Invisible Children is arguably the most popular non-profit organization working with Uganda. If you’ve never heard of them (which I would be shocked if anyone reading this blog hadn’t) visit their website www.invisiblechildren.org. Over the last year or so I’ve been hearing some criticisms about Invisible Children and I feel like it is time to gather all the facts and opinions and try and put them together in a clear and concise manner. My goals is not to support or bash Invisible Children but to allow myself and others to make an informed decision on our opinion of Invisible Children and decide whether we want to start or continue supporting them as an organization. Here are some accusations I have heard made towards Invisible Children and a small discussion on each. Enjoy!
Accusation: Invisible Children makes people believe that the war in Northern Uganda is still going on. They are perpetrating this lie so they can get more donations and attention towards their organization.
The Invisible Children rough cut film was filmed and released in 2003. While the film was being made the LRA had already moved into Sudan and was present in both Sudan and Northern Uganda. The last LRA attack in Uganda was in May 2004 while the movie was gaining popularity and spreading across North America (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/uganda.htm). At this point the people started to return home and Northern Uganda began to re-build while the LRA started terrorizing DRC, Southern Sudan, and CAR. However while all this was going on Invisible Children was circulating a movie depicting war in Northern Uganda. The official organization called Invisible Children was not started until 2004 and a campaign to “end the war and end night commuting” was done in 2006. People were given the impression that the war still existed in Northern Uganda when in fact it had now moved to other countries. Today however Invisible Children provides peace and conflict updates on their website (http://www2.invisiblechildren.com/peace-and-conflict-updates) and recent videos update followers on what is going on with the LRA right now. Invisible Children’s most recent work in Africa is actually taking place in DRC where the LRA is most active now.
Accusation: Invisible Children film director’s salary from their non profit is way too high- they are making money off of the war
The highest paying member of the Invisible Children leadership team is Jason Russell and he is paid $89, 625 a year. This seems like too much when you compare it to the US average yearly income which is $40,711 (http://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/AWI.html). However compared to other large NPOs this is actually a rather low salary. The World Vision President is paid $380,609 a year, Red Cross Chief Executive is paid $467,252 a year, Save Darfur President is paid $190,000 a year, and International Justice Mission President is paid $201, 931 a year.
Accusation: Invisible Children does not give enough money to people in Uganda. They exploit the suffering of the Acholi and then use a majority of the funds on awareness in the US rather than actually helping the people.
The Invisible Children website states “Consequently, 50% of our programming budget is utilized in bringing awareness to the situation and promoting international support of the peace process taking place. At the same time, there is a dire need for relief in northern Uganda, especially when it comes to the region’s youth. The remaining 50% of our budget provides top-notch programming for affected children and their families”. According to Invisible Children’s 990 form (what you have to file yearly with the IRS) and their audited financial report their total revenue in 2009 was $8, 253, 941 and $3, 336, 566 went directly to Uganda. That means only 40.3% of their total revenue went to Uganda while 60% of it was used for programs in the United States.
A problem with this policy is that some people believe when they are giving money to Invisible Children their money is going directly towards helping the Acholi people. Some Ugandans also feel that, since their images are being used to promote Invisible Children, they should be receiving more than half of the donations in the form of aid on the ground. However the flip side of this is that it could be argued that raising awareness of the issue and lobbying the US government to be involved is helping the Acholi in an indirect way. Invisible Children is educating and inspiring a generation of American young adults to become more involved in world affairs. The question that remains is: are they effectively educating the US (see accusation about spreading the untruth that the war is still going on) and is it worth the money they put into this education?
Accusation: Invisible Children has downplayed the Ugandan government’s role in the war
This is a very difficult accusation to test because it is not fully known what role the Ugandan government played in the war. It doesn’t take long when you’re in Uganda to learn that the Acholi and other Ugandans believe that the current president Museveni (Ugandan President) perpetrated the war for his own gain and did not try to stop it until the international community started paying attention to the conflict. I cannot find any legitimate source giving any support to this idea. If you know of one please let me know. According to the UN the Ugandan government has never targeted the Acholi for discrimination. In the 1990s Museveni assigned a government minister to the task of ending the war and this man made contact with the LRA in 1993. Around this same time Museveni launched the Operation North Campaign. This campaign ultimately failed and efforts were revisited in 2002 following the United States naming the LRA as a terrorist group (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33701.pdf).
Accusation: Invisible Children has simplified a complicated war that requires complicated solutions
I don’t think it can be argued that this is not true but it could be argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Most people do not have the time or desire to pour over hundreds of newspaper articles and reports on the LRA and this East African war and even if they do it is difficult to comprehend the wealth of information. It is important to have organizations that can put the information together- assuming the information is true (see discussion above)- in a way that people can understand and learn the basic facts. Not everyone enjoys the research and effort it takes to fully comprehend a conflict as complicated as this so Invisible Children provides an opportunity for the average person to at least have a basic understanding of the conflict. However as mentioned above Invisible Children has a monopoly on this story and might have left out important facts, such as when the war ended and the role of the Ugandan government, so is it justified for them to simplify the story when they have such power and control over how the American people hear and view the situation?
Accusation: Invisible Children violated the IRS regulations for tax exempt non profits by using donations to lobby for the passage of LRA disarmament bill
This is inaccurate. Invisible Children is filed as a 501(c)3 organization and according to the IRS it is allowed to use funds to lobby as long as their lobbying efforts do not use more than 20% of their budget (http://www.npaction.org/article/articleview/100/1/248). According to Invisible Children’s 990 form they only spent $65,136 directly lobbying in 2009. This is less than 1% of their total revenue so their lobbying was perfectly legal.
Accusation: Through the LRA disarmament bill Invisible Children is advocating US military action to help capture Joseph Kony and end the violence perpetrated by the LRA
Political bills go way above my head because frankly politicians are just plain confusing. If you understood this bill and want to fill me in (in simple words please) please do! Here is a question and answer on the bill http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33701.pdf. This is from the Enough Project that lobbied for the bill so it is most likely biased. I couldn’t find another good article critiquing the bill.
Conclusion: you make it J
Let me know if anyone has any other accusations against Invisible Children that we can address on here. This is by no means an exhaustive report of the strengths and weaknesses of Invisible Children so please feel free to add more resources, comments, or fact check me.