The Kony 2012 Vanity Project

Watching the first four minutes of Kony 2012, the viral online video by Jason Russell, co-founder of the NGO Invisible Children, I thought I had clicked on a faulty link and was seeing a film-maker’s vanity project about himself, or his young son, or Facebook, or something other than Joseph Kony, the gargoyle who has run the Lord’s Resistance Army of child soldiers for the past three decades.

It turns out my initial impression was more or less correct, though I was in fact watching the right video, which has recently drawn support from U.S. President Barack Obama and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, among others.

After an opening sequence that includes statistics about Facebook, footage of the Arab Spring, and the birth of Russell’s son, the film shows Russell meeting a young Ugandan boy, Jacob, about a decade ago. Jacob was then on the run from the LRA and Russell, after hearing Jacob’s heartbreaking story, promises him: “We’re going to stop them.” At this moment, the screen fades to black, and Russell’s vow is re-played with a slight echo audio effect, lest its dramatic significance be lost on particularly thick viewers.

I don’t doubt the sincerity or the severity of the emotions Russell felt at that moment. I’ve felt the same, in war zone refugee camps and poverty-stricken orphanages. You desperately want to do something: adopt a child there and then, bring him home and introduce him to your wife and the children you already have; or, darker, but no less keenly felt, you want to kill whoever it is that has hurt such a small and innocent person. Most of us don’t do a thing. Aside from opening my wallet now and again, neither have I.

Russell decided to act. He launched a charity called Invisible Children. “We started something, a community,” he intones in the film’s narration. This is followed by a montage of young people unfurling banners, clenching fists, running across fields wearing matching t-shirts, shouting slogans, and the like. There’s also quite a bit of footage of Russell and his partners. Exactly how any of this helps a nine-year-old sex slave in Central Africa is unclear, but no doubt it makes those marching and chanting in places like New York and Toronto feel better about themselves.

Russell says Invisible Children also builds schools and creates jobs. But this sort of direct action only accounts for less than one third of the money the charity spent last year. The rest went to things like film production, travel costs, and staff salaries.

“We’re not an organization that does amazing things on the ground,” Russell told CNN. “We work outside the traditional box of what you think about charity.”

The point of the film Kony 2012, and the eponymous campaign, is to make Joseph Kony famous, to create a movement of people who will push for his arrest. A good rule of thumb when it comes to international NGOs and other charities is this: Anytime someone says their organization aims to “raise awareness” or something similar, don’t give them your money. Suffering people need help, not sympathy. Russell nevertheless says his campaign can “change the course of human history.”

His logic, such that it is, is this: Last year President Obama announced he was sending 100 American military advisors to Central Africa to help local forces track down Joseph Kony. Russell tells us who deserves the credit: “After eight years of work, the government finally heard us.” He presents no evidence that Invisible Children’s campaigning is what convinced Obama to make his decision.

Instead, Russell warns us that the troop deployment could be reversed any moment. “If the government doesn’t believe that people care about arresting Kony, the mission will be canceled.”

There is absolutely no evidence Washington is preparing to cancel this mission, certainly not by the end of 2012, when Russell tells us his film “expires” — which must be a source of great concern for LRA-disfigured orphans everywhere. But without a looming threat, there isn’t much point to a mass publicity campaign, which is what this film is all about. “In order for the people to care, they have to know,” Russell says. So we’re supposed to put up posters, wear bracelets, and write to Ellen Degeneres and Stephen Harper.

None of this will make a scrap of difference in Central Africa. Joseph Kony needs a drone missile dropped on his perverted, evil ass. His child recruits need to be freed, protected, fed, and schooled. Donors who want to help need to give money to charities that specialize in that sort of work. No one needs Jason Russell’s novelty bracelets.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.