04/16/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Invisible Children and the Carter Center Model

I am neither an opposing critic nor an uncritical proponent of Invisible Children. My role is more nuanced. To borrow a phrase from Cornel West, I'm a critical supporter. We sometimes forget that we can support a person or a group and synchronously criticize certain actions, thoughts, or words. I support Invisible Children and simultaneously feel free to criticize certain tactics, campaigns, or actions. As a critical supporter, I don't criticize to oppose; I criticize to make someone or something better. Admittedly, there are Invisible Children choices that I like and some I do not like and constructively criticize to help improve.

For example, I had a strong, visceral reaction to the phrase "Make Kony Famous" because famous, though neutral, has positive connotations. I would have wanted it to say "Make Kony Infamous" because words like "infamous" and "notorious" carry a negative meaning. I would also prefer Invisible Children spend more money in Africa than in the States; however, Invisible Children seems to have chosen awareness and advocacy for its mode of work. Its advocacy should also focus on creating a swell of support on the ground in Uganda and the surrounding regions. I do believe Invisible Children is doing this in part through its education and livelihood programs and hope more can be done on the style and level of that done in the States. I also disagree that military action is the answer; it has been tried before and so far has failed. However, Invisible Children's perspective is more complex than simplistic warmongering. Invisible Children supports military action to bring in Kony and the LRA, but Jason, one of the co-founders, has said how he hates guns and war, and I've seen a music video in which the co-founders sing that they have to "end the war without a gun." Invisible Children has also stated that it wants Kony alive and brought to justice, not killed.

On the other hand, Invisible Children has done some excellent things. First, it is reaching its goal of making Kony famous. It has shown many non-profit organizations and NGOs the power of social media mixed with an extensive youth/young adult base built through strong school advocacy campaigns. It has demonstrated the importance of mixing science and technology with international development through the Early Warning Radio Network and LRA Crisis tracker. It hires Ugandans to work on the ground. Most importantly, Invisible Children understands that it's not a question of the West solving Africa's problem perpetuating the White Man's Burden; that's too simplistic. Rather, it shows us that the LRA is everyone's problem: a more truly holistic perspective. The state of a country affects its neighbors as well as the entire world. This understanding of the world is something I have been thankful many of my students have learned through involvement with Invisible Children. Invisible Children knows that even in Southern Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), or the DRC, Kony and the LRA can do harm even though they are not directly threatening Uganda. Invisible Children spends a lot time and energy on livelihood, social entrepreneurship, education, and rehabilitation programs not just in Uganda but in CAR and DRC as well.

The goal of capturing Kony reminds me of the Carter Center's work helping to eliminate guinea worm prevalence from around 3.5 million people in 21 countries in 1986 down to just over 1,000 people in four countries in 2011. This is huge progress, but critics examine the question of impact. The lower the number of guinea worm-infected people becomes, the less impact per dollar the Carter Center's work has in decreasing the number of infected persons. It's a marginal effect due to the fact that the remaining people may be harder to find, more isolated, more set in their behavior, or other obstacles. Critics have said that it would be more impacting to spend money fighting other diseases where more impact per dollar can be felt. But the Carter Center proceeds on because its goal is not just general decrease in the global burden of a disease; its goal is eradication.

The Carter Center model is the same model followed by Invisible Children. Of course, there is more impact if you spend money on post-conflict transition programs for former Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or behavior-change programs among the high HIV-prevalent youth populations in post-war Uganda, but the goal of the video and campaign is not on Ugandan development. The goal of this campaign is capturing Joseph Kony and Invisible Children will continue until the LRA is eradicated and no longer exists, until Joseph Kony is caught. It's the Carter Center model but used in peace and conflict resolution instead of global health. This is a foundational point and highlights a fundamental misinterpretation of some critiques.

There is one thing Invisible Children does well: it learns. What amazes me is that it has made many mistakes. It first tried a top-down approach and saw that didn't work. It realized awareness wasn't enough, and it added education, rehabilitation, and livelihood programs. It learned to partner with Ugandan organizations, to hire Ugandans who understand the situation on-the-ground better, to incorporate former child soldiers to tell their own stories, and to empower youth in one country to aid youth in another. Invisible Children even learned to clarify the current state of the war and present a fuller, more nuanced story. This is its greatest resource and tool -- its ability to learn.