International Development NGOs are rarely known for their subtlety. Comic Relief features an annual parade of celebrities screaming ‘won’t someone think of the children?’, Oxfam displays pictures of suffering in Africa as if nothing good or fun or exciting has ever happened there and Save the Children act as if only us in the West have the capability to solve the problems of the developing world. In this sense there is nothing new or particularly interesting about Invisible Children’s debasement of the complex issues in Uganda in to a simple narrative of there’s a bad guy who must be stopped. Complexity rarely sells like simplified human suffering.
However although we can accuse most NGOs as being somewhat naive in their approach to solving complex issues, their net worth is undoubtedly positive. The countless times NGOs such as Oxfam have been on the front line of humanitarian crises, helping millions of people drink, eat and sleep in safety or the work they do every day improving lives on an individual level justifies their urgency and brashness is asking for funding.
When I watched the Kony 2012 film yesterday alongside millions of other people worldwide, my first impression was that it wasn’t particularly innovative. I saw it as just another attempt by another organisation to promote their issue as the worst thing that is happening in the world. Having seen suffering played out time and again, I can’t say that I was shocked by the film or stirred in to action. I didn’t change my facebook profile, tweet the link or order an action pack online.
It was only when investigating the controversy behind Invisible Children that I began to take notice. Invisible Children do not appear to have a net worth as an organisation. They spent only 32% of their budget on direct services in Uganda last year with a whopping 68% going on staff salaries, travel and film production. More worryingly, they want to use military intervention to get rid of Kony. They have financially supported the Ugandan Army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, both of which are organisations accused of war crimes such as rape and looting. Furthermore military intervention to remove Kony has failed in the past and led to violent repercussions. Invisible Children even have a war room.
Is this what the modern NGO is evolving in to? One that will stop at nothing to solve their particular single issue? Who ignore all other societal factors and potential repercussions to their chosen tactics? Who spend more on promotion of themselves than on whatever it is they are trying to solve? Who lie and distort the truth to millions of people to fit in with their narrative? NGOs primarily exist because they have a social worth, they satisfy people’s need to do something. However as the excellent Visible Children’s article points out, in this case:
“Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.”