Monthly Archives: March 2012

Selling Old Newspapers Shouldn’t Be Profitable: Invisible Children and Kony 2012

If someone on the street was selling you an old newspaper, would you buy it?  Okay, let’s move to the 21st century:  if your iPad was only downloading podcasts from six years ago, would you continue your subscription?

Invisible Children - Gulu Office

In 2006 Invisible Children began its campaigns to educate Western audiences via media and marketing about the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA. What resulted is millions of dollars in advertising, action kits, and attention intended to benefit the children of northern Uganda. In their latest flick, Kony 2012, Invisible Children continues to sell the stories of night commuters and the overwhelming fear and agony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as the “real story” of northern Uganda, invoking Western audiences (both rich and rich) to make an effective impact by tweeting the video to their friends, holding Gulu Walks, and raising awareness.

In 2008 I received a university research grant and, partnering with a local university research facility, I began gathering information and interviewing both primary sources as well as secondary sources in northern Uganda on the effects of long-term conflict and camp settlement on internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the north—persons who are forced to flee from their homes as a result of conflict. What resulted was a wakeup call in my research:  much of my intended research was outdated, the LRA threat has greatly diminished since 2006, and the real story that needs to be researched, quantized and talked about is growth and development in a post-conflict northern Uganda, particularly as the Ugandan Peace and Recovery Development Plan (PRDP) continues to fail on its promises of funding.  What does post-conflict economic recovery look like? How can international, national, and local nonprofits and social entrepreneurship be constructive during the transition from aid to development?

Despite my research, degree and opportunities to travel to Uganda, I definitely do not consider myself an expert; there are so many organizations and individuals I know who have been there from the beginning, who can actually speak Acholi and Luo, and who have a much better idea about what “the real story” in northern Uganda looks like today.

But Invisible Children continuing to sell the stories of night commuters and the overwhelming fear and agony of the LRA is the same as selling old newspapers to an ignorant public that may be too busy to realize that the date on their page (or their podcast) is from six years ago.

One blogger made a pretty good analogy to what this looks like in American terms:

I’m going to compare what IC is doing to an analogy that I thought of this past summer when I was Uganda thinking about this issue. Imagine that today you heard about what happened in NYC and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 for the first time. You were shown a video of footage from that day. You saw the planes hit the towers, you heard President Bush’s address, you saw the Pentagon wreckage, you watch in horror as you see people plunge to their death, jumping from the burning towers. Now imagine that you are inspired by this disaster. You want to something to help. What if you went to NYC today, expecting to see piles of rubble to clean up? What if you went, expecting that there would be thousands of people in the streets crying, looking for loved ones? But what would happen when you arrived and discovered that there was none of this, but a whole host of other problems? (http://ilto.wordpress.com/2006/11/02/the-visible-problem-with-invisible-children/)

Similar examples can also be found in the delayed timing and results of campaigns against Darfur.

So, why are we getting old newspapers? 

Western audiences know the “African” story already and don’t bother to look at the dates.  We know that in “Africa,” people are poor and helpless and unable to do anything for themselves.  We know that “Africans” are uneducated and trapped in a sea of corruption, unable to escape without the help of foreign rescuers.  These are all assumptions in Western audiences (for more on the source of these assumptions and further illustrations, I would point you to Erik Ritskes’s post: http://ericswanderings.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/invisible-children-and-joseph-kony/). Therefore, watching Invisible Children reminds us of what we already “know,” ignites our guilt and armtwists us into at least doing something, even if it’s just spreading a video across social media (Notes on video specifics found here on How-Matters: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/03/06/good-guys-bad-guys/).

The people who sell the newspapers are likely passionate and well-intentioned, but their good intentions don’t make good results.  As many bloggers criticize Invisible Children, they often welcome in their own criticisms towards young people, the American public, Western civilization, the power of social media, technology, people who don’t like “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,” and everyone who does not have a degree or certificate in African Studies. Many essentially criticize that most people (excluding themselves) are just not as well informed as they are. I commend Invisible Children for their efforts to rally young people toward things bigger than themselves. But I’m sure that even those who work for Invisible Children – anyone who has visited Gulu – would be able to attest that the story being sold in Kony 2012 is an old one.  I’m sure that it was someone’s idea to push for the story, thinking that people would give more and then, as they get inspired, they would learn about more of the facts.

However, from a legal and ethical perspective, should selling old newspapers be profitable—particularly for 501(c)3 nonprofits like Invisible Children?  Sure, if celebrities do it, it’s on their dime (note how “successful” Oprah’s African school and other celebrity experimental examples have been) but unfortunately at the expense of beneficiaries. Is it okay that people are induced to funnel money via manipulative marketing and media? I’m pretty sure the answer is a resounding “no.”

As we now move from one Invisible Children movie to the next, the question remains:  when or how will Invisible Children catch people up on what is actually going on?

Do they intend to?

As my newsfeeds have and will continue to flood with Kony 2012, I, for one, am definitely not renewing my subscription.