By Haggai Matsiko
Charity NGOs or money making machines?
When it first went viral with over 100 million viewers, a video about catching the notorious warlord Joseph Kony had swung Uganda into celebrity limelight. But when Kony 2012 producer, Jason Russell of the NGO, Invisible Children, suffered a mental meltdown over criticism of the video, the American-dominated NGO world in Uganda and Africa was thrown under global scrutiny in the most brutal fashion. What went wrong?
In unexpected twist, the Invisible Children founder who says he started the company in 2004 to highlight the plight of children caught up in the civil in northern Uganda, is being scrutinized for “warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialisation, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, and portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans.”
The Kony war has moved on from Uganda, into the DR Congo, the Central African Republic (CAR), and the border of the Republic of South Sudan. But it is perhaps the voice of northern Uganda that has sealed how the Russell’s video will eventually be viewed by the world.
War victims furious
This tragic end started with the activities of an NGO called the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), which operates in northern Uganda, the area where the 26-year long Kony armed rebellion against the government of President Yoweri Museveni started. On March 13, soon after Kony2012 went viral, AYINET decided to screen the 27-minute film in Lira town. All day long, vehicles crisscrossed the area with loud-hailers mounted, inviting residents to the viewing. By 6pm the grounds were filled and huge televisions screens erected. Soon after the screening started, however, the organisers sensed there was a problem. Verbal insults were hurled at them; followed soon after with stone throwing. Then somebody pulled the plug on the power source, plunging the crowd of thousands into darkness. A stampede ensued. Fortunately, no deaths were reported. But the damage was done. AYINET cancelled its planned screening in other areas.
“If you care for us the victims, you will respect our feelings and acknowledge how hurting it is for us to see you mobilising the world to make Kony famous, the guy who is the world most wanted criminal,” someone in the crowd is quoted to have said.
A statement from AYINET indicates that while people agreed that Kony and the top LRA commanders should be brought to justice and that international support was needed, they decried the documentary’s message of making him famous and marketing of items with his image.
“How can anybody expect a person to wear a T-shirt with Kony’s name on it? Why give such criminals celebrity status? Why not make the plight of the victims and the war-ravaged communities, people whose sufferings are real and visible, the focus of a campaign to help?”
There was a strong sense from the audience that the video was insensitive to African and Ugandan audiences, and that it did not accurately portray the conflict or the victims.
It was a shock.
Just a few days earlier, Rusell had been on radio in his native America, proclaiming the Kony 2012 campaign a success. Just 48 hours into its month-long run, the video had already generated US$ 5 million for his company. The video had the backing of global celebrities including Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Ryan Gosling. Russell was excited.
The money came from people like, Katelyn Dunn of Northumberland Regional High School.
By March 8, they had started pre-selling bracelets, T-shirts and action kits to support Kony 2012. The also planned a “coin drive” where everyone donates whatever little sums they have.
“I saw the documentary two days ago and it really caught my eye and I decided I had to make a difference,” Dunn told a local reporter.
She was looking forward to the “national day” of wearing the Kony 2012 T-shirt in support of the Invisible Children on April 20.
It is now not clear what will happen on April 20.
According, to the video, Invisible Children had planned a series of events, including plastering Kony 2012 posters on city walls across the global to “make Kony Famous”.
It is unclear how they will proceed under the barrage of criticism and the meltdown of their leader.
When Russell put out Kony 2012, one can almost predict that he hoped he would make history.
In fact in the 30 minute documentary, he calls on people to join him in making history—causing the arrest and trial of Joseph Kony, the LRA rebel whose army has murdered, mutilated and abducted tens of thousands of people over a two decade war.
He made history but of a different kind. On March 15, he was briefly detained by police in San Diego before being sent to a hospital.
In a statement, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey said:
“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalised yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”
Part of the pressure came from accusations that Invisible Children spends a paltry 32 percent (on northern Uganda people) off the millions of dollars Jason’s organisation collects in donations, to sucking his 3-year old son, Gavin Danger, into the documentary saga.
Two days after the release of is documentary, one by one Ugandans lambasted the documentary that they accused of portraying them as poor Africans in need of help from the U.S.
Betty Bigombe, the state minister for Water and global human right activist, who was at the height of negotiations with Kony faulted the documentary for ignoring local initiatives and creating an impression that the Invisible Children and the U.S. are the only people doing something about ending the LRA war.
“Awareness is important but there is that connotation that we (Invisible Children and the U.S. ) are the only people who can do it, we are the only people who are doing something about it which is totally wrong,” she noted, “ It would have been good if local players had been consulted.”
Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda, and assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University, US who authored Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda, says Kony2012 is a case of dangerous ignorance.
“As a result of Invisible Children’s irresponsible advocacy, civilians in Uganda and central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money,” Branch wrote for Aljazeera, “This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.
Branch’s frustration with the group, he said was the group’s approach: the warmongering, the narcissism, the commercialisation, the reductive and one-sided story they tell, their portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans.
“Will this mobilisation of millions be subverted into yet another weapon in the hands of those who want to militarise the region further?” Professor Mahmood Mamdani weighed in, “If so, this well-intentioned but unsuspecting army of children will be responsible for magnifying the very crisis to which they claim to be the solution.”
Apart from this, Invisible Children has been criticized for poor accountability and not spending majority of its funds on direct service delivery to war victims.
Here is how we spend
However, the organization released a video in which Keesey explains the organisation’s financials. He explained that the organisation’s model is premised on three things—Media which has to do with the appealing movies, Advocacy, where they travel sucking youths and all concerned into their campaigns and development where they do things that directly touch people’s lives.
Keesey said that the organization was ensuring accountability by publishing its reports online and denied allegations that they spent millions on travel and hotel bills for the top managers but that instead the travel costs included costs of the 3000 screenings of their documentaries that takes place around schools every year.
Invisible Children’s audited accounts are, however, not very helpful on this front. They show a company whose total assets ballooned from just US$2 million in 2010 to US$ 7 million in 2011. Most of these assets are held in cash, US$ 6 million.
Details show that at least US$ 5 million of this money comes from donations while what is called “program revenue” from sale of T-shirts, bracelets, and others brought in about US$ 3 million in 2011. These brought in about US$13 million in 2012. Obviously, 2012 was planned as the big money maker.
Most of the invisible Children’s money, according to its expense accounts for 2011, went to program expenses and management expenses. That is money the Invisible Children Inc. owners spent on themselves. In 2011, they spent about US$2 million on salaries, US$3 million on services, and US$ 1 million on travel. Film like Kony 2012, of which they have made several, consumed just US$358,000 (Approx. Shs 900 million).
Development, which includes Invisible Children’s touted support of 11,000 people in schools, homes, and communities in Central Africa, consumed a paltry US$287,000.
With this kind of money, the Invisible Children says it has since 2005 been providing access to education and improving the livelihood of a post-conflict community with the organisation currently supporting 590 secondary students and 250 university students.
The organiation has also been partnering with 11 of the top secondary schools in northern Uganda affected by the LRA insurgency, Schools for Schools works to construct and renovate school structures while also building teacher capacity and developing curriculum.
It also runs a social enterprise geared toward facilitating financial independence and development for women formerly abducted by the LRA. The program currently supports 16 seamstresses who use their tailoring skills to create unique, high-quality handbags.
The organisation also supports rural communities using a three-pronged approach: Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA); Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH); and Functional Adult Literacy (FAL).
Invisible Children funds the Early Warning HF Radio Network, which links communities currently affected by LRA violence. This network helps to warn communities of pending LRA attacks and allows local humanitarian groups to provide timely assistance to those in need.
This network also feeds into the LRA Crisis Tracker, a public website that provides near-real-time information on current LRA activity. In 2011, this LRA tracker shows LRA reportedly killed 144 civilians in 2011, a 78.0% reduction from the 654 reported killings in 2010.
The group also abducted 595 people in 2011, a 47.3% reduction from the 1,130 reported abductions in 2010. 284 reported LRA attacks occurred in 2011, a 32.4% decrease from the 420 reported attacks in 2010.
Within 2011, reported LRA activity declined dramatically as the year progressed.
LRA Crisis Tracker data showed an 83.9% reduction in reported civilian fatalities and an 74.5% reduction in civilian abductions in the second half of 2011. Overall, the LRA reportedly committed 203 attacks in the first half of the year and 81 attacks in the second half of the year.
While the cause of this reduction in attacks is not clear, there is little evidence that LRA operational capacity significantly diminished over the course of the year.
Coinciding with the start of this reduction in LRA violence, numerous accounts report that Joseph Kony summoned his key command leadership to rendezvous with his unit in CAR between the months of July and September. By September, reports revealed that commanders had again dispersed and several LRA groups were headed south towards the CARCongo border.
426 individuals reportedly returned from LRA captivity in 2011, including many who escaped immediately or soon after being abducted. LRA commanders released 2 large groups of women and children in 2011, a group of 17 near Duru, Congo in October and a group of 13 near Bangadi, Congo in November.
The organization put in place a Rehabilitation Center in Dungu, DRC, that is reportedly the first in the region for LRA victims—treating the most severely traumatized children with psychosocial counseling, vocational training, and family-reunification services. The center can host up to 250 former LRA abductees at a time.
This initiative is one of those that experts say has increasingly scaled down on Kony’s murderous operations.
However, according to Victor Ochen, the Director, AYINET, working with war victims demands greater physical and human accountability, tangible and practical changes that bring smiles in the tear-filled faces of victims is much better than a well-made financial report.
“There are life-changing needs in northern Uganda and there are ways to help victims,” he wrote in the Daily Monitor, “Some of the victims were infants when they were mutilated. They have been living in pain throughout their lives.”
Critics have always pointed out that rehabilitation efforts in northern Uganda have been lucrative business for NGOs whose operations are not known to local governments.
In 2010, Prime Minister, Apolo Nsibambi, directed the internal affairs ministry to compile a list of all NGOs operating in the north, which have not been accounting for funds meant for the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP).
He was concerned that although development partners continued to inject billions of money into the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan, a number of NGOs never accounted for the funds, making it difficult for the Government to monitor and track the donors contribution.
According to the Plan, NGOs get a lion’s share of 70 percent of the donors’ contribution. PRDP is estimated to cost over $ 606m.
Invisible Children’s audited accounts
- Total assets ballooned from just US$2 million in 2010 to US$ 7 million in 2011.
- Most of these assets are held in cash, US$ 6 million.
- At least US$ 5 million of this money comes from donations
- Sale of T-shirts, bracelets, and others brought in about US$ 3 million in 2011.
- TOGETHER brought in about US$13 million in 2012.
- OWNERS spent about US$2 million on salaries, US$3 million on services, and US$ 1 million on travel.
- Film like Kony 2012, of which they have made several, consumed just US$358,000 (Approx. Shs 900 million).
- Development, which includes Invisible Children’s touted support of 11,000 people in schools, homes, and communities in Central Africa, consumed a paltry US$287,000.