whatever happened to the invisible children?

Recently, I've felt like there was a shortage of issues being discussed on this blog. Or, rather, a lack of diversity in the kinds of issues being discussed.

I started this blog as a passion project. It began as a creative outlet, a place for all of my wandering thoughts, awful puns, and not-so-clever commentary that I couldn't put elsewhere, but over time it's kind of evolved into a travel + lifestyle blog. And if you've been a longtime reader, you know that I don't like calling it a "lifestyle blog".

I was frustrated by the shortage of lifestyle blogs for millennials that examined things of actual value, despite the fact that we've demonstrated that we do actually care about them. So I wrote one! I try to write about a mix of social, political, and global issues, but I also acknowledge that I am writing in a bubble. I mostly write about things I'm passionate about and/or directly affect me, which is good (see: my Cambodia travel blog or my piece on Asian-American visibility in the workplace), but it creates this kind of informational feedback loop. The problem is that I don't know what I don't know. You know?

I was talking to my friend Swaim a while ago, who is much more politically well-versed than I am, and it just reminded me how good it feels to talk to people from whom you can learn. It's one of the things I miss most about college—being surrounded by so many people so much smarter than you are. It offers a lot of perspective; it challenges you. But my friend Rekha pointed out that most of the people we know come from relatively similar socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus have relatively similar ideologies. And that can also be very dangerous when the stakes are high enough.

I also recently found a thread on Reddit that I really liked, which asked: "What issue do you believe people REALLY ought to be talking about, yet no one is?". And it raised so many important issues that I never would have known about otherwise, just for insufficient coverage or lack of exposure to them. But I feel like it's always good to know what's happening out there in the world, outside of your bubble. So here we go.

It's been a while since I've done some good, old-fashioned editorial writing, so in this post I'm going to analyze a topic that's relevant not only as a global tragedy and media phenomenon but a lesson in marketing as well. And I'm going to try to do it interestingly, and semi-concisely. Wish me luck.


A lot of people have heard of this, at least in a vague, passing sense. And it's an issue I've followed since I watched the documentary back in 2007, so much that my first novel was inspired by it (is inspired by it...I have yet to finish).

It's not actually a pressing crisis like it was a couple of years ago, but it is one of the longest-running humanitarian conflicts in Africa's history. This guerrilla warfare, referred to as the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency, is still active after 30 years. It's led by Joseph Kony, whose name you might recognize from the Kony 2012 campaign that went viral five years ago. But that campaign was only half of the story. And I'm writing about it now because while Kony was once the most infamous man in America for a short time, he has since faded from the public's consciousness, and few people today know what Kony 2012 was supposed to accomplish.

the invisible war

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is a militaristic and spiritual rebel movement (read: cult and/or terrorist group) that operates in northern Uganda, southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its goal is to free Uganda from government "oppression," but in reality this is a front for extremism.

This uprising was, essentially, the product of a very unstable history and the subsequent power vacuum created in its wake. After Uganda declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, various ethnic groups fought for control. A rebellion waged by the "National Resistance Army" was successful in 1986, and the party terrorized northern Ugandan ethnic groups in retaliation: burning, looting, and killing.

In response to this new regime, a civilian resistance movement led by Alice Lakwena took shape in 1987, kind of a rebellion against the rebellion. She believed herself a messenger of the Holy Spirit of God, and told her followers they were fated to defeat the NRA. Later, warlord Joseph Kony took over the movement, but his ideology was more radical, more extreme: he also claimed to be a prophet, but used his status to manipulate his subordinates. It became less about resistance and more about dominance and terror.

the night commute

With virtually no popular support in the country, Kony began ordering his constituents to recruit children, kidnapping them at a young age and forcing them to become child soldiers or trading them as "wives" for LRA commanders. Children were naturally easier to intimidate and control, making them perfect subjects for the LRA's propaganda. These children were given the nickname "the Invisible Children" by the eponymous non-profit because they were largely forgotten or "invisible" to the public eye, their stories untold.

Once taken, the children are sometimes forced to kill their families, to ensure that they have no home to return to. They are abused, mutilated, and raped. Their survival is contingent upon their usefulness, and so they learn how to fight.

Small, unprotected villages are more vulnerable to rebel attacks, and so every day as the sun sets, the "night commuters" begin their journey. Tens of thousands of children walk for miles to the relative safety of the town, packing up all of their possessions and leaving behind their lives and families in the villages to sleep overnight in bus stations or schools converted into makeshift shelters, to avoid capture by the LRA. The next morning, they walk to school.

The Lord's Resistance Army was classified as a terrorist group in 2008 by the United Nations Security Council, for "crimes against humanity," and in 2012, Kony was at the top of the International Criminal Court's (ICC) list for prosecution.

kony 2012

Invisible Children, Inc. released a video with the title "KONY 2012" and a bold, ambitious message: "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time is now." It was both a battle cry and a social experiment—in the Age of Information, can the internet make an obscure war criminal famous?

"The next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention."

The film attracted millennials who, frustrated by the apathy of what they perceived as Washington's elites, wanted to take action. The 29-minute video appealed to viewers' emotions, using shots of tiny Ugandan children carrying guns, and called upon the public to "make Kony famous," hoping that recognition of his name would bring his crimes to light and spark global action, including U.S. military involvement.

The video promptly exploded. By the end of the first week, over 112 million people had viewed Kony 2012, approximately the same number of people that watch the Super Bowl every year.

A Pew Research Center poll released 10 days after the film’s debut found that 52 percent of adults in the U.S. had at least heard of Kony 2012 and nearly a quarter of those ages 18 to 29 had actually watched it.

To date, over 101 million people have watched the video, and 400,000 people have participated in awareness events around the world.


While Kony 2012 achieved high visibility and promoted a strong message of unity, it was ultimately unsuccessful for many reasons.

1. No clear campaign objective

While there was a call to action, it was unfocused and overly ambitious. Presumably, the goal was to cause enough public outrage with the Kony 2012 campaign to put pressure on Washington to send U.S. operatives into Uganda to find and arrest Kony. And this part worked: in 2011, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. military personnel to assist regional forces in Uganda in removing Kony from the battlefield. But 100 soldiers to find a highly-elusive war criminal is a difficult task. And this brings us to the second reason.

2. It vastly oversimplified the problem

The Kony 2012 campaign focused heavily on Joseph Kony himself, who is not the singular problem nor the solution, and in fact no longer lives in Uganda at all. He is nothing more than a symbol of the LRA and the horrors it has caused, used as a figure for misdirected hate. But he is just one man, and to call for his capture and/or his arrest is a simple solution to an intricate problem.

In an article by the Council on Foreign Relations, the authors question the legitimacy of aid organizations' claims and the ignorance of contextual information regarding Uganda's history of political unrest:

In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony—a brutal man, to be sure—as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan government atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

It also perpetuated the narrative of the "white savior complex," or the idea that predominantly white countries need to "rescue" less-privileged people of color (see: "voluntourism"). While the campaign was celebrated in the U.S. for raising awareness, it was widely criticized by filmmakers and human rights activists in Uganda for ignoring local narratives and marginalizing ongoing human rights abuses. Many critics argued that increased military action would only exacerbate tensions in the region, arming one militia group in favor of toppling another. Even the rallying cry of the Invisible Children movement ("We will fight war") comes across a bit patronizing.

3. Invisible Children was ill-equipped to handle the response

Lastly, while Kony 2012 became a viral sensation, the small San Diego-based non-profit responsible simply didn't have the credibility or resources to make a tangible difference; it was accused of misrepresenting some of its influence and a poor financial track record.

The non-profit extolled a four-tiered approach to its finances: media, mobilization, protection, and recovery:

Media, what Invisible Children is best known for, consists of making films and introducing the conflict to new audiences. Mobilization refers to uniting large groups of people to demonstrate. Protection entails working with regional organizations to warn local communities of potential LRA attacks and encouraging the LRA to surrender. Recovery is the rehabilitation work Invisible Children does in post-conflict regions, working towards lasting peace.

In 2016, it spent $2 million, or 83.7% of its budget on "Programs," which according to Charity Navigator's breakdown, is $1,443,324 on protection (60.6%), $381,554 on media (16%), and $184,804 on mobilization (7.8%). This is fine, if you acknowledge that one of the Invisible Children's core missions is to raise awareness and advocate on behalf of Ugandans affected by the LRA. But it's not fine if you believe that all of your money is going directly to citizens on the ground in Uganda.

While it has since improved its "Accountability & Transparency" score to three stars (92%), its "Financial" score remains at two stars, or 74.81%. According to Charity Navigator, this measure reflects the percentage of its total expenses on programs/services it exists to deliver, divided by the charity's average total functional expenses.

4. Campaign > issue

But perhaps one of the most significant failings of Kony 2012 is that five years later, while almost everyone has heard of the movement, no one can recall its purpose, or even who Joseph Kony is.

the lra today

The LRA left Uganda in 2006, but still remains active in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Last year, one of the LRA's commanders went on trial by the ICC and was charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, attacks on civilians, enslavement, inflicting bodily injury and suffering, and pillaging.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Ugandan and American military officials had quietly ended the hunt for Kony, despite that Kony remains somewhere in the Central African Republic and was never captured or killed:

The United States spent almost $800 million on the effort since 2011, when President Barack Obama deployed Special Operations forces to the region to provide advisory support, intelligence and logistical assistance to African Union soldiers fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army. Officials from the countries involved say they have significantly degraded the L.R.A., diminishing it to around 100 people today from a fighting force of 3,000. Now, they say, it’s time to go home.

There are a lot of faults with the Kony 2012 campaign, but that isn't to say that no good came of it. It united the world against a common enemy and put an unknown warlord on the map. According to Major General Joseph P. Harrington, the commander of the United States Army Africa, the operation was successful in removing a regional threat, as the power of the LRA has been significantly reduced.

The LRA "is really no longer a relevant organization," he said.

From the Washington Post:

In 2000, Uganda created an amnesty program that allowed roughly 13,000 former LRA fighters to lay down their weapons and come home without prosecution. The program encouraged defections via loudspeakers on helicopters and in leaflets. Combined with military pressure, the amnesty policy has been credited with significantly reducing the LRA’s fighting force.

Five years after its splashy introduction into mainstream consciousness, Invisible Children focuses on education and rehabilitation projects. But there's still a long way to go.

The ruthlessness of the LRA and the hidden tragedy of the Invisible children is also indicative of a larger issue: the child trafficking crisis. You have to remember that this happens every day, in our own country—just last year, the number of reported human trafficking cases rose by 35.7%, the highest number coming from the state of California (1,323). We should start there, before diving into the complexities of foreign aid.

And if you actually read this entire thing, I thank you for your dedication to this blog/this issue and for your impressive attention span. If you like this post, have an issue you want to see discussed, or want to contribute, please let me know :).


things to consider

LRA Crisis Tracker

History of the War

The Lessons of Kony 2012

The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012

The Lord's Resistance Army Is Collapsing

The 'Kony 2012' Effect: Recovering From A Viral Sensation

The Privilege of Doing Development Work: Voluntourism and Its Limitations

The Making, and Unmaking, of a Child Soldier