Invisible Children, which brought Kony campaign to Portland, battles critics after video goes viral

Last September, I covered a presentation at Lyman Moore Middle School made by a team of so-called roadies affiliated with the organization Invisible Children. The roadies showed their latest documentary film about the impact on several African countries by warlord Joseph Kony and took questions from the impressionable students, who were obviously moved by the stories of Kony kidnapping rural children and forcing them to murder loved ones before enlisting them in his guerrilla army.

Grace Nimaro, from northern Uganda, stands by a display table at Portland's Lyman Moore Middle School last September where pictures, maps and other information is set out about the path of rebel warlord Joseph Kony, who has been kidnapping African children and forcing them to fight in his army for more than two decades. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

The students in Lyman Moore’s Invisible Children Club, formed in the larger organization’s name after a previous team of roadies made a presentation about five years ago, seemed enthusiastic about launching fundraisers for the cause.

So naturally, my ears perked up when I heard that Invisible Children’s latest documentary, “Kony 2012,” had gone viral, shooting up beyond tens of millions of views online in the days after its release last week.

But as is so often the case, the widespread attention came with a price, and that’s increased critical scrutiny.

Today, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey released a new video to respond to some of those criticisms, and is encouraging folks who are still skeptical to ask questions through Twitter with the hashtag #AskICAnything.

Among the arguments Invisible Children has faced in recent days is that the organization is bad with its money, and spends too much on producing documentaries — which aim to catch a war criminal many believe has already been reduced to near powerlessness — and not enough on helping the survivors of Kony’s warpath.

Another criticism is that the group oversimplifies the problems of these African nations, primarily Uganda, and by pushing for certain U.S. foreign policies that focus on tracking down Kony, they indirectly empower a Ugandan government which doesn’t exactly have a sparkling human rights record itself.

On his video response, Keesey acknowledges those criticisms, says the organization posts its financial books on its website for all to see, and suggests that the reason so much money goes toward the documentaries, their distribution and road shows is that those outreach methods are what is turning the tide in the search for the otherwise poorly publicized Kony…

The first thing we do is make compelling movies and films. … We want to make a film and a narrative to connect brand new people to the issue of the LRA, so we have more and more and more people invested in seeing a successful end to LRA violence. …

I understand that people have questions about our comprehensive model and may question our strategy, but any claims that we don’t have financial transparency or that we’re not audited by an independent firm, or that we don’t have financial integrity, just aren’t true.

… Keesey also suggests that complaining about Invisible Children’s depiction of how bad Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has made things in the countries where they’ve rampaged through is kind of splitting hairs. Most international organizations do agree that Kony is a brutal guy whose forces have kidnapped, killed and raped tens of thousands of people, so how bad a guy he is exactly or how bad off he left Uganda, for instance, may be nitpicky. Here’s what Keesey said in his video:

[Invisible Children leaders] know that we do not have the monopoly on truth. We’ve met with hundreds of people all around the world, especially on the ground, and we’ve learned a ton. But the cool thing is, there’s one thing everyone agrees on, and that’s that Joseph Kony should be stopped.

If you want to watch the video itself, which includes Keesey’s quick flip through some of the percentages in the organization’s most recent financial reports, watch here:

The criticism I’m starting to see popping up more and more (while viewing the Tweets carrying that aforementioned hashtag) and that isn’t addressed in Keesey’s video is that his group gets an inordinate amount of its funding from anti-gay, ultra conservative Christian foundations.

So far, I’ve checked out the organization’s critique response page (which is otherwise pretty thorough) and scanned the Twitter feed, and I can’t find anything quashing accusations about Invisible Children’s financial entanglement with those funders.

Why does it matter, you ask? Well, it may not, depending on who you are and what you believe. But the criticism is that some people donated to the Invisible Children cause without understanding that the group is affiliated with some of these foundations (which are named and analyzed in the blog linked to above), and may not have had they known that.

There are also follow-up conclusions folks might jump to about the work Invisible Children is doing on the ground in Africa if, in fact, their major funders are coming to the table with strong ideologies.

It’ll be interesting to follow the back-and-forth. But perhaps not to get lost in all of this is that Joseph Kony seems to be a bad guy who really ought to be brought to justice, and there are a lot more people talking about that now after “Kony 2012” went viral.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.