Ten years ago three young men went to Africa. Rather than holiday and return home like other self-focused apathetic youths, they reacted to a situation and made a commitment to do something about it.
And they did.
The movie that so many millions have seen documents how they moved the US Congress on an international issue that it couldn’t care about and wouldn’t help them economically or threaten their sovereignty. That is literally the definition of achievement.
Yet there has been a significant negative backlash against their movement, Invisible Children, and its aims. Some have accused them of being misleading, others simply call them ‘slactivists’.
The latest is news that Ugandans both home and abroad have reacted “furiously”, a word of choice for the rage media. Many Ugandans seem unhappy with the PR campaign. The approach was to make Kony famous, and the billboards seem to promote him as a cult hero. It’s simple: if you don’t get the irony, you get offended. Ugandans have said while the cause is laudable, the campaign has ignored the feelings of the victims.
So lesson number one is that a global awareness campaign needs to be sensitive to all your audiences, not least those who you are trying to help. But consider that the huge marketing campaign wasn’t quite aimed at them. It was aimed at Western youth, and it worked.
Negativity has also come from other aid workers. One based in Uganda told New Zealand radio the Invisible Children have dubious methods of dealing with donations, and don’t invest enough in projects on the ground.
Honestly I couldn’t help but detect some of what I call “charity envy.”
They do invest in projects on the ground, and there is plenty of proof of that. Perhaps they don’t invest all of it. So what? It seems we are so happy to spend our money on any whim that comes our way, yet as soon as we donate our little pittance to charity we demand them to produce all sorts of transparent accounting charts and graphs to show which portion of our dime has put rice in which child’s mouth.
Invisible Children are very confident in their approach to invest donated funds in awareness campaigns. CEO Ben Keesey said: “It’s intentional, it is our strategy, it’s what we do and we stand behind it.”
And the envy isn’t just coming from charities, but from the media. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart satirised the US media for complaining that they have followed the story for years without any of the reaction that this viral video has caused. Just imagine the money that bigger charities might be able to make if they tapped into the dynamic tools that young people are so conversant with, stirring up passion and inspiration in other young people that are browsing the internet with time on their hands, money in their pockets and completely untapped stores of goodwill waiting to be unlocked.
There were so many people trying to view the video in the past couple of weeks that the traffic crashed the website. And this is what Keesey blames for people’s lack of awareness of who Invisible Children really are. Instead of being informed by their site, people were reading criticisms from other quarters.
“I understand why a lot of people are wondering is this some sort of slick, fly by night slactivist thing, when actually it’s not at all. It’s actually connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”
In fact, with their PR approach, slick is the one thing they can be accused of lacking.
“Any claims that we don’t have financial transparency, or that we’re not audited every year by an independent firm, or that we don’t have financial integrity just aren’t true.”
To suggest that Invisible Children don’t understand that the LRA was moved out of Uganda mid-2006 is an insult to their intelligence. They continue to help Ugandans with building and development projects and simply want to finish their original goal of stopping this warlord. “There’s one thing that everyone agrees on and that is that Joseph Kony should be stopped,” said Keesey.
They have plenty of Ugandans on tape attesting to their good works. The Guardian online has quoted Fred Opolot, a Ugandan government spokesman:
“The Ugandan government is encouraged by this outpouring of international support for its continuing campaign to eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to all countries and communities. We are hopeful that our neighbouring countries can also become free of LRA activity and enjoy the peace and prosperity that northern Uganda has experienced in the last 6 years.”
No criticism of Invisible Children there.
But The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent Jack Shenkar said Invisible Children sends a dangerous message that “the world’s problems… can be solved by buying bracelets and tweeting.”
Who said Invisible Children set out to solve all the world’s problems? And they are certainly making money out of people buying bracelets and tweeting, so get used to it.
What the organisation has done is confront an opponent as terrifying as Kony — public opinion. Send a video to 80 million people and see what sort of opinions you get back. It wouldn’t matter how good your video is.
The organisers of Invisible Children are young, they are passionate and unlike the millions who have sat at their desks like me and watched the film, they have got off their behinds and done something to change the world. And they have taught other charities a big lesson in awareness, and how to spread it.
Alex Perrottet is an Australian journalist currently living in New Zealand and the contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch.