On #Kony2012

Watching the reception of Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video—both its rapid viral success and the subsequent backlash—I’ve struggled to grapple with the pros and cons of widespread “awareness” of a problem as complex as this one, knowing that this type of engagement can be widely unpredictable (and sometimes downright counterproductive) in its consequences. I don’t want to wade too far into the critiques or try to correct the misinformation of the campaign itself. For one, it’s been done exhaustively well by people with far more expertise than I. (See: here and here, for starters.) Second, for all my reservations about Invisible Children’s approach, that the story of these kids, who’ve been so tragically denied their childhoods, has resonated with so many people is reason to feel encouraged. And I am hopeful the deluge of impassioned discussion I’ve observed around the web (and personally, in conversations with friends and colleagues) since the video’s release is a step toward transforming this rapt attention into both a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the complexities at play in East and Central Africa, and more generally, thoughtful reflection about what we can realistically do to help end atrocities far beyond our shores. So I thought I’d seize the opportunity and try to add a little something to the conversation, specifically to encourage those interested to seek out ways to learn about and support local, on-the-ground activism.

The absence of local human rights defenders, some of whom survived the conflicts of their own childhoods and who work on behalf of children and other victims of the armed conflict in the region was, above all, what particularly struck me in watching the Kony video. As someone who sees the resilience and innovation of frontline activists on a daily basis, I found this omission jarring not only because it denies the agency of those who live in northern Uganda, but also because it ignores the very activism likely to have the most impact over time for children and others who’ve been brutalized by the region’s conflicts.

Though IC’s video focused on Uganda, my thoughts upon watching it leapt immediately to one of my personal heroes, a Congolese children’s rights activist named Murhabazi Namegabe.  The organization he runs, Bureau pour le Volontariat au service de l’Enfance et de la Santé (Office in Voluntary Service of Children and Health - BVES), is a grantee of the Fund for Global Human Rights (aka “The Fund”, aka my employer), and operates in eastern Congo, an area where, unlike northern Uganda, active conflict continues unabated and children are often subject to or made to participate in horrific violence.  In this part of the country, schools, roads, markets, hospitals and courts have been destroyed, and tens of thousands of school-age kids have no access to formal or informal education. Released child soldiers and refugee children may return to their communities as orphans.  Many find themselves without access to health care, social support, or opportunities to develop a trade or skill. Their neighbors may regard them with suspicion; some are accused of sorcery and banished from their own villages.  Girls face particularly challenging circumstances, as many return from captivity pregnant or with small children and are rejected by their families because of cultural shame associated with rape.  Faced with this reality, former child soldiers often end up on the streets, reliant on theft or prostitution as methods of survival, and vulnerable to re-recruitment.

Within this challenging context, Murhabazi and his colleagues, at great personal risk, directly negotiate with leaders of armed militias—of which there are many in the DRC, and whose loyalties are complicated and ever-changing—to persuade them to release children from their ranks. This dangerous work is but one piece of the organization’s holistic approach to the complex realities that threaten the well-being of kids in the eastern DRC. The organization operates safehouses for kids that help prepare them for reintegration into their communities through the provision of psychosocial support, medical care, and remedial schooling. Its staff seek out family members of children who’ve been separated from or lost their parents in the violence. They personally advocate with families who may not want to accept their daughters back into their homes. To help ensure kids who return to their homes and communities aren’t re-recruited, they work with and train national and local police forces to protect areas where children are most susceptible to sexual abuse and abduction. They conduct targeted advocacy with Congolese officials charged with the implementation of policies that would contribute to the well-being and protection of the country’s youth (e.g. compulsory education, health care, etc). They make special effort to protect children who the most vulnerable to neglect and abuse, such as those born in Congo to members of Rwandan armed groups (who are effectively stateless).They amass meticulous documentation of abuses, tactics and movements of the various armed groups for the UN, the African Union and other international groups that informs their reports (which help bring about international policy changes), as well as provide evidence to domestic judicial system in cases where  commanders are on trial for crimes against children.  But ultimately, the most important piece about BVES’ work is that, despite the enormously difficult and complicated dynamics they must navigate, Murhabazi and his colleagues are changing mindsets and building a constituency for new norms on the ground. And that, over time, is what can and will have a long-term impact for the Congolese.

I was lucky enough to spend a week with Murhabazi in late 2009 when he came to the States to receive a human rights award from the Rothko Chapel, for which he was nominated by the Fund. I can say unequivocally that he is the most courageous, determined, and humble person I’ve ever met. He’s lost friends and colleagues, borne witness to horrific abuse, and faced innumerable threats to his own safety. Through it all, he has maintained an indefatigable spirit. He has a daughter of his own; during his visit to the US, he told me he refuses to imagine that she will have to come of age in the shattered society he is working so hard to change. Congo’s children, both this generation and the next, are not “invisible” to him; he lives and breathes their well-being, health, and happiness.

Even after a conflict ends, the effects are lasting for children in societies that must grapple with a legacy of violence, as in northern Uganda. A few of the responses to IC have included a plea to support local organizations there, among them several standout Fund grantees who’ve done work with LRA victims like Human Rights Focus and Refugee Law Project. I wholeheartedly echo this call. Whenever possible and whenever comfortable, give straight to the source. But what about cases where, even if you want to support an organization’s work, you feel nervous about sending your money directly to a group halfway around the world that you’ve never met? Or you want your money to reach smaller or emerging groups working in remote areas who may not be equipped to receive donations from individuals in the US? That’s why human rights grant-makers like the one I work for exist. Every year, the Fund gives grants—just under $6 million in 2011—to several hundred on-the-ground human rights organizations (like BVES, RLP, and HURIFO) fighting on the frontlines against the kinds of atrocities portrayed in IC’s film, but also working to enact long-term social change by building an infrastructure of human rights protections for the future. The Fund can get resources to organizations that might otherwise be out of reach for those who want to support their work: smaller, grassroots groups working in rural areas far from capital cities, newly-formed organizations with innovative approaches, groups in extremely repressive countries who enact policies to silence their critics by restricting access to foreign funding, etc. The Fund is but one such example of these grant-makers; American Jewish World Service and Global Fund for Women are other great ones. These organizations take the time to conduct extensive due diligence, so you can know both that your money is reaching local activists and that it’s being used effectively.

Once we’ve identified and vetted these groups, we step back and let them do their work. The vast majority of our grants are general support, which means the groups can spend them in whatever way they think is best. That belief is integral to the Fund’s work and theory of change. These activists are on the ground every day. They understand the local context because it’s their own. They see problems as they unfold, respond immediately, offer innovative and practical solutions, and have a vested stake in the future. They provide ongoing vigilance in the fight against abuse because they’re in it for the long haul. They may lack resources, but they don’t need us to tell them how to use them.

Returning to Joseph Kony, I don’t think anyone would disagree that putting an end to his brutality and holding him accountable for his crimes are worthy (if very complex) goals. Unfortunately, he is but one piece of the puzzle in a region that has been fraught with conflict for decades. There are, tragically, other Joseph Konys, not to mention governments who harbor these criminals with impunity, torture their own citizens, jail people because of their sexual orientation, and uphold discriminatory norms that render women second-class citizens. There are corporations that displace people from their land and fill their own coffers at the expense of the environment and health of indigenous populations. But in every place where these abuses are happening, there are also local activists standing up to power and fighting for equality, justice, and accountability in and for their own communities and countries. People like Murhabazi. Or Norma Ledezma in Mexico, who, after her own daughter went missing at 16, founded Justice for Our Daughters, an organization that investigates and denounces cases of femicide and the disappearances of young women and girls in Ciudad Juárez. Or Alfred Brownell, who, with a handful of fellow Liberian law students, launched Green Advocates, now a national grassroots movement that challenges abuses committed by multi-national corporations like Firestone and Mittal Steel and helped put in place Liberia’s first community rights law.

Wanting to stand with these courageous activists is a great thing. You don’t have to be an expert on every human rights issue or every country to care. And the more people who do care, who seek out their stories, and who support them, both by opening their wallets and by sharing their work, the more impact they can have.

This is in no way a comprehensive answer to the question of “How can we, as concerned citizens of the global community, contribute to ending these kinds of atrocities?” But it’s a plea that in the face of problems as profound as this one, we look first to these local advocates, who may not always have the visibility of Invisible Children, but who have their finger firmly on the pulse of what must happen on the ground to enact lasting change, and who embody the innovation, holistic approaches to complex problems, and fierce determination to bring it about.

(To learn more about the Fund and its inspiring grantees, please visit: www.globalhumanrights.org.)