(NEW YORK) — A 30-minute YouTube film critical of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has logged close to 37 million views since Monday, but the charity behind the video is suddenly on the defensive, forced to explain its motives, financial practices and religious affiliations.
Invisible Children Inc. said its intention was to “create a cultural tipping point” even as critics took to the Internet to recount their concerns.
“We want to do some epic things because our time on Earth is so short,” Jason Russell, an Invisible Children co-founder and filmmaker, told ABC News. “Why not do this? Start here with Kony. Use him as the example of what injustice looks like in the world and then we’re going to move to the next one and the next one.”
The San Diego-based nonprofit uploaded the video “Kony 2012” to bring attention to Kony and the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army, which human rights groups say has terrorized central Africa for years. The video is part of a campaign that includes an April 20 call for supporters to blanket their cities with Kony 2012 posters.
With the viral sensation, however, has come criticism. Several Internet sites have drawn attention to the group’s evangelical roots, a 2008 photo of the charity’s founders posing with guns and how it has disbursed its funds.
Invisible Children responded to most of the allegations in a statement on its website.
Russell said that although the group’s concept — “treat our children around the world the way we would treat our own children” — was faith-based, Invisible Children didn’t want to be defined that way.
“We are unorthodox and if you don’t accept the unorthodoxy of what we do, then you won’t get it,” he said.
“We have supporters from all walks of life and all backgrounds and we’re united under this umbrella,” he said. “This umbrella of peace and exposing the story of the Invisible Children that Joseph Kony has had for this long.”
But an image circulating the Internet has highlighted the group’s uneasy relationship with its detractors. In the photo, Invisible Children’s founders — Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole — posed with guns with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Critic Grant Oyston of the student-run blog Visible Children said that the photograph showed that the group supported direct military intervention.
On the charity’s website, Russell said the photo had been taken at the 2008 Juba Peace Talks during which Kony was supposed to sign a peace treaty. He called the snapshot a “joke photo” to take back to family and friends.
But Glenna Gordon, an Associated Press photographer who took a few pictures that day, including the one of the founders with the weapons, said on her blog that she felt uncomfortable taking the photo.
“It just contributes to the stereotypes of kids messing stuff up by showing the worst of the worst and showing it without context,” she wrote. “It adds to the Invisible Children bad a– mythology even while attempting to cast doubt on their practices. … At the end of the day, I do hope that all of this can make us look at Invisible Children with a more critical glance.”
The charity came about after the three Southern California filmmakers headed to Africa in 2003 and later released a documentary about the child soldiers.
According to Human Rights Watch, in the past 20 years, Kony’s LRA has killed and mutilated thousands of civilians — and forced children to become fighters — in Uganda and neighboring countries. Kony and his top commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Solome Lemma, founder of HornLight, an online forum focused on countries in the horn of Africa discussed the problem with the video’s message.
“Simply, a long socioeconomic and political conflict that has lasted 25+ years and engaged multiple states and actors has been reduced to a story of the good vs bad guy,” said Lemma. “This approach obviously denies realities on the ground, inflates fantasies abroad, and strips Ugandans of their agency, dignity and humanity- the complexity of their story and history. The work, consequence, and impact are all focused on Uganda, but the agency, accountability, and resources lie among young American students. Clearly a dangerous imbalance of power and influence; one that can have adverse lasting effects on how and what people know of Uganda. It reduces the story of Northern Uganda, and perhaps even all of Uganda, into the dreaded single narrative of need and war, followed by western resolve and rescue.”
In 2010, President Obama signed into law a bill aimed at stopping the LRA and bringing stability to Uganda. And in October, he sent 100 troops to Uganda to help regional forces battle the LRA and capture or kill Kony.
Russell said the charity’s programs in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan included the building of a rehabilitation center, an expanded and early-warning radio network connecting communities and an LRA crisis tracker, which is a mapping platform and data-collection system.
But Visible Children pointed out that although Invisible Children had spent more than $8.6 million last year, “only 32 percent went to direct services with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production.”
Russell defended the group’s spending, saying that Invisible Children needed to spend money on advocacy and awareness of young people, especially in the West.
“Let’s be honest. They set the agenda. What they like matters,” he said. “We need to educate and transform and reshape [their] paradigm to saying, ‘This is what really matters. This is what we can really do.’ … So we do spend money on our films and on our advocacy and awareness. We are proud of that.
“When someone posts only 30 percent or 40 percent is going to the actual ground — it’s an old paradigm where every nonprofit was trying to get 98 percent of all funds to the region that’s in conflict. That’s an old model.
“We have strategically been putting all the puzzle pieces, all the dominoes in place, and everything is prepped for him to come to the Hague. … This is never ever happened in 26 years of the conflict,” he said. “We need to make sure everyone is aware who Kony is. By making him famous, we will bring his crimes to the light and bring the children who’ve been abducted back home. That’s the goal.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ralph Ellis, Ben Wedeman and Michael Pearson, CNN
Sheena McKenzie, CNN
Angela Dewan, CNN
Ralph Ellis and Steve Almasy, CNN