Medical aid worker on Kony 2012: "The aid industry has just been Biebered."

(Photo: Joseph Kony, via Reuters)

On his personal blog, Marc DuBois of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) writes about the impact of the viral Kony 2012 campaign on the work of long-established humanitarian efforts in Africa.

"Most madmen love the idea of fame, so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true," writes DuBois.

Many aid workers are simultaneously offended by the project and jealous of its unprecedented reach. At the time of this blog post, the promotional video for Invisible Children's fundraising/"awareness" campaign about the fugitive African rebel leader has exceeded 70 million views, making it the fastest-growing viral video in internet history.

Snip from DuBois' blog post:

So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It’s the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast? About six months ago, my niece “Lisa” in Chicago excitedly asked me to contribute to Invisible Children. At the time, I’d never heard of it. I poked around. I can’t say I was taken by the cause, but I couldn’t help feeling envious of IC’s having so effectively reached Lisa, usually more interested in dance and boys. These young upstarts at IC are the next big thing. And we aren’t.

Why? Well, for one, they have a simple message that people grasp. For another, good looks. More importantly, Invisible Children has discovered what the entertainment industry figured out a decade ago. It’s not about us old timers. It’s not people who read the Philip Roth or contribute conscientiously to their pension fund. It’s about the under 25s, maybe even the under 15s. It’s about the kids. That’s why there are a couple dozen TV shows about teenage vampires. That’s why we have Jedward.

The aid industry has just been Biebered. IC’s hundreds of thousands of donor / activist – they were invisible to us. Kids. That’s the target and that’s the message. If you think the aid world depends on gray haired HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, aka rich folk), wait and see what IC does with its pubescent legions. My advice to the aid industry? First, get over it. Then, get on the boat.

Read the rest here.

DuBois isn't speaking for MSF, but I spoke to another MSFer via Twitter today: Avril Benoît, the group's Director of Communications, who pointed me to DuBois' blog post. I asked her if MSF had released an official statement in reaction to the Kony campaign: No. But, she said, "MSF teams in LRA-affected regions of DR Congo, Central African Republic & South Sudan are likely wary of retaliation risks."

Does the viral campaign, and reactions to it on the continent, up the risk for aid workers, I asked?

"It's more that, historically, military offensives v. LRA (as the campaign calls for) triggered retaliatory atrocities against villages," she replied.

Too bad those ugly, complicated realities don't easily fit into Invisible Children's 140-characters-or-less narrative.

The Invisible Children viral video may be the "most-viral" in history, but it's one of the most expensive, too. The group raised $13.8 million in 2011, according to the non-profit's financial statements [PDF]. In an interview with CNN, co-founder Jason Russell says they spent one-third of raised funds on the film, another third on "film-related advocacy" and the rest on a "a mission to end the war, and rehabilitate war-affected children."

They've released no specific price tag on the film, but: do the math. This is a group that is, ultimately, calling for military intervention.

(Photo: The Kony 2012/Invisible Children guys posing with SPLA soldiers on the Sudan-Congo border in April 2008. Photograph by Glenna Gordon.)


  1. Grats for the follow-ups. Just another fundamentalist conservative group masquerading as a charity.

  2. (people..people…) we really need to establish some standard units here.  are we really to presume that a “hyper-viral” equals one “biebered”?  and what’s the scale factor between a mega-viral and a kilo-lohan?  perhaps there should be a time sliding coefficient, as one “linsanity” has already slipped below a 3 mega-virals.

  3. I fear politically naive (and young) people’s bullshit detectors won’t go off when they view the totally manipulative, messianic, and *narcissist* mess that is that video.  Never mind the horrible photo of those guys with the SPLA.

    1. I’ve been facepalming ever since this mess ran like a wildfire all over twitter, and it’s made me even more cynical about “humanitarian aid” campaigns. None of these kids are old enough to remember Live Aid, and they don’t know they just got sold by advertising. Really slick, emotionally manipulative advertising.

  4. Weird that suddenly toady there are so many news stories all over the US criticizing this video.  In this case, the argument is that the video might cause military action against the LRA, which might have harmful side effects.  So suddenly military action against the LRA is bad?  That’s a pretty weird position for ANYONE to take.  The other criticisms in the news today are that this video didn’t go viral 15 years ago, that criticism of  the LRA is one sided (which is nuts), and that Invisible Children spent to much of the money they’ve raised to date on the video itself (which is weird consider its success).  Xeni writes ” Invisible Children’s 140-characters-or-less narrative”. But that ingores the fact that it is the video not a Twitter post which is getting attention.

    1. Because I haven’t fucking heard of them until a few days ago, this is when their massive social media campaign kicked off.

      Here’s why they are so suddenly loathed.

      “We think it to be overly simplistic to view Invisible Children simply as a charity doing “good” things when they have: established ties to the US evangelical movement through their partners; neo-liberal policies that support entrepreneurship and business with an evangelical spin through Russell’s association with Praxis; and a coinciding of aims and interests in the region with regards to awareness raising, business creation, and foreign intervention.”

      1. In the end, what really matters is not their ties, but their results. And I’ve noticed recently that a surprising number of people had never heard of the LRA before, and because of this video, they now know what the LRA is and what they do to children. To me, that simple fact makes this video a good thing.

        It boggles the mind to hear IC critics claim that the LRA isn’t that big of a problem, or that they’re practically dead. They still exist, and they still are a problem. They just moved from Uganda to the Congo, so it makes sense that their effect isn’t felt as much in Uganda as it used to be. But the children in Congo deserve just as much protection from these monsters. Don’t give them a clean slate just because they crossed national borders.

    2. People have been criticizing this video since the day it was released. And rightly so.

    3. “So suddenly military action against the LRA is bad?  That’s a pretty weird position for ANYONE to take.”

      Because Dominionists propping up religious zealots to take out another religious warlord always works, I’m glad you’ve fucking solved Africa for us, genius.

      1. Please provide some evidence that Invisible Children, Inc. is Dominionist.

        Also, who are the religious zealots you feel are being propped up by raising awareness of the LRA?

        Are you just worried about the revenue generated for Invisible Children? Or is it the campaign against the LRA what is bothering you?

          1.  He says he’s off to study “theology” as well, which is always a warning sign, in my book.

    4. Just to refute your misconceptions:
      1. “So suddenly military action against the LRA is bad?  That’s a pretty weird position for ANYONE to take. ”
      A: Nobody is taking that position. It’s not so black-and-white. Historical facts are hard to argue with, and heretofore military involvement (of which there has been a lot, it’s not hypothetical) has led to severe reprisals. And while Kony’s numbers are greatly reduced (at best several hundred) there are many children still among them, according to some reports. Furthermore, there’s extremely good reason to give credence to fears that IC’s requests for continued, even escalated, military intervention by foreign powers (to pursue a fugitive) plays into the hands of those in the Pentagon (and beyond) who have been trying to find a way to legitimize larger-scale US military presence in Africa. In short, regardless of the facts on the ground, IC’s narrow Kony-focus leads them to oversimplify or outright misrepresent facts to support their case — that US military involvement needs to happen in Uganda — where Mr. Kony is no longer present. I guess it should expand then, to the Congo . . . and so on . . .

      2. “The other criticisms in the news today are that this video didn’t go viral 15 years ago”
      A: Hardly. There is a huge difference between saying “this video presents the situation as it was 5 or 6 years ago as if it were still the same and is therefore manipulating the facts to make a case somewhat dishonestly” and saying “this video is no good because it should have been made 5 (or 15) years ago.

      3. “that criticism of  the LRA is one sided (which is nuts)”
      A: Nobody that I have read is saying that. You make this claim as if people are saying we need to hear the LRA’s side of the story. I must confess I have not heard anyone make that claim. What people have said is that IC is fiddling with and misrepresenting the facts to support their case and is not telling the whole story (to wit, that the greatly diminished Mr. Kony, evil man though he may be, is in hiding in the Congo, with no resources or money, and frankly nowhere near the worst problem facing Ugandan children).

      4. “Invisible Children spent to much of the money they’ve raised to date on the video itself (which is weird consider its success).”
      A. The complaint is not about them spending money on this video in particular. Like a lot of ill-run NFP’s IC spends the majority of its take on overhead and self-promotion and very little on the ground solving problems. The three founders draw around $90k a year in salaries each. only around 30% or the money they raise is spent in Uganda. AND they raise money off the backs of Ugandans, paying villagers pennies on the dollar to make bracelets which they then shill for 20 bucks. Makes no sense to me, and is further evidence of their fundamental wrong-headedness: “Say, have I got a deal for you, Ugandan person who needs a smart hip white person from America to help you! Make this bracelet for 50 cents. Give it to me, and I will sell it in America for 20 dollars. Then I will spend 6 of those dollars in Uganda, and the rest making disingenuous videos showing the word how hopeless and helpless Ugandans are in the face of a crisis that actually peaked 5 or 6 years ago and is no longer much of a concern to Ugandans today.”

      IC is far more concerned with their image than anything else — and seemingly this is an emormous blind spot for them! Witness the March 9th post on — Grant Oyston’s blog to date has posted some of the most even-handed criticism of IC and has been massively visited in the last few days. What does IC do in response? Offers to pay to fly the blogger to San Diego to see their offices and to Uganda see how really wonderful it all is. Grant’s response is classic: ” It would’ve cost Invisible Children at least $3000 in flights alone. I would’ve loved to go, but said no only because if I donated to IC, I wouldn’t want my money going towards flying a blogger to Africa. But that’s a whole different conversation.”

      1. I have to say I saw the title of the post and expected more pointless intellectual criticisms of helping people, but your comments have pretty much convinced me these guys are assholes.   Thanks

        1. You’re welcome. I don’t think they’re assholes on purpose. I think –THINK — these guys’ hearts are in the right place, but they are naive at best and have nothing practical to offer to the Ugandans. Nothing  the Ugandans actually want, apart from offering an opportunity to forego traditional or new, home-grown ways of making money in favor of a dependency on IC trinket-manufacturing for pennies on the dollar. I read an interview with a Ugandan woman who quit fishing for a living, and had saved up $300 from making bracelets, and was able to buy a hut as a result. While on the surface, that’s a win, it’s short-term at best — what happens when the IC’s 15 minutes are up and the bottom falls out of the bracelet market? What will she and others who have foregone traditional (or new and sustainable) ways of making a living, do for money? 

          As with all things, IC has no answers for questions of this sort because they haven’t thought anything through.

          1. “I don’t think they’re assholes on purpose.”

            You should read more of their narcissistic interviews. They make Newt Gingrich look humble.

          2.  “4: Who is your biggest hero?

            If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby.”

      2. Excellent critical point by point dissection and rebuttal of some of the ideas out there. Critical thinking is a rare quality on the net, something that you seem to have an abundance of. : )

        ~~ A UCSD Philosophy Student ~~

    5. Boy, you must have been in love with the Iran-Iraq war (assuming you were alive). And every war.

      “So suddenly military action against the mullahs is bad?”
      “So suddenly military action against the Soviets in Afghanistan is bad?”
      “So suddenly military action against the Viet Cong is bad?”
      “So suddenly military action against the dusky Spanish papist encroacher in the Phillipines is bad?”

      1. All of those examples differ in relation to sovereignty.  Your examples are all of invading countries.  But the case we are looking at today is whether to provide assistance to a regional effort by the governments in the area against brutal armed marauders.

          1. And it’s already being provided. And the military’s been aching to expand AFRICOM in the name of “the war on terror.” Since Googling things you don’t know about (or son’t want to because it disabuses you of your misconceptions) doesn’t seem to be your forte, let me help you out . . .

        1. Check your Vietnam War history. The United States was ‘helping’ the religio-fasist South Vietnamese government. It’s not like that government wanted them gone.

          1. No, they’re advocating supporting local governments. They don’t want to send the US army, they want to send US advisors to help local forces to find the LRA.

  5. The AP photographer who took that photo of the boy band I.C. bois  with the SPLA and their weapons puts the photo in context, and says what she thinks (and what Ugandans think) about the I.C.  It is *not* flattering.

    Q. Invisible Children has received some criticism that their efforts and this photo seem “colonialist,” or hint at the “white man’s burden.” What do you say to that?

    Gordon: I think all of those things are true. The photo plays into the myth that Invisible Children are very much actively trying to create. They even used the photo on their official response page. I don’t think they think there is a problem with the idea that they are colonial. This photo is the epitome of it, like, we are even going to hold your guns for you.

    Q. What did you think of the Kony 2012 video?

    Gordon: I can’t bring myself to watch the video. I found all of their previous efforts to be emotionally manipulative, and all the things I try as a journalist not to be. After the peace talks in 2008, they put out another video, and I saw the footage used in these videos blending archival footage with LRA and SPLA and videos of them goofing off. It was the most irresponsible act of image-making that I’d seen in a long time. They conflated the SPLA with the LRA. The SPLA is a government army, holding weapons given by the government, and yet they did not create any division between them and LRA. That’s terrible.

    Q. How did you see other aid groups and Ugandans respond to Invisible Children while in Uganda?

    Gordon: People who have lived there for years, bona fide aid workers who have studied foreign policy and other relevant fields like public health, who are really there because they are trying to solve problems — they see Invisible Children as trying to promote themselves and a version of the narrative.

    Most Ugandans also think they are ridiculous. They say “Invisible Children! They seem pretty visible to me.” Even the name is so loaded.

    1. I wonder how they managed to rack up 1M in travel costs? That’s the largest single position on there… (compare that to 2.8M reaching their central african LTD, is there some information on how they spent that? The report mentions some unspecified number of staffers, but they are paid by the LTD, so even less than these 2.8M is used for actual charitable work)

      1. Racked it up flying all over the place screening their videos and promoting their organization in the name of “raising awareness” of a crisis that no longer exists as they describe it.

      2. Also, even in the face of recent scrutiny, they are pretty damn free with that travel budget, offering to fly bloggers critical of IC to their offices in San Diego and on to Uganda. (See link in comments above.) In their effort to pacify a critic they succeed in confirming one of the biggest criticisms they face! Clueless!

  6. You know, the video isn’t journalism. It’s a call to arms. Since when have calls to arms been neutral viewpoint?

  7. FWIW, Doctors without Borders is a great charity to give to that makes a difference in hell holes around the world. I had a dentist who spent a week in Palestine giving free dental care every year.

  8. It is becoming clear to me that much of the criticism comes from  people in the communications field who have had tons of time, money, resources and opportunity to do their job and get their various organizations message across to the masses. It’s all been “business as usual” and until now very few have really cared to or managed to harness the true power of the internet and all the new social tools at hand. Now that there “cocky young dudes” went as DID IT and really showed the whole world what it really means to “use social networking” and what sort of audience you can reach if as a communicator you know what you are going and you do it. So there are quite a few “communications and social media experts” and journalist type “pros” that have been paid to “create awareness” for xy and z, but that don’t really look all that shiny now in comparison. And no doubt will this be unsettling and hit a lot of raw nerves. Because the expectations have now been ramped up. I had a long conversation yesterday with one of these professionals from a very big and well known international  institution that works for childrens issues around teh world, including in Central Africa.  This person told me that I should instead donate to “her” much more respected and well known organization, so I agreed to do so. The only problem is that no matter how I searched, I could find tons of articles they had written about LRA and Military use of children, but no link to donate at to this cause and no suggestions as to how as a concerned person I could take any action to help.  The only thing I could do was to donate to a general fund that did not specify at all  where and how the money would be spent. I am sure every penny would be spent in some very good way, but now I was motivated by the cause of stopping the use of children in war, not sending mosquito nets, dggin wells  or preventing AIDS (yes I DO care about malaria and aids and providing clean water for all as well, but today I felt moved to stop childrens from being used as soliders). So, only after much searching by me and this person who actually worked at the organization did we manage to come up with a link for me to donate. I only ended up donating becasue I kind of felt obligated to my friend after all of this. Nothing about the bland bluewhite page really     made me feel that donating should be a top priority of mine. So here we have the problem – if we fail to see the value of marketing and, as my friend called it “sexiness” then we have already lost. Like it or not, this is how it works. IF you can’t grab and keep your audiences attention with your message,you are not even a blip on the radar, you become inconsequential no matter how important to the world you might think you are.  So get over it, learn a lesson and and get busy learning how to use the modern means of communication towards your worthy and noble cause.

    1. “It is becoming clear to me that much of the criticism comes from  people in the communications field”

      If that’s what you’ve taken from this grift, you haven’t been paying attention to the content of ANY of their criticism.

      “get busy learning how to use the modern means of communication towards your worthy and noble cause.”How about you get busy reading why this is a horrible cause?

    2. What evidence do you have, for your self [not for me, but for you] that you understand the issue in way that permits you to pass judgment in a meaningful way? Much of you’re post is about how you want to contribute to this [worthy <- but that needs to be qualified which you need to be able to do on your own] cause. 

      To paraphrase  what you wrote  more succinctly "[we] DID IT, so get over it." What is the "IT" that you have done, have any of the fundamental underlying issues even been considered. Like why is there a rebel problem, what are the motives, what has been the result of military intervention in past similar situations, what other issues don't we see from our point of view; and more specifically what would constitute a diagnosis of the fundamental underlying causes — not just a superficial treating of the symptoms. It is this last point that Kony illustrates. He is just a symptom of larger causes that are difficult to see or know. 

      My opinion is that the criticism that you fail to see and understand are criticisms about the substance of what aid IC proposes, and the problems of their oversimplification of quite complex and interrelated issues. Resulting in perhaps more harm than good in the long run. 

      If you want to talk to me about this last point, we will need to discuss the issue mediated through one specific point of data, theory, evidence, or historical fact, so that we can reduce down this large issue to something that we can realistically think about. I speak for my self when I say that there are more things going on here than I will ever be able to comprehend, and this is why we must talk of specifics, lest we become bogged down in an avalanche of topics. 

      But don't rant at me, I will ignore because that's not worth anyone's time. 

      ~~ A UCSD Philosophy Student ~~

      1. Oh, and one more thing. The overreaching topic you are addressing [at-least from the theoretical philosophical perspective] is distributive justice, because you show interest in this, [without knowing it] perhaps you, or anyone else would like a brief [no joke +11.000 words is brief when you want to really start to understand something] introduction on the issue. 
        This qualifies as peer reviewed work [the highest form of evidence in debate and academic work]

        ~~ A UCSD Philosophy Student ~~

  9. It surprises me to see pretty much only negative reactions to this on BoingBoing. Everybody here probably already knew about the LRA, so I understand that to everybody here, the video doesn’t add anything new. But in many discussions resulting from this video, I noticed that an enormous number of people had no idea what the LRA was, until now.

    The simple fact that this video reaches so many people, and informs so many people about the attrocities committed in central Africa, is pure win. I don’t care that it’s too hipster for your tastes, because apparently that works, and has helped it reach so many people. I don’t care that they spent a lot of money on this video, because it’s this video where’s they’re making a difference; they’re making more people aware of the problem. I don’t care that they’re not a big bureaucratic NGO with all their paperwork in order if they manage to reach so many people.

    1.  If half of the people who watched that video read more about the story and started realizing IC was crap, then I’d be in total agreement with you.

      Otherwise, people should really be more critical of anything they watch or read. This is the Internet after all.

    2. Granted this video has reached many people who had no idea, however the people it reaches are by in large not critically thinking about this issue. Nor do they have any [yes any] background to necessary to understand the complexities here. [not that i’m claiming i do, even-though I knew of the LRA, hooray BBC world news] There is far more going on in Africa then we in america can really know. Our lives are not really effected by such occurrences. 

      Ignoring all the problems with IC, and focusing on just one that illustrates my point, consider success and failures of military intervention in foreign countries for humanitarian aid. Now consider just one example, Somalia 1993. There are many profound differences, that make this more dis-analogous than analogous, however there is one key similarity here. That military intervention can solve the problem of the “bad guy,” leave, and then things will improve. If Afghanistan [both Soviet and US invasion] has show us anything, it has shown that the military intervention notion has a has a hard time at achieving success in this manner. 

      The above is not my point, the point is:

      It is good that people want to help… but have we given consideration to how we critically think about how we help? Our [yes mine too] naiveness about how we should even approach thinking about these problems, much less how to even solve them, fundamentally undermines these charitable feelings at the core. This is not to say that nothing can, or should be done. It is to say that in order for anything to be done with any hope of success, [and not making the situation worse] we must become educated. Therefore if you want the smallest hope of improvement, you must reject the idea that blind naive good feelings will have meaningful positive effect. 

      Education must come first.

      ~~ A UCSD Philosophy student ~~

  10. This cements something that’s been bothering me about social network “Me too!” activism for a while now. Leaving aside the merits of this instance, to spoils go to the cause (or more accurately the organisation) that has the best, most manipulative, social media savvy advertising executives. Adding the Internet has massively short circuited the build up time that would normally allow the phonies to be found out and wither away before they amass too many millions.

  11. First: CW, can you explain to me how putting pressure on the US government lending 100 non-combat  troups to Central Africa to support in the search for a warlord that is the “most wanted criminal” of the International Criminal Court is “a horrible cause”? 

     The video never purported to solve any other problems than to assist in bringing a criminal in front of international justice for having committed thirty-three counts on the
    basis of his individual criminal responsibility including:
    – Twelve counts of crimes against humanity (murder;
    enslavement ; sexual enslavement; rape ; inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and
    suffering ; and, – Twenty-one counts of war crimes (murder ; cruel treatment
    of civilians ; intentionally directing an attack
    against a civilian population; pillaging; inducing rape; forced enlistment of

    If the InvisibleChildren gets thousands of young Americans to email their senators to say: keep the “advisers there” then the mission as per the video is accomplished.

    Those who say “Kony isn’t in Uganda anymore” or “Kony only has a handful of followers left” – are you saying the crimes he committed should be forgotten and forgiven? The International Criminal Court doesn’t think so. I don’t think so.

    It is great that there are many incredibly fantastic humanitarian organizations that work towards helping with various post-war issues in Uganda, and you and I should support those. I wish that those organizations would now take this opportunity to communicate to us how we can best help them. 

    Secondly, a little philosophical twister to debate: Lets say that we had a notorious gang leader in a city in the US, insert any major city close to you. Lets say this gang leader committed 12 counts of murder, rape, sexual enslavement, and various acts of “cruel  treatment of civilians”  and various  ” inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and
    suffering” – use your mind here to think of just exactly what that means. Let further say that he went into poor neighborhoods, recruited or forcibly kidnapped kids and forces them to kill for the gang, including kill their parents and siblings, made them terrorize and pillage neighborhoods and induced them to go on rampages raping. Lets say this gangleader then was not arrested but sent packing somewhere else, lets say it was suspected that he had fled the country to Mexico   If this was the case: would you debate over whether we should only work on  increasing education and general standard of living for people who live in these neighborhoods (dealing with very complex issues indeed)? Or would you still ALSO want to arrest the gang leader and put him in front of justice? Would you go public on teh internet condemning efforts to arrest this person on the grounds that solving issues such as inner city crime, poor living conditions and social injustice are such complex issues that we should not concern ourselves with bringing one criminal to justice? If justice only important when we have “American victims” or is it equally important when the victims of past crimes are thousands of  miles away in Central Africa?

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