Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Far back before war interrupted the state of normalcy in the Acholi sub-region, every Friday afternoon of the school year was set aside for organized debate. Topics like “mother is better than father,” were vehemently argued as students learned the skill of critical thinking. Sadly, this culture has rapidly dwindled in post-conflict Northern Uganda.
Most schools lack an active debating club, so to rekindle the love of healthy debate, Invisible Children’s (IC) Legacy Scholarship Program (LSP) staff organized a debate competition for 20 secondary schools in the region.
“True democracy is impracticable in our contemporary society,” was the motion that brought teams from two schools to Gulu High for the competition last week. Honorable Ongaya Daniel, co-judge at the competition between Gulu High and Gulu College (both secondary schools) set the pace for the speakers. He described debating as being not only interactive, but also a way to empower the young generation to think outside the box.
Lack of preparation and word pronunciation were the main areas that judges identified for students to improve. On the other hand, judges commended the speakers’ maturity, enthusiasm, confidence and intelligence as they left the audience impressed with their arguments on democracy.
“In my view, debating is vital to a child’s education. It promotes communication skills and encourages creative thinking abilities,” Chairperson Yeko George explained.
Gulu High emerged the winner with 521 points, whereas Gulu College gathered 446 points. The journey for Gulu High will continue when they head to the quarterfinals in the coming weeks.
Congratulations to the debaters and schools for inspiring young talents to participate!
-Germina & Eric

Kony 2012: Mobs, Takedowns and Meltdowns, but Very Little Truth

I spoke to Jason Russell for the second time last week as one of my final interviews in over two months of reporting for a TIME piece on Joseph Kony, his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the anti-L.R.A. activist group Russell co-founded with two friends in 2003, Invisible Children. In the time since we’d first spoken in mid-February, Invisible Children had released its 10th film on Kony, Kony 2012, and it had gone viral: Russell said hits were approaching 100 million. Invisible Children, as the TIME article later detailed, had already pulled off one of the greatest advocacy campaigns of all time, a true wag-the-dog story in which a small group of activists had built massive momentum on college campuses across the U.S., then translated that into such vociferous political pressure in Washington that the Congress and the Senate passed a law mandating the U.S. President to act against the LRA. To that Barack Obama had responded by sending 100 special operations troops to the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

(PHOTOS: On the Ground: Safe from #Kony?)

That result was stunning testament to the success of a new form of slick, digitized, youthful politics that was, depending on whether you liked or disliked Invisible Children and Russell, either stunningly innovative or recklessly broke all the rules. The truth is it was a bit of both. No advocacy campaign has ever come close to shining the kind of spotlight on a developing world conflict in the manner Invisible Children has. At a stroke, conventional media presentation, whether print, radio, television, blogging or social media, all looked desperately tired, as though, like apes trying to figure out the telephone, we’d all somehow missed the huge potential to engage and communicate the new technology was offering. Russell told me Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer and distributor, was just one among a number of media figures who had telephoned him to say: “This changes everything!”

There was a contrary view, however. This held that by simplifying and sensationalizing the LRA conflict, by supporting armed intervention despite being a humanitarian organization, and by personalizing the narrative of Kony 2012 — all in the name of maximizing the appeal and accessibility of the campaign — Invisible Children had scored an own goal. It had exposed itself to such a barrage of criticism that the campaign would quickly collapse, and whatever beneficial effects it had would disappear with it. That was the intelligent criticism, and there was, undoubtedly, a sensible and valuable debate to be had over where truthful journalism and activist advocacy part ways — and whether that explained why a small San Diego activist group could go viral with its presentation of the LRA in a way that the New York Times or the BBC, or indeed TIME, never will.

(VIDEO: The Lord’s Resistance Army Hunts Children in Sudan)

What actually happened, however, was that worthwhile debate was drowned out by a wildly inaccurate, malicious online “takedown,” most of whose participants were utterly uninterested in truth but focused instead on a point-scoring, trashing and hurting, the digital pogrom of the unaccountable, anonymous Invisible Mob. Strangely, even as the participants zeroed in on Invisible Children’s fast and loose presentation of the facts, most responded not with superior research or knowledge but ever wilder and thinner conspiracies: this was about oil, this was about radical Christianity, this was about the U.S. electoral cycle. A lot of it was directed at Russell himself, and deeply personal, cruel, bullying. When I spoke to him the second time, he told me most of the world seemed to view him “as the devil.” He also told me he hadn’t slept for nine days. Three days later he suffered what appears to have been a psychological breakdown and was found by San Diego police naked and kneeling in the street, slapping the pavement with his bare hands. At which point, the baying and blood lust only increased. Russell was down, naked and humiliated. Millions took that as a cue to point and laugh.

This is the other lesson of Kony 2012. Invisible Children have shown us the almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean wondrous — potential for engaging the world that our new media tools allow. But Invisible Children has also shown us the price we have to expect to pay for that: an almost limitless, instant — and by that I mean thoughtless — response. It’s been enough, apparently, to break Russell, someone whose intent, whatever you thought of his methods, was merely to shine a light on one of the world’s more forgotten, and nastiest, conflicts. Will anyone be brave enough to try to do the same again?

MORE: The Warlord vs. the Hipsters

Foreign Policy: Invisible Children Responds

While Kony 2012 was being released, I was working with Invisible Children staff and community leaders in DR Congo on civilian protection initiatives. I was astonished to see the view count climb into the millions. None of us expected that a 29-minute film about Joseph Kony would go viral — or that the backlash would include criticisms that Invisible Children was unaware of the current location of the LRA, when, in fact, our work has extended into currently-affected regions of central Africa over the last two years.
What was perhaps most surprising to see in the wake of Kony 2012 was the misperception that the LRA are still in Uganda. Kony 2012 does portray the LRA’s movement away from Uganda into DR Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan (15:01), and a quick look at theLRA Crisis Tracker leaves no doubt about the LRA’s current area of operation. Yet somehow the message in the film fell short of getting the point across. Perhaps it was due to the focus on a young Ugandan who was affected by the conflict, or perhaps it is driven by the unfortunate fact that only 20% of viewers actually watched the entire film, and the rest may have missed a few crucial details.
There has been much discussion about the video’s impact in the days since Kony 2012 launched, but unfortunately almost none of the opinions have come from the three countries currently affected by the LRA. The insight of local leaders in DR Congo, CAR, and South Sudan has been largely excluded from the broader conversation, as has theirviewpoint on the apprehension of LRA leadership in 2012, and it is clear that the current discourse needs to expand.

Invisible Children



By Nicholas Kristof

I’d like to thank the makers of the “Kony 2012” video for goading me to write about Joseph Kony. With about 100 million views, it is now one of the most viral videos of all time. My starting point is a “bravo” for film-makers for galvanizing young Americans to look up from their iPhones and seek to make a difference for villagers in central Africa who continue to be murdered, raped and mutilated by Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Just in the last two months, the Lord’s Resistance Army has mounted 20 raids in Congo alone. But nobody fights more wickedly than humanitarians, so there have been a series of attacks on the video. Let me try to address some of the criticisms. Let Africans resolve their own problems. It’s neocolonialist for Americans to think that they can solve Congolese problems, when they can’t even solve their own. This is just one more example of “white man’s burden” imperialism. When a warlord continues to kill and torture across a swath of Congo and Central African Republic, that’s not a white man’s burden. It’s a human burden. To me, it feels repugnant to suggest that compassion should stop at a national boundary or color line. A common humanity binds us all, whatever the color of our skin — or passport. The issue is complicated, in ways that don’t come through in a misleading video. For example, the video doesn’t make clear that Kony is no longer a threat in Uganda. The video doesn’t contain errors, but it does simplify things greatly to hold attention. Complexity is, er, complicated: It has been a leading excuse for inaction during atrocities — during the Armenian genocide, during the Holocaust, during Rwanda, during the Bosnian slaughter. Each episode truly was complicated, but, in retrospect, we let nuance paralyze us. It’s true that Kony’s forces are diminished and no longer a danger in Uganda, but he remains a threat in Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Those are tough neighborhoods — I’ve been held at gunpoint in Central African Republic and chased through the Congo jungle by a warlord whose massacres I interrupted — that rarely get attention and are little understood. Yes, the video glosses over details, but it has left the American public more informed. Last year, Rush Limbaugh defended the Lord’s Resistance Army because it sounded godly. American kids worrying about Kony accomplish nothing. The video promotes feel-good gestures — wear a bracelet! — that enrich a do-nothing aid organization but have no benefit in the jungles of central Africa. It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely. Public outrage over Serbian atrocities in the Balkans eventually led the Clinton administration to protect Kosovo and hammer out the Dayton peace accord. The Sudan civil war killed millions over half-a-century on and off, until public outrage — largely among evangelical Christians — led President George W. Bush to push successfully for a peace agreement in 2005. I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east. In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States. I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video. “Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out. The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified? I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.