Kony 2012 and the murky world of charities
The controversial Kony 2012 campaign raises awareness and money.
It's hard to argue with 79 million YouTube views and counting.
It's even harder to argue with the tweets and other expressions of support from everyone from Justin Bieber to P. Diddy to Oprah.
Without question, the social media campaign to raise awareness — and money — for a group that opposes Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, has been an astonishing success. For anyone who doubts that, just check the consistently peevish coverage of Invisible Children in traditional media, where there's previously been little traction for Kony-related stories.
Cynicism about and criticism of the so-called Kony 2012 phenomenon isn't limited to media pundits, however.
Some of the strongest indictments of San Diego-based Invisible Children focus on its "slacktivism," its over-simplification of a complex geopolitical story and its support of the Ugandan Army which has a pretty brutal human rights record of its own.
Then there's the fact that of the $8.7 million Invisible Children raised in 2011, just $3.3 million has actually gone to programs in Africa. The rest has gone for things like, well, lavish social media productions, specifically a 30-minute video about Joseph Kony and his abduction of child soldiers for his violent guerrilla army.
As the Kony 2012 campaign gains momentum, it's raising more than awareness, it's raising big bucks this year too.
The sale of over 500,000 "action kits" at 30 dollars a pop means Invisible Children's webstore is hauling in millions of dollars in revenue every week. Not to mention the funky t-shirts and bracelets.
The point of contention is that of these millions of dollars, 37 per cent goes to African-related programs, while a whopping 43 per cent is spent on travel, film-making, public relations and lobbying, and media and social media campaigns. A significant 20 per cent goes to salaries and administration.
To be fair, that amount is not unusual for charities — including those like the venerable United Way. And some do far worse at keeping their costs in check.
The sniping at Invisible Children for its financing is a great reminder to all charitable donors that they need to be vigilant about how their money is being spent.
But all of that aside for now, at a time when people are so jaded and attention spans are so short, anything that sparks public debate about a world issue can be construed as a positive accomplishment.
In this case, the fact that it has resonated so much with young people, is evidence that they can and should be engaged. Even if the tone of the message is a bit overwrought and the facts are oversimplified.
In addition to questions about its financing, the heated public debate over the relative merits of Invisible Children's campaign is also valuable in that it raises important issues about the increasing number of advocacy and stakeholder groups that push agendas that are often well-obscured from the naked eye. The way these groups are financed deserves particular scrutiny.
Earlier this year, for example, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out at environmental and "other radical groups" just as the 18-month federal regulatory hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline began.
According to Oliver, the groups "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda." He also berated their attraction of "jet-setting celebrities" and the use of funding from "foreign special interest groups."
Although it sounds like the stuff conspiracy theories are made of, the minister has a point. Canadian environmental groups often get significant financial support from U.S. and European groups that oppose the federal government's support for development of the oil sands in northern Alberta — and all the pipelines and other infrastructure that go with it.
A few weeks ago, representatives from Tides Canada appearing before the Senate energy committee admitted that 33 per cent of their funding comes from various U.S. foundations, but insisted only three per cent of that was directed to campaigns against oil sands development.
The somewhat murky politics behind the various foundations and their money is what ultimately causes the controversy. It's also what has led to a Senate inquiry into the ways that U.S. foundations funnel money into Canadian charities, an inquiry that could lead to changes in the Canada Revenue act.
It may all be inconclusive with respect to individual cases, but greater focus on conflicting agendas, the ways they are advanced and funded — and the imperative for greater transparency — is certainly valuable.
The upshot? There are lots of lessons to learn. But as too often the case, they're mostly about us. As for Africa and the situation in Uganda, not so much.
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