Why We Must Care About Kony Despite Valid Criticism

Why Kony matters regardless

This week, what has been known as “The Kony video” went viral in every sense of the word. The 30-minute clip is inspiring and has undoubtedly moved a lot of people to purchase “action kits” and bracelets in support of the cause. However, the near-euphoric feeling of being connected with, what appears to be, such a just and worthy cause is quickly extinguished once you do a quick search and find out there is a wave of cynicism that is surfacing around the NGO that is responsible for the video.

Here’s the argument against the video in a nutshell:

  • Of the $8 Million that the NGO “Invisible Children” received last year, only $2 Million was donated to the cause. The rest was used for administration costs, program costs, and staff
  • Kony’s army of thousands has been reduced to several hundred.
  • Kony himself is on the run with dwindling power and might be dead by now anyway
  • The atrocities cited in the video and Kony’s role is a symptom of conditions in that region more so than a cause
  • Kony’s army is no longer in Uganda (the video mentions this, but for some reason all the criticisms seem to miss that point)

I can understand how a backlash might occur if people suspect they are being taken advantage of after being moved by such a powerful video. That said, to write off everything the NGO has done is pretty ridiculous and here’s why:

Think of the ROI

There is an argument being made that because Kony perhaps is not as powerful as he once was we shouldn’t be concerned any more. The argument goes like this”He is one man, what happens when we get him and someone steps into his place and does the same thing” after all, if his actions are systemic of the conditions in the region does it really do anything if we do get him?

What happens when we get him? 

Seriously? Well, for starters Justice is served, the training of Ugandan troops by the U.S. military hopefully adds stability to an area scarred by war, a precedent is set that crimes against humanity will have a consequence. If you need some sort of monetary validation for why there is a shared benefit in doing the right thing: Access to new and stable markets lifts the tide for all boats. Tell me how those reasons don’t justify dedicating 100 soldiers to train military personnel of our allies in that region.

US soldier trains Ugandan military.

For those concerned about the ratio of revenue to expenditures for “Invisible Children” here’s a thought: Who cares if the leadership of the NGO get ridiculously rich doing this? I understand that NGOs have a certain ethical responsibility to contribute as much of their earnings toward the cause as they can, but the argument that because 75% of the revenue earned went towards operational costs the NGO is “shady” doesn’t hold water for me. There is a principle in business that you pay to retain a level of talent to get the job done. If the cost of building this level of awareness is outpaced by the benefit at greater than a 1:1 ratio, then it’s a win.

Remember, this cause could not be more distant from the average American. This is not the Susan G. Komen foundation that addresses an issue we are all threatened by and thus have a shared interest in defeating.. For 30 years Kony was number 1 on the most wanted list based on the magnitude and atrociousness of his acts, yet before this week nobody  knew who he was. The fact that the NGO was able to craft a message, build the content, and execute a strategy that raised enough awareness to generate over 40 million views on YouTube, infiltrate every newsfeed known to man, and find its way onto every major media outlet in the western hemisphere justifies nearly any amount of money it required to make that happen.

People remember, simple

This video simplifies the problems facing people in Central Africa, no doubt about it… And that’s exactly why it’s working.

Powerful imagery used throughout the video to convey a single, powerful message that drives action.

If the Kony story is our introduction to the issue, and the debate that stems from it is less about capturing Kony and more about what the real issues facing people in the region are, then great – we’ve all taken a step towards making the world a better place. To criticize the video for not telling the regions story in it’s entirety I say “Hey, you can thank them later.”

What do you think would be the result if the video were to outline all the factors  contributing to the systemic violence, poverty, disease, and corruption in the region? Do you think that video would have went viral? No, and we would be none the wiser of what’s going on in central Africa, nor would we be having this debate about how much help the region really needs to begin with.

Its not about Kony, it’s about power

The worst thing that can come from the sudden infamy of Joseph Kony is that the average American becomes more aware of the issues that face our brothers in the central region of Africa. Why is that such a notable win? Probably the same reason it felt weird to read the sentence “our brothers in central Africa.” Most people feel loyalty to a group of people that they can easily identify with. Those identifiable groups generally breaks down to a few different segments and levels that look something like this: My nation, my state, my race, my gender, my class etc. Just because those are easy ways to identify with a group, doesn’t mean it’s how it should be in an ethical or utilitarian sense.

We are all interconnected. The global financial crisis showed just how powerful our connections. It’s also the most visible evidence of our connection, but it’s certainly not the only connection we have with each other. That’s why this video was really powerful. It highlighted the way technology is breaking down artificial barriers between people. Barriers composed of misconceptions, exclusion, nationalism, and self preservation that ultimately benefit a small percentage of the planet and hurt the rest.

This video is about the power of an interconnected world that enables us to shift the locus of power from corporations and the wealthy, to the benefit of the majority around what is right, not what is merely profitable. That kind of power comes with the responsibility to take action on one anothers behalf regardless of what country you’re born in. That is a powerful message. It’s in line with what tipped the scales for international support when it came to the Arab Spring, and is something we should be quick to protect and preserve because it has real power to bring about change on a large scale.

In a Nutshell

In conclusion, before we try to poke holes in a phenomenon that raised an unprecedented level of awareness around an issue endemic to a region half a world away we should take pause.

Millions of people were moved to take action on behalf of  a people that are suffering. A new model of driving change on a large scale is being tested and proven right in front of our eyes. People are shedding their instincts of self-preservation and making themselves vulnerable for verbal attack in hopes of sharing a vision.

Whether or not the perception is a reality or an some reasonable exaggeration is mute.

UPDATE: Thanks to a comment on this post I was made aware of a nice breakdown of the NGO’s finances:


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