the vast amount of information we have available via the phones in our pockets, let alone the computers on our desks, that people seem to be incapable of checking into things they hear / read, and instead react much as they have for the last two thousand years – by grabbing their pitchforks and torches and storming the castle when they hear something they don’t like.

Seriously people, the sheer amount of information available via a high speed internet connection is staggering.  If you feel righteous indignation about something, you can make sure, in about twenty minutes, that you are enraged by the right thing, or that your ire is not misplaced.  A few clicks, some reading, and viola, you’re educated.

The recent success of the Kony 2012 movement is amazing to behold.  The video they created (they being Invisible Children Inc., a San Diego based not-for-profit) has been viewed thirty two million times between Vimeo and YouTube alone.  It has been forwarded on Facebook, Tweeted about and is the subject of everyday conversations around dinner tables and in schools as we speak.  That’s an amazing feat for any organization, and the fact that it’s an organization that is trying to do some good makes it even better.

When I watched the video the first time (I’ve watched it three times now, but more on that later) my first instinct was exactly what the producers of the film were aiming for – I wanted to help.  But my skeptical and cynical side reared its ugly head, so I did a bit of digging.  I checked the net for more information on Kony in general (and no, not just the Wikipedia article, though it is actually pretty good).  I learned that he was, in fact, doing precisely what they allege – he’s leading a ragtag army (opinions vary on the size) of largely child soldiers that he has conscripted into his, dare I say it, holy war.  I checked the website of the International Criminal Court for verification, and I read the indictment against him and a number of the senior officers of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).  Everything they said in the video checked out.  I was intrigued, and felt that this campaign of awareness raising was worthwhile to be involved in.  I forwarded the video on my Facebook and Google+ pages, and started to think about how else I can get involved.  There was nothing organized in Halifax (yet), but the internet gives us all kinds of options.  Time will tell.

I posted the video (after having it drawn to my attention via the Phillip DeFranco YouTube show) Tuesday night, around midnight.  When I woke up the next morning, two of my friends had reposted it.  That number grew throughout the day, and then the whole internet seemed to be getting on board.  I know it wasn’t my influence (my Effbook friends list is small by comparison to most – I only have actual friends on it) but I was happy that I was a tiny part of this awareness raising campaign.  When I saw the talented and passionate George Takei post the same video, I knew the movement would succeed at its goal of getting this message out – with his million followers, he’s a great internet voice.

Then, on my way home from work that day, my wife informed me that there was some controversy happening – people were saying that Invisible Children was a scam.  That one hit hard and fast.  As soon as we got home (and my sons finished beating the stuffing out of me during our ritual wrestling match) I grabbed an internet connection and started doing some research / reading.  It ended up lasting until midnight, with a short break for a Zombies, Run! inspired walk/run.

Seems the internet was all abuzz because of two main factors with regard to Invisible Children Inc.  Firstly, that the organization had received a rating of two stars (out of four) from one of the more prestigious charity watchdogs, Charity Navigator in regard to the organization’s “Accountability” which apparently meant they were untrustworthy and the whole organization was a scam.  Secondly, that only 30% of the money raised by the organization was actually being used to fund programs on the ground in Uganda, clearly evidence that Invisible Children existed only to bilk the gullible and line the pockets of greedy film makers.

Charity Navigator, and groups like it, perform a very valuable service.  They let potential donors learn the hard facts about charities – are they trustworthy, are they using your funds properly, is the money going where they say it will, do the heads of the charity earn exorbitant salaries, things like that.  The problem is that the numbers they provide require the reader to actually read deeper than just the basics to really understand them.   In the case of Invisible Children, they gave the organization a four star rating (out of four) with regard to Financials and a two star rating for Accountability and Transparency, with an overall score of 51.52.  They spend their money properly, with approximately 80% of the money they raise going into the actual programs they implement.  That’s very high indeed.  For comparison’s sake, look at two of my favorite charities.  Amnesty International is close to the Invisible Children Inc. amounts (approximately 76% and a much lower overall rating at 42.88) and Oxfam America spends their money about the same (approximately 78%) but has a very high rating, gaining a four star rating and a full score of 62.97.  If you want to see how these scores are calculated, this link will take you to the full explanation.

Invisible Children did get a two star rating in their Accountability and Transparency section, primarily due to the fact that they have only four members on their Board of Directors.  Apparently, charity rating organizations really want to see at least five independent members on a Board, and anything less than this automatically earmarks you as scoring low in this area.  Invisible Children has released a statement on this issue, noting that they are in the process of hiring someone to fill this fifth position so that they can “regain their four star rating”.  The other reason that the rating is low is because the 2011 independent audit of Invisible Children (which you can see here, along with all their other financial information and independent audits) was not available at the time of the scoring.  The organization’s financials, including copies of their Form 990 (the tax exempt return form not-for-profits submit in the USA), their independent audits and their annual reports, are easily available on their website – and have always been.  They did not put them up in response to the criticism, they are required by law to be there and they have always complied.

As to the second allegation against them, that only 30% of the money they raise actually makes it to the ground in Uganda, there is no defence.  That argument is actually 100% accurate, and the organization freely admits it.  Here’s the thing though – that’s not the purpose of the organization, or at least, not its primary purpose.  The organization’s mandate is to use “film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity.”  That first part, the “film, creativity and social action”?  That’s the main mandate of the organization.  They are an advocacy and social awareness group that also happens to help build schools and radio towers and sponsor community programs to help people.  The fact that the lion’s share of their resources and funds go toward the very thing they were created to do should not be upsetting to people.  That would be akin to expressing outrage at Ford for making cars or at Apple for designing and selling electronics – it is why they exist!  The fact that they spend almost a third of their funds on a secondary (or even tertiary) goal is outstanding – there are charities out there that can barely manage to get 30% of their funds into their primary goal.

People have also come out in anger against how the money is spent.  The fact that approximately $250,000 goes to the salaries of the founders is “outrageous!” they claim.  Wait a moment… there are three of them – so that’s only about $85,000 each.  There are bus drivers on strike here in Halifax who make almost that much, and I seem to recall a story about a toll booth operator taking in over 100K a year – largely due to overtime, but does anyone think that the founders of Invisible Children Inc. are working thirty five hour work weeks?

Then “they” rage against the sheer amount spent on travel – a significant expense for the organization.  Hmm… Gee… you think that an advocacy group that travels all over the US and makes routine trips to and from Africa might have a large travel bill?  Common sense people, open your frigging eyes, but more importantly, use your minds.

Finances aside, people have been quick to point out that Kony and the LRA are no longer even in Uganda - which, had they watched the video, they would know that Invisible Children is well aware of, they even have a nice graphical map in the video to show where the LRA has moved to.  People have also suggested that the LRA is all but gone, and that they have been quiet for years now - which is directly contrary to the information the UN is operating under, that the LRA is renewing its attacks, that they have staged twenty attacks since January 1, 2012 and that three thousand people have been displaced, one killed and seventeen abducted in that time.

Suffice it to say, the vast majority of the objections to this organization are based on misleading or incomplete information. See, that’s a much nicer way of saying “idiots who don’t check their facts”  isn’t it?  Who says I can’t be tactful.

Now, all that said, there are some legitimate concerns about the organization’s mandate.  Critics have pointed out that the Ugandan government, who the organization works with, has a lengthy history of human rights abuses of its own.  That’s a gray area – lesser of two evils and all that, but it is a legitimate criticism.  Critiques also include that Invisible Children is simplifying the situation too much. Implying that all that needs to happen is the arrest and conviction of one man, peace will be restored to the region is na├»ve at best.  And those critiques are accurate – the problems of Africa are myriad and incredibly complicated, made moreso by foreign interventions.  Arresting (or otherwise stopping Kony) will not change that.  But it would be a step, even if it is a tiny one, in the right direction.

And other suggest that US military intervention, on any scale, is not the answer.  Most of the folks taking this position seem to suggest that Invisible Children is advocating a full scale military action against Kony - which is directly contrary to what the organization states over and over in its video - they just want the existing 100 military advisors, and their expertise, to stay in Uganda to help track down the LRA.

Does that smack of colonialism and “white guilt”?  Probably.  Many of the problems that Central Africa faces today can draw their origins directly to European colonialism, and are perpetuated due to, largely, western corporate concerns today.  That’s another rant entirely, but even if it is true, even if the real answer is to let people solve their own problems, is it really wrong to want to help stop a group that murders, rapes and kidnaps as part of their normal business?  Invisible Children says that the LRA has kidnapped over 30,000 children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.  The World Bank estimates that number much higher at over 66,000 children.  Millions have been displaced as a result of the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government.  While many have made their way back to their homes and started to rebuild, many also have not.  As noted in the UN document above, there are still people being displaced as we speak.  Helping to stop that is a good deed – no matter the reason, whether it’s white guilt or genuine compassion.

I suppose the whole point of this (rather lengthy) rant is to remind people to think critically about the things they read online, and elsewhere.  Journalists are not infallible, and the internet is full of self-styled journalists who answer to no one.  These individuals are able to hide behind complete anonymity and say what they want with impunity.  They don’t have to check their facts, they don’t have to prove their cases.  All they need to do is make a believable claim, and then let the panic and fury of thousands of people run with it.  Fortunately, we have the tools today to do the research, to get to the bottom of claims like this.  We may not get a complete answer, or one we can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt, but we’ll have a better understanding of the situation.  We’ll have open eyes and open minds.  And we’ll make informed opinions.  When we rant at the unfairness of it all, we’ll know what the hell we’re talking about.  And that’s one of the best things about the internet. 

To quote the X-Files, “the truth is out there.”  Now go find it.


  1. There is more to it.... White Evangelicals in Africa are problematic.

  2. That is true. The Internet is in new dimension these days and people learn about anything and everything from it now.

  3. Of course - as I noted above - intervention in any situation is fraught with pitfalls. Large portions of the world are still recovering from the, dare I say, tyranny of colonialism, that is a simple fact. And a most (all?) of the problems in those areas are not simple cut and dried answers.

    That said, not to offer support when a situation such as this arises is far worse than offering it.