Anyone who hasn’t been under a social media rock for the past week is aware of the Kony 2012 video and viral marketing campaign started by Invisible Children. The goal is to convince US policymakers to intervene in the ongoing crisis in Central Africa by providing more US military advisers, more military aid to the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and more diplomatic pressure on Central African heads of state.
There’s been a wave of criticism since the whole thing began. Among the best critiques I’ve read are Bruce Wilson’s piece at AlterNet and Neil Anderson’s piece at Demand Nothing, both of which highlight Invisible Children’s financial connections with the National Christian Foundation, the Fellowship Foundation—aka, the Family, the International Foundation, the Wilberforce Foundation, C Street, etc—and several other Evangelical Christian groups. (Boing Boing has a nice roundup here, along with a much longer roundup of African voices responding to the Kony 2012 campaign.)
Let’s be clear: Invisible Children has always been an evangelical Christian organization. Its founders and staff are largely evangelicals; its major funders are evangelical foundations; its major partners are evangelical NGOs; and its early marketing was through evangelical college groups. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself. After all, much of my life has involved trying to get religious people more involved in social justice work. But something about Invisible Children rubbed me the wrong way when I first heard about it through evangelical friends back in college, and that feeling redoubled when Kony 2012 blew up.
What’s most inexplicable is Uganda. Set aside the fact that Joseph Kony is not in Uganda. Set aside that the Ugandan military also uses child soldiers, including former child members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s curious how Uganda keeps popping up in relation to evangelical NGOs.
As the Bruce Wilson piece linked to above points out, one of Invisible Children’s largest funders is the National Christian Foundation, who also fund the Fellowship Foundation (aka, the Family), which Jeff Sharlet has written about extensively. As NPR has reported here and here, the Family is also deeply involved in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni and several government ministers have ties to the Family, and the Family has even been accused of setting the scene for Uganda’s now infamous kill-the-gays bill. (Though members of the Family have disputed that.)
This weekend a friend and I busted out our ninja skills and did some snooping on Invisible Children and related organizations, including the Family. Looking through their 990 forms for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005, I discovered something shocking—a school in Uganda is almost always their single largest grantee by far, to the tune of millions of dollars. It turns out this school is Cornerstone Development Africa, another explicitly Christian organization.
So, why Uganda? I have absolutely no idea. You might argue that Buddhists tend to be more concerned about Tibet and Burma and Muslims tend to be more concerned about Syria and Palestine, so it’s natural for evangelicals to be more concerned about an evangelical nation. Except that Uganda isn’t an evangelical nation; it’s mostly Catholic and Anglican.
On the other hand, it could be that the president of Uganda—who’s held that office for almost as long as I’ve been alive—is a member of the Family and apparently quite a devout evangelical Christian. On the Family’s end it could also be his willingness to deport dissidents and burn down villages for Western corporate interests—something that’s surely attractive to deep-pocketed evangelical donors.
Those are pretty audacious accusations, and they could be completely wrong. But something just feels off about the thing, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.