EDIT ON MARCH 7, 2012: This post was originally written in 2006. As you read and comment, please consider that it has been over 5 years since I wrote my thoughts here. I personally still have the same concerns about IC that I did when I posted this and have chosen not to contribute to their cause. However, Uganda continues to hold a very special place in my heart. When I wrote this article, I supported and I continue to support relief efforts in Uganda through the work of Steve Hoyt at Engineering Ministries International (eMi), an organization with a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator. If you’d like, you can support Steve’s work in Uganda here: https://emisecure.org/donate.html . To learn more about the work that eMi does in Uganda visit http://emiea.org/index.html.
Thanks for continuing to be a part of this important conversation.
Invisible Children (IC) swept the university campuses of America last year. The group wanted to mobilize college students to be aware of what happened in Uganda in recent years, the atrocious acts of Joseph Kony and his rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I heard about Invisible Children for the first time when I was researching Uganda. I was immediately fascinated by their website. It’s very well done, but I noticed one thing. It lacked real information. If you haven’t seen the film or know nothing about their purpose, let me catch you up to speed with my version. Three clueless college kids head to Sudan with no plans and no idea about what they’re going to find. They’re looking for a “story”. They leave Sudan and make their way into Uganda. They find some bad stuff going on there. So they made a MTV-esque DVD about what was happening there. They wanted to draw attention to what they found.
So far, this sounds good. However, there is a major, major problem. I’m going to compare what IC is doing to an analogy that I thought of this past summer when I was Uganda thinking about this issue. Imagine that today you heard about what happened in NYC and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 for the first time. You were shown a video of footage from that day. You saw the planes hit the towers, you heard President Bush’s address, you saw the Pentagon wreckage, you watch in horror as you see people plunge to their death, jumping from the burning towers. Now imagine that you are inspired by this disaster. You want to something to help. What if you went to NYC today, expecting to see piles of rubble to clean up? What if you went, expecting that there would be thousands of people in the streets crying, looking for loved ones? But what would happen when you arrived and discovered that there was none of this, but a whole host of other problems?
And back to Uganda. Uganda is no longer experiencing violence from the LRA. Yes, I said it. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth. For about the last year, since before IC hit the scene, Kony and his troops have been pushed into Congo, into the Garamba National Forest there. He’s sick, starving, and on his last legs. For the first time, Uganda is in the middle of real peace talks and the rebels have laid down their arms and are assembling to make peace. Why? This is happening because Joseph Kony was defeated. The Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) has beaten them back and Kony was sitting in Congo starving to death. Since March 2002, the UPDF has been allowed to carry out raids against the LRA into Southern Sudan and has even crossed into Congo, to the distress of most of the African community. Nonetheless, Operation Iron Fist, as this military offensive was called, has freed many child soldiers and sex slaves and brought them back to Uganda. The rebels again became very violent in 2003, but since 2004, the Ugandan government has been repeatedly beating the rebels and weakening them. Uganda is no longer allowed to enter Sudan or Congo to fight the LRA.
Invisible Children was founded in 2004, with the film crew filming in Uganda in 2003. Watching Invisible Children is watching old news. Will watching it alert you to what has occurred in Uganda? Yes, but it will not let you know what is happening there today.
Invisible Children is too late. It has taught us that MTV type media can get university students interested in a world crisis, the problem is it took too much time. Night commuting, outlined as one of the major problems in northern Uganda by the film, is practically non-existent now. Why? Peace is coming to the region. According to UN reports, children who still are commuting at night are not doing it because of safety concerns, but because they want to enjoy the amenities that NGO’s are offering in the towns, like Gulu, Kitgum, and Lira. At the peak of the commuting, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 children commuting. Now, estimates are below 10,000.
The scars of the 20 year conflict are everywhere in northern Uganda. I walked through internally displaced person (IDP) camps. I smelled, I listened, I saw, I touched, I tasted. I experienced Uganda. I saw people whose lives had been radically changed. I placed my hands on a woman whose lips had been cut off by the LRA. I walked with children whose parents had been killed. I sat on the foundation of a hut burned down by the LRA. I talked with people whose relatives had been abducted. I walked over land guarded by the UPDF. The landscape, the people, and the country itself has an immense burden to deal with.
Uganda has problems today. Their government is ridden with corruption. There are people still living in fear in IDP camps, afraid that violence will again return to their land. The education system is inadequate and many do not have the chance to go to school. For those who do work their way through the school system, there is a good chance that there will not be a job for them when they get even a university degree. Why doesn’t anyone want to do something about these problems? Why will thousands of people participate in IC’s Global Night Commute but not take the time to actually find out what is going on in Uganda today?
There have been many inspired to do more than just watch a DVD and sleep downtown for a night. However, that’s where we run into another problem. This summer, IC had a bunch of college students in northern Uganda wasting time and money. There were almost 30 people who were in Uganda this summer connected with IC and even more who were inspired to change the world and fly around it. That also sounds somewhat heart warming. Self centered American kids are flying around the world to change it. The catch is they don’t know what they are doing or where they are going. They are blindly making a problem worse by throwing thousands of dollars at something they don’t understand.
When I traveled into Southern Sudan, you could sense something was different there. There is a greedy spirit there that you can feel. Foreign aid had ruined South Sudan. People do not want to work, they want handouts. An entire generation has been cared for by the UN and other NGO’s. They are fed, clothed, protected, and sent to school without having to do anything. I walked through the market there and saw UNICEF tarps and blankets for sale. I could also buy Samaritan’s Purse shoe-boxes, filled with all sorts of American goodies. I thought back how I thought it was a good idea for me to send a shoebox filled with soap, toothpaste, bouncy balls, and a washcloth to a faraway land. What I realize now is that sending things, whether money, objects, or people to a place that I have no information on is a bad idea.
The problems that Uganda faces today cannot be fixed by hundreds of uneducated Westerners going there to “help”. As you read this article, think about how much you really know about the political situations in Uganda and throughout Africa that contribute to long lasting problems.
Africa as a whole needs to break free from foreign aid. Almost half of Uganda’s yearly budget is made up of foreign aid. I think that many of Uganda’s problems stem from its reliance on foreign support. If you want to read more on that, check out a Ugandan journalist named Andrew Mwenda. The aid to African nations is increasing the corruption there and encouraging these nations to continue this dependence on foreign nations and it does not encourage them to become totally self sufficient. When asked what rich nations should do to help Africa, Mwenda said,
So what is the solution? I’ve now written the first negative article I can find about Invisible Children. I also have suggested that we should think about cutting foreign aid and debt relief to African nations.
If you’ve seen the old news that Uganda has to offer and are disturbed, I encourage you to do some research and find out what is really going on in Uganda. I spent months before I went to Uganda researching the country. I talked to many people on the phone or with Skype, I emailed countless others, I read books, I monitored the news. If you want to find out what the situation is really like, find out. Don’t blindly fly yourself to a developing country like a Western idiot. I would also suggest finding out more about organizations that you support that work in foreign countries. Find out what their relationships are like with the local people and find out how they are grooming local people to take over their group. No aid organization should plan to be somewhere forever. If they do, they are not focused on solving the problem they are there to address.
Do not be fooled by slick video editing. Sleeping outside in downtown Pittsburgh will not help anyone who is still night commuting in northern Uganda. Perhaps you are now aware that there is a problem, perhaps you know that there is more to this world than just your country, your state, and your little hometown. What you may not know is that the US government is not going to get involved if it doesn’t benefit the American people. Remember Rwanda? It is up to you to figure out how to deal with this knowledge and the knowledge that your warm and fuzzy thoughts are not going to be the solution to this.
As of today, Uganda is still in a tedious peace process with the LRA, with both sides accusing each other of violating peace agreements. The good news is that they are still in the peace process and they’re doing it without the help of a foreign country that will attempt to benefit from the talks. Instead, using Rick Machar and South Sudan is helping to build ties with all those in that region. The LRA and the UPDF have now signed a second peace accord and hopefully this one will result in successful peace.
As I have written this over the past couple of months, I’m disappointed that I cannot offer a real solution to this problem. I wish that I had the answers for Uganda and those of you who are interested in doing something to help the people there. Unfortunately, I feel that I have done little more than to highlight problems there and then problems with our response to their problems. I learned so much while I was there, but I still have a lot that I can learn.