David Stairs

“Indeed, staying silent on explicit religious topics while oozing a Jesus-y pheromone has allowed Invisible Children to tap an entire spectrum of Christian charities, philanthropists, and celebrities, from the most liberal to the most conservative.”
—Josh Kron, “Mission From God: The Upstart Christian Sect Driving Invisible Children and Changing Africa,” The Atlantic, April 10 2012

In 2010 one of my students involved with an on-campus chapter of Invisible Children asked me if I’d make an informal presentation to her group about my experiences in Africa. Since I’d made such presentations many times, and since enlightening people about Africa is always a good thing, I accepted.

I’d been increasingly aware that a number of my students seemed interested or involved in philanthropic organizations and, although aid was not the emphasis of my personal practice, it didn’t seem like a bad sort of learning threshold for young Americans. That I hadn’t factored in the allure of social networking follows one of my most persistent blind spots: I’m not a Facebook user.

The presentation was routine. My friend Wes Janz was in town, so I spoke about the dangers of sticking one’s nose into other people’s business, a frequent topic between us. After polite applause there was silence, maybe one benign question, and then the evening was over. Just like that. I remember thinking, as I left for dinner with Wes, that perhaps the message had not been appreciated.

In March of this year Kony 2012 flashed across the web. In a matter of days more than 80,000,000 people watched Invisible Children’s 30-minute video on YouTube. As a 2007 visitor to Gulu in northern Uganda, and someone with friends from there, I remember thinking that this undertaking was miserably late. Joseph Kony was still at large in the Ituri rainforest of central Africa with an ICC warrant on his head, but this online initiative felt like fundraising.

As I started to investigate reactions to Kony 2012, I was mildly surprised to learn that there had been protests against it in Uganda, the very place meant to benefit. Even personal friends in Uganda, some of them staunch Christians, felt that the initiative was misconceived and expressed this with surprising vehemence.

Subsequent events, including but not limited to Jason Russell’s breakdown, seemed curiouser and curiouser. I learned that Invisible Children had received a major donation from Chase Bank, troubling because of growing American interests in the oil beneath Lake Albert. I’d been on a three-year tear criticizing “interventionist” aid initiatives, and this was shaping up to be a big one.

The stories of well-intentioned aid workers who died or disappeared, from Emma McCune who married a warlord in Sudan, to veteran aid worker Fred Cuny who met his end in Chechnya, are numerous. Often, young people find inspiration in these stories. Such was the case with the brief life of Dan Eldon, whose career Jason Russell knew about and drew inspiration from.

Knowledge of an area’s complex history is usually more valuable than heroic stories about swashbuckling outsiders. The geopolitical history of east and central Africa is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that it is fraught with cautionary tales. The area that the Lord’s Resistance Army has operated in, millions of square kilometers of desert, swamp, and rain forest, is so remote that 19th century colonial powers could not claim it for the simple reason that they couldn’t garrison it.

The LRA began its long sad life as Alice Auma Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, a reaction to Museveni’s victory in 1986 and the subsequent loss of Acholi influence in Ugandan politics. After Lakwena’s defeat and escape to Kenya, the remnants of her movement were reorganized under Joseph Kony, who claimed to be her relative. Omer al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum allied with the LRA because Museveni’s government was friendly to the SPLA separatist movement led by John Garang in South Sudan.

Emma McCune’s widower Riek Machar, acting as a vice president of South Sudan, brokered the first of many failed attempts at peace talks with the LRA as recently as 2006. Unfortunately, the south Sudanese government ignored ICC warrants, and continued to provide support to the LRA. Under flag of a 2006 truce the LRA relocated to Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Early in 2009, the Ugandan Army attacked LRA camps in Congo with the support of the United States, rescuing some children but ultimately failing to capture Kony. In response the LRA went on a rampage inflicting terrible reprisal killings on Congolese villagers.

Flash forward. Now, little more than a month after Kony 2012’s meteroric debut, comes Josh Kron’s article at The Atlantic revealing Invisible Children’s long history of connections to Christian evangelism, including Jason Russell’s detour from a trip to southern Sudan in 2003 into northern Uganda, where God revealed to him his true mission. That IC was tapping into not only the social networking environment on American campuses, but also the campus evangelical movement as a market for its slickly designed but ill-conceived campaign, should have been obvious to me sooner.

One of the standing jokes in my family is that any white person working in Africa must be either an engineer or a missionary, especially in a place as touched by evangelism as Uganda. I, too, understand the risks of masquerading. In 2006 I was staying at a faith-based guesthouse in Kampala. Call it a necessary evil. One morning at breakfast I was introduced to a middle-aged American couple in town for a visit from their mission in the rural southwest of Uganda. When they asked me about my mission I told them I was on a mission for design, but when it came to religion, I was an atheist. “Oh,” they said, effectively ending the conversation.

There is a perverse irony in the fact that a faith-based organization in America, albeit one that’s trying to fly under the radar of being so labeled, whose founder was spoken to by God, has set its sights on bringing down a foreign organization, one whose founder also had visions and itself was based on evangelism. Two American administrations and the American Congress have been successfully lobbied to throw their support behind Kony’s apprehension. To date the net result of that effort has been accelerated misery. Is there a lesson here for all of us about the dangers of pretending to be something other than what you really are?

The follow-up video to Kony 2012 debuted last week. It had 1.3 million hits on YouTube, an order of magnitude fewer than the original. In retrospect, I imagine that those missionaries I met in Kampala did not like me very much, which is the way I feel about Invisible Children. But, in the wake of recent events, I suspect they might agree with me that it behooves all of us to be a little bit more discerning about what causes we thumbs-up, tweet forward, or send money to. Sometimes, as it turns out, the things you can’t see really can do more harm than good.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project