Currents and Futures 01: The “Kony 2012” Campaign

[“Currents and Futures” is about current and topical issues, along with thoughts about our future.]

THE “KONY 2012” Campaign

First, I want to be absolutely clear:  I SUPPORT THE “KONY 2012” EFFORTS.  I WANT YOU TO WATCH THIS VIDEO… THEN GET INVOLVED.  I intend to do so.

But… I also have some strong issues, which will limit my involvement with the organization behind this action.

First: watch the video (click below) that’s gone “viral” in the last few weeks, with over 11,000,000 views and counting.

My Comments:

Comment #1:  As many of you know, I’ve spent time in Uganda… When I was there, Kony was just getting started.  President Museveny thought that he would put an end to Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) rebellion in short order.  He knew that Kony and LRA were seriously unpopular and had no real ideology or agenda.  That’s usually the death of insurgent groups.

He was wrong.

LRA is not an insurgency – it derives its power not from popularity but from coercion: Kony “recruits” from the barrel of a gun.  He doesn’t want loyalty, he demands violence-induced obedience.

Comment #2:  Despite the compelling nature of this issue, there have been some very serious criticisms leveled against the sponsoring organization, “Invisible Children” (IC).  Here are some links to critical reviews:

And, IC has responded to some of those criticisms:

I agree with most of the critics of IC.  Their approach really does seem both naïve and imperialistic — an extension of the kind of imperialist attitudes that, a century ago, was referred to as “the white man’s burden”.

Or, perhaps its a “Savior/Messiah” complex: remember the organizer’s comments to the heart-rending emotion of young Jacob’s agony over his brother’s death:  “We’re going to stop them!”  Well-meaning but hopelessly naive and seriously arrogant…  What I’ve learned in 38 countries and over 100 cultures: never promise what you can’t deliver.  In fact, never promise ANYTHING — just listen… and deliver.

I can’t count the number of encounters I’ve had with people like Jacob – in Uganda and around the world.  With each story of pain and death, each crying mother mourning her dead and dying children, each person helpless in the face of forces they cannot understand… my heart gets broken.  And, each time, my heart gets STRONGER.  (And, each time, I resist the temptation to “do something”, to “fix” complex problems with simplistic solutions.  The world needs my compassion, not my arrogance.)

The argument that IC can’t get their Board of Directors above 4 people simply ignores millions of Ugandans, already working to fight the LRA.  The video showing them hugging all those Africans… and they can’t find anyone to put on their Board?  (Try calling Jimmy Carter.  Try calling ME.)

While I support the campaign, believing that the LRA will go away simply by arresting or killing Kony is wishful thinking.  As I always say – it’s not about personalities, it’s about SYSTEMS & STRUCTURES.  IC seems to have no strategies to address what happens when one of Kony’s cronies (sorry, couldn’t resist) steps into his role after his arrest.  Insurgencies don’t end with the death of one individual.

Last Comment:  Yes, the incredible power of the Internet is at last being harnessed for something other than videos of toddling grandkids and dancing dogs.  At last, the social media is bringing into fruition our political dream – a government being moved by the people, not by the money.  The implications are enormous.

HOWEVER: As I’ve said about the “Occupy” phenomenon: more is needed than laudable intentions to resolve difficult, complex problems.  Spirit, discipline, direction, vision…  and, VALUES.

SO… I support the “Kony 2012” campaign and encourage you to do so.  However, I will NOT give any money to “Invisible Children”, not until the very “visible”, affluent organizers of IC adequately respond to some questions:

  • What are your values?  Do you hold the values of a new society for all?  (If so… why are you spending money for DC lobbyists and “entertainment”?)
  • Where is the money going?  Why so much for the organizers and so little for the Ugandans?
  • Do you believe in inclusivity and nonviolence?  (If so… why were you posing with weapons in the Sudan?)

“Kony 2012” is a great campaign… and I hope the founders get their act together, learn inclusivity, transparency and humility — to match their passion and zeal.



 [“Currents and Futures” is where I write about current or topical issues, and give some thoughts about our future.  The goal is to be short, focused and to the point.
“Currents and Futures” will come out once or twice a week, depending on the course of events… It’s part of a new section on the Commonway website: over the years, people have complained that it was hard to locate information about me on the Commonway web pages.  Now, it’s easier.]
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8 Responses to Currents and Futures 01: The “Kony 2012” Campaign

  1. Don Berg says:

    Here’s a post from the blog of the Harvard Project on the Law and Mind Sciences a.k.a. The Situationist on our predilection for focusing on an evil actor in the face of tragic situations.

    Another way of making the point is to say that Kony is not the problem, the situation that created Kony is the problem. If you eliminate Kony but the situation remains then it is inevitable that another person will fulfill that same role because the situation requires it.

    • Sharif says:

      Good article…

      Of course, it’s never all one way or another. For example: the role of the “Kony” could have been filled by someone who was not quite so sadistic and sociopathic. It would make it harder to make a case against him… after all, how is abducting children by gunpoint any different from a military draft?

      The “situationist” point of view gets close to my focus on “systems and structures”. Perhaps I need to expand my rhetoric to cover all 3, the “3 Big S’s”.

      Thanks for your contribution!



  2. From an Activist of Color says:

    Hi Sharif –

    Thanks for forwarding the video. I had heard about Kony, but this was the FIRST time I actually paid attention to it. So thanks for spreading the word.

    I’m glad you support this effort; at the same time,I feel compelled to your 2nd and 3rd comments in your post. As always, I appreciate you for your hope in the face of impossible conditions, your passion, and your critical thinking. However, with your last two comments, I feel you’re taking this a little too far. Sure, the whole Kony2012 campaign smacks of the White-Savior-Taming-the-Beast Syndrome. At the same time, it’s apparently been effective. Are we, as people of color, automatically going to reject the efforts of Whites that assist people of color? For me, the answer is ‘Yes, those efforts should be rejected when their motivation is solely out of helping themselves and their interests.’ (similar to Exxon, Mobil, BP “greenwashing” by investing miniscule amounts in renewable energy). But when people who are White genuinely want to do something for people of color, isn’t there a way to encourage it, and guide it while not succumbing to the imperialism popularized by Kipling?

    I consider you a social change leader in our community, and thank you for your ongoing efforts / sacrifices. In that capacity, I look to you for perspective with all major social movements such as this. In your next email/newsletter, I hope you will give more space explaining what this movement did right so that others can learn from this. That is, what did IC do well that can be replicated by others, why should they be supported, AND how could they have done it better? (This is a much different response than the framing in your email: that you support Kony 2012 and you have some serious concerns.) Here’s another idea: Do you have any plans to be in town on or around 4/20? If so, it would be great to hear you speak on this issue locally. I would certainly pay $ to hear you speak, support the cause.

    Thanks for reading, and Keep up the great work!

    PS – It occurs to me that from a racial perspective and to the extent that the efforts of largely White organizers will assist people of color(though not exclusively like in Uganda), the IC campaign is similar to Occupy Wall Street.

    • Sharif says:

      Yours is a very powerful question and comment! I can’t take the space and time right now to give your comment the attention it deserves. However, I would like to address a couple of the points you raised in your email. (I took the liberty of highlighting them in bold… I hope you don’t mind.)

      You said:

      Are we, as people of color, automatically going to reject the efforts of Whites that assist people of color?

      We both know people and organizations doing just that. They attempt to make EVERY white person “pay” for centuries of slavery, racism and oppression. That attitude gets in the way of very well-intentioned, inclusive and well executed programs that bring positive change to people’s lives.

      No, my objection has to do with an attitude I would call “Charity-over”. Just like there is a difference between “Power-over” and “Power-with”, I think there is a difference between “Charity-over” and “Charity-with”.

      A person can go to work in a soup kitchen, to help “those dirty, stinking, nasty people down there… To try to make ‘them’ act like ‘me’.” This is ego and arrogance, disguised as compassion.

      I remember growing up in Camden, NJ. Various poverty officials would zoom in, TELL us what we needed, deliver half of it, then wonder why we seemed so ungrateful. “Charity-over” is arrogance; “Charity-with” is compassion.

      The right way to do it: A near-perfect example of “Charity-with” are my friends John and Susan Marks, founders of Search for Common Ground. They have taken the time to make deep connections in each of the conflict areas in which they work, building deep collaboration on the ground, allowing really creative ideas to bubble up from the people themselves – then finding ways to get those ideas funded and active. Their philosophy is clear and very much in alignment with Commonway. Their Boards (Directive and Advisory) are star-studded.

      And both John and Susan are white.

      You said:
      …what did IC do well that can be replicated by others, why should they be supported, AND how could they have done it better?

      Tackling the second part of your question first:
      • They could have partnered with SFCG, or any of the dozens of organizations with a track record in East Africa.
      • They could put John and/or Susan on their Board of Directors (or someone of their stature).
      • They could allow themselves to be directed and led by those they intend to help.
      • They could spend more time doing than “selling”.
      • They could constantly monitor their inner issues, drives and intentions. A slogan from Sarvodaya: “We build the road, and the road builds us.” Invisible Children is building a campaign – and that campaign will build their values and their character… if they let it.
      • They could choose to be transparent, inclusive and collaborative.
      They can do any and all of those things RIGHT NOW.

      What the “Invisible Children” organization did well, and can (and should) be emulated:
      • Picked an important issue and made it visible to normally asleep Americans.
      • Masterful use of social media. (Extra points for that!)
      • Masterful use of video as a tool of social change. (Actually, I found the video too “slick”… too many heart-tugging images, too little information. They showed more images of the founder’s son playing around with making video than they gave information on their key Ugandan project – the early warning radio network.)
      • Creation of a campaign that is positive, clear, non-partisan and relatively easy to understand. (Compare to general, vague and negative efforts to “smash…”, “boycott…”, “resist…”.)
      • Creation of a campaign that has a clear “winning” point. (This is different from “Occupy”, where there is no clear objective and therefore no way to determine how to “win”.)

      So, thank you for your clarity and concern, and the opportunity to clarify this important issue.



  3. Tim Rouse says:

    Dear Sharif,

    Per your suggestion I watched the video. Very moving and very skillful design that encourages an emotional response. Thank you for sending the link. I had planned to watch it for several days, but without your encouragement I might never have made the time to do it.

    I find your comments about the organization very significant. It is so easy to let my compassion and anger forget the issue of white imperialism and the need to allow the people directly affected to be the keys to the solution rather than money and well-meaning foreigners parachuted in. This is a hard lesson to accept since we know that money and influence is available in the US.

    Without doing any of my own research, I am not so troubled by the fact that key leaders receive a decent wage from the organization. I am appalled that there are not Ugandans on the Board of Directors and that there are not Ugandans on the front line of all the activities. The Brits and other Europeans created most of the “mess” in Africa. It is tragic that people in this country don’t seem to be able to learn the lesson.

    Thank you for your continuing pathfinding and wisdom in addressing these critical issues.

    Hope you are personally healthy and doing well.

    With love, Tim

  4. Ann Huntwork says:

    Hello, Sharif,
    Thank you so much for your very thoughtful analysis of this phenomenon. It seems the American capacity for thinking we know what’s best for others is a force that keeps on giving – no matter what. We surely saw that in our early days in Iran, including among Christian mission personnel!

    We’re excited that you will join us on Tax Day.



  5. Robin MacGarghee says:

    Thank you again Sharif. The YouTube video is spreading and I have received the video many times on Facebook from my friends. I am now sharing what you have said above with my friends to help them see another perspective.

  6. Shirlene says:

    Thank you, Sharif for painting the entire picture. I do hope IC is listening.

Comments are closed.