Donations or Development? The Economic Implications of Kony 2012

Donations or Development? The Economic Implications of Kony 2012

Chances are you now know who Joseph Kony is. Since its release on 5 March Kony 2012 has attracted more than 100 million hits on YouTube and Vimeo and has become the most successful viral video in history. The film, produced by the US-based non-profit organisation Invisible Children, aims to make the Ugandan guerrilla leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony ‘famous’ in order to have him arrested by 31 December 2012. The film’s success has thrown Invisible Children, along with Joseph Kony, into the public eye and the organisation is facing ongoing scrutiny and critique. Invisible Children has responded to criticisms on its website and has produced a more nuanced and comprehensive sequel Kony 2012: Part 2 – Beyond Famous.

Of common concern is the manner in which Invisible Children has oversimplified a complex geopolitical situation for the purposes of the Stop Kony campaign. In the first film director Jason Russell uses an interaction with his young son as a means to explain who Joseph Kony is. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is depicted as a thousands strong force, whereas recent estimates suggest the number is under 400. The film focuses almost exclusively on Uganda and does little to explain that the LRA is now solely active in the neighbouring regions of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Amongst the multitude of responses to the Stop Kony campaign one has gone relatively unnoticed: the official response of the Ugandan government. In an eight-minute video address Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi denounces the LRA leader as an ‘evil criminal’ and applauds the efforts of Invisible Children to draw attention to his long and brutal guerrilla campaign. The Prime Minister then goes on to explain that Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda and that the LRA has not been active in the country since 2006. His message is simple: Uganda is a ‘modern developing country’ and is at peace.

Kony 2012 begins with the line ‘nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. Perhaps a more appropriate opening line would be ‘nothing is more dangerous than a misguided advertising campaign’. Kony 2012: Part 2 expands on the first film and clarifies some of the truths and misconceptions. But the damage has already been done. A significant proportion of the 100 million people who have seen the video are now under the false impression that Uganda remains a country embroiled in brutal guerrilla conflict where children are routinely kidnapped and forced to be child soldiers or sex slaves. This perception will undoubtedly have a negative impact on Uganda’s economy

Late last year Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide publisher, named Uganda its top country to visit in 2012 writing that ‘[i]t’s taken nasty dictatorships and a brutal civil war to keep Uganda off the tourist radar, but stability is returning and it won’t be long before visitors come flocking back’. Data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization shows that the number of tourist arrivals per year increased by almost 500,000 between 2005 and 2010. Furthermore, World Bank statistics indicate that foreign direct investment in Uganda has been steadily increasing for the past decade. Investor and consumer confidence is integral to the continued development of Uganda’s tourism industry and ensuring that foreign direct investment continues to grow. The Stop Kony campaign has the potential to derail this and the Ugandan government’s concern is evident in Prime Minister Mbabazi’s address.

This issue is representative of the trade-off faced by all non-profit organisations working in developing and conflict affected parts of the world. To attract donations and support an organisation must project an image of country in need. For this reason food shortages, unsafe drinking water, disease and inadequate infrastructure become the focus of marketing campaigns. Organisations with a lobbyist agenda, such as Invisible Children, highlight corruption or conflict.

The problem is that non-profit campaigns often profoundly shape the international image of developing countries, and whilst projecting an image of neediness, poverty and instability attracts funds it simultaneously harms a country’s economy by reducing tourism and investment. In an increasingly competitive non-profit sector organisations need to remain financial, however they must be aware of this trade-off and so must the people who give money and support. Irresponsible campaigns such as Stop Kony can do irreversible damage to a country’s international image and consequently their economy.


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