If you're reading this right now, I'm assuming you've seen the Kony 2012 video, which advocates for the arrest of Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony by the year's end.
While I have no doubt that Kony is a dangerous madman, I'm not sure I trust Invisible Children to stop him. My first reason is the way the group spends people's donations: If you look at IC's financials from last year, they spent nearly $9 million, but only about $2.8 million of that went to "direct services." That's a pretty dismal ratio, with most of the money going to — basically — keeping Invisible Children up and running. The CEO and two of the filmmakers are each pulling a salary of almost $90,000 a year.
Invisible Children had a $1 million transportation budget last year, which points to the fact that it's really best to support organizations that are based in the country you are trying to help, not in San Diego. You can see a financial audit of the organization here (it's a PDF). And if you're interested, here's their latest Form 990, which every nonprofit organization in the US has to file with the IRS.
OK. That's the boring financial reason why I don't trust Invisible Children. My other reason has to do with what they're actually advocating.
A question for you: How much do you understand about Ugandan history and politics? I'll be honest and say that I don't know much. Maybe you read the Wikipedia page today. Good for you.
But do you really feel comfortable enough in your knowledge, after watching a 30-minute video, to take a stand one way or another on what's best for the country? Would you put money on it?
As I understand it, Invisible Children has supported violent intervention, particularly by the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The U.S. has tried to take down Kony before and failed. And, you know, it took us 10 years and several trillion dollars to find Osama bin Laden. Historically, things have not gone well when the U.S. has tried to track down foreign leaders, prop up revolutions, back government militias, and train other countries' soldiers. We blew it with the Iran-Contra Affair, the Sandinistas, Manuel Noriega, and — yes — bin Laden and the Afghan Mujahideen (more examples here).
This all boils down to what you believe is the best way to deal with a dangerous person in a seat of power. Do you hunt him down and arrest or assassinate him, possibly making him into a martyr and inspiring a dozen of his followers to do worse things than their leader ever did? Do you seek, once again, to reason with him in peace talks? Or do you work with leaders and reformers within the country to restore the rule of law, neutralizing the threat of guerrilla tactics and child-soldier recruitment by bolstering a legitimate police force?
Look, I was moved by parts of the video. And I remember being similarly moved after seeing my first Invisible Children video, which was shown on a projector screen before a punk rock show that I attended in high school. But we can't just act on our first emotional response. As the most affluent people on the planet, we do have a responsibility to live, spend, and govern in ways that protect the lives, rights, and dignity of those who are struggling to get by. But I can't imagine this is the way to do it.
Personally, I have never even given money to a political advocacy group in the United States, where I can at least say I have a basic understanding of what's going on from day to day. So I am certainly not comfortable giving my money to a group that advocates specific policy decisions in another country. How would you feel if Chinese citizens started raising millions of dollars to influence the outcome of our elections or to arrest Rush Limbaugh? Maybe you know more about Uganda than I do. Save your money and write a letter to your Congressperson.
Investing in one side of another country's conflict is a risky proposition. If you've got some money to give and you're looking for a way to help out (and God bless you for that), you might want to look into some surer bets. I'll vouch for Helen Keller International, an organization that's working to stop preventable blindness in 22 countries in Africa and Asia — although they're not in Uganda. I got to speak with their director for Africa a few years ago, and he's the real deal. Only 6 percent of HKI's expenses go to administrative costs.
The Carter Center is working to restore rule of law in many African countries, including Uganda. The doctors with Médecins Sans Frontières are treating victims in the world's worst war zones. Right here in Charleston, Water Missions International is setting up water filtration and chlorination systems to be installed worldwide, including in Uganda. Other organizations are working to fight malaria, treat childhood influenza and diarrhea, and provide tiny loans to entrepreneurs living in the developing world. When you find an organization that you think you like, check it out on Guidestar and Charity Navigator. And always remember that, just because it's called a nonprofit organization, that doesn't mean somebody isn't making money off of it.
I only found out about this campaign yesterday, so I hope I'm not misrepresenting anything. I just wanted to make sure we didn't all get swept away by a slick video with a catchy soundtrack.