48 hours in Haiti

I spent 48 hours in Haiti last week.

It wasn’t much time. But it was enough to taste the hot, sticky air. To navigate the teeming streets of Port-au-Prince, pressed by a sea of humanity. To jostle my spine on roads which my traveling companion assured me had gotten better since the last time he had visited.

On our way to a World Vision-supported community in the Central Plateau region (a few hours north of the city), we passed more than one person who seemed less than pleased to see yet another white face peering at them from behind an SUV window. Who can blame them? Outsiders in SUVs have not always brought good things to Haiti.

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While negotiating our way out of the city, we passed recently vacated refugee camps, where survivors of the 2010 earthquake eked out an existence under impossible circumstances. Miles outside the city, there was a collection of homes built by the government, where some of the displaced will be resettled, far removed from loved ones and livelihoods.

There were even a few places in the city where people still lived in tents reinforced with bits of cardboard, plastic, or whatever was at hand. After four years of wear, it was hard to imagine these shelters kept out much of anything. Yet almost 150,000 Haitians continue to live in them. Granted, that’s a big drop from what it used to be — at one point, it was 10 times that number — but still.

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On some of the weatherworn tarps you could just make out the faded USAID logo. Though the tents (and the people living in them) are still there, the funding has all but dried up. Billions in promised international aid never even materialized.

More jarring than the tents themselves were the billboards just outside some of the displacement camps, advertising expensive liquors, luxury kitchens, and other extravagances — flaunting unattainable wealth to those who haven’t had a solid roof over their heads for more than four years. Reportedly there’s a tent community within sight of a Porsche dealership.

But this was hardly the only story in Haiti. My colleague, for whom this was something like his 20th visit, observed that Port-au-Prince was looking more like its old self than at any time since the earthquake. Which isn’t to say it was “thriving,” exactly (or that the new buildings are any more capable of withstanding a major tremor than the old ones). But the streets were loaded with people, many of them hopping on and off tap taps (Haitian taxis). Sidewalks were barely visible beneath a sea of vendors selling produce, soda, hubcaps, and more. There was life in Haiti. Resilience.

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Outside the city, in World Vision’s community project (known as an ADP or Area Development Program), we saw hope. We saw Haiti’s future. The kids there projected a quiet confidence that comes when children are valued, empowered, and listened to by the community. We sat in a community center where each of the three dozen or so children gathered could read. We saw them lead their peers (and even the adults). Any one of these kids could lead Haiti someday.

I spent four years working for World Vision, so I know firsthand how important youth empowerment is to them. Now I can say I’ve seen it… and the difference it can make to a whole community.

(Also, the hands-down best meal I had on this trip was in that rural community.)

I’m still processing my experience in Haiti. For now, I’m reminded once more that poverty and injustice are complicated, messy affairs. But we shouldn’t forget: they’re not the only narrative that defines a place like Haiti. Not by a long shot. There is hope and resilience there. True, there are aid efforts which have sometimes gone wrong, efforts which are incomplete… and others that have reaped huge benefits for the people of Haiti.

I wish I’d had more than 48 hours, but it was long enough to leave an indelible mark.

What experiences have shaped your understanding of poverty and injustice? 

To learn more about World Vision’s work in Haiti and get involved, go here.

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Should we even be fighting the War on Poverty?

Lyndon Johnson signing the Medicare bill (source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. The legacy of this war is hotly contested, and there are at least three competing views.

Some argue the War on Poverty created a culture of dependency, while pouring massive amounts of money down the drain. They point to official government figures, which show the poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much since 1964.

Others argue that poverty would be double what it is now if not for the safety nets established in the 1960s. They dispute the accuracy of government figures, pointing instead to competing studies which suggest a more dramatic decline in the rate of poverty since then.

I’ll leave that debate to others. Right now, it’s the third group I care about: those who question the very notion of waging a war on poverty in the first place. Charity is all well and good, they might say, but it’s grandiose and naïve to think we can ever fully eradicate poverty.

They even quote Jesus: “The poor you will have with you always.”

I should know. I used to be part of this group.

This approach recently led one writer to suggest we leave should Jesus out of the whole poverty debate. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what Jesus really said — and what he meant. Because it turns out this statement was anything but an excuse for apathy.

Yes, it’s true Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Although Mark’s gospel, usually known for its brevity, extends the quote: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” This ought to be our first clue that Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to trivialize the importance of helping those in need.

But there’s an even bigger clue when we turn to original source of Jesus’ statement. You see, Jesus didn’t pull this line out of thin air. As a Jewish rabbi, he was constantly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament. In doing so, he employed a common rabbinical technique, which later came to be known as remez, in which the speaker quoted a small piece of text, with the intent of calling to mind the larger passage it came from.

When Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, but he expected his disciples (and us) to think about the whole passage. 

Deuteronomy 15 commanded the ancient Israelites to cancel each other’s debt every seven years. (Interesting to note that no distinction was made between responsible and irresponsible debt; no matter how people fell into financial distress, they were to be given a clean slate every seven years.)

The passage ends with the statement quoted by Jesus centuries later: there will always be poor people among you. Which is precisely why laws protecting the poor were needed in the first place. 

Again, from Deuteronomy:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

What’s more, to the writer of Deuteronomy 15, persistent poverty was anything but acceptable. Back up a few verses, to Deuteronomy 15:4-5.

There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands…

In other words, when the writer said there would always be poor people in the land, it was a concession to Israel’s likely failure to obey the law requiring them to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Sure enough, that’s pretty much how the story plays out in the rest of the Old Testament.

There would always be poor people because the Israelites would not prove as generous as they were meant to be. There would always be poor people because Israel would not cancel everyone’s debts like they were supposed to. The statement “you will always have the poor with you” is not an excuse for apathy; it’s a condemnation of it.

Good people will disagree on the best ways to mitigate and perhaps even eradicate poverty. The success (or failure) of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will be scrutinized to no end, and even then we still won’t settle on what works and what doesn’t.

But one thing is clear, at least for those of us who claim the Bible as some kind of authority: apathy in the face of poverty is not an option. We do not have the right to use Jesus’ words as an excuse for inaction. The statement “there will always be poor people” might describe the reality that is, but it does not describe the reality that ought to be.

The other kind of poverty

Photo courtesy of FlickrI believe poverty is more than a matter of personal behavior. People are poor not primarily because of bad decisions (though financial stress can disrupt a person’s decision-making ability) but because of other factors, many of them external, which trap them in poverty.

That said, I’ve seen the other kind of poverty — the kind that’s at least partly self-inflicted and more than a little self-destructive. I got an up-close view when my wife and I had to rent out our house while we were living out-of-state.

When the company we’d hired to look after our house told us that one of the tenants had lost their job, we asked them to lower the rent. We told them we didn’t want our tenants to worry about having a place to live.

The tenants thanked us by practically destroying our house.

What we didn’t know at the time was the property management company had neglected to do the promised screening and had put the worst sort of tenants in our house. The kind who don’t pay rent, who damage property, terrorize the neighbors, game the system, and get themselves evicted from one place after another.

Once they were gone, we began the slow (and expensive) task of fixing up our house. Surrounded by piles of garbage, broken windows, soiled carpet, and trashed appliances, it was hard not to be angry. I found myself thinking the worst of them and anyone remotely like them.

One day as I was cleaning out the basement, I found an opened Christmas card left by one of our tenants. It was from her dad. The return address indicated it had been sent from jail. Judging by the message, he’d been there a long time. There didn’t seem to be much of a relationship between him and his daughter, and the words inside were those of a man filled with regret.

It made me stop, there in the midst of my simmering resentment. I didn’t stop feeling angry. But I did pause to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d grown up in similar circumstances, if my father had spent most of my formative years in prison. How would the experience have shaped me? How would my development have been affected by the all lost opportunities, economic hardship, and stigma?

It made me realize I knew nothing of my tenant’s life and what had brought her to this point, where she evidently cared so little for herself and others that she couldn’t imagine another way to live.

None of which justified what she did. We can all choose to be more than the product of our circumstances. But sometimes our circumstances are so overwhelming, it’s difficult to see another way.

—//—

When I wrote my post on 20 things the poor really do, a number of the more critical responses essentially boiled down to, “I’ve seen somebody poor making bad choices, gaming the system, etc… so that’s what all poor people are like.” We typecast an entire group based on our limited observation of one or two people we barely know.

We never bother to learn more about them. We never listen their story. God forbid we humanize them in any way. That just makes it harder to sit in judgment.

But my faith teaches that people are image-bearers, made in the likeness of God himself. No matter how tarnished that image may get, it never completely vanishes.

Even now, it’s not easy to think of my former tenants as divine image-bearers, made and loved by God. But they are.

My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.

I try to remember this when I see someone who seems to be causing or contributing to their own poverty. In addition to remembering that they are the exception, not the rule, I try to remember that they are still loved by God. They are still his creation. There is more to their story than I realize. And perhaps — just maybe — their story could start to look a little different if people started treating them like human beings.

Why do we blame the poor for buying stuff they can’t afford but not the ones who sell it to them?

Photo from http://www.torontorealtyblog.com/archives/affordable-housing-in-cityplacego-figure/2351

Growing up, only a few blocks separated my home from one of the poorer neighborhoods in town. We drove through it from time to time, passing that one house with the huge satellite dish (it was the 90s) and the sports car parked outside.

The house and its occupants (who we never met, much less saw) became for me the epitome of everything wrong with poor people in America: they were poor because they spent what little they had on frivolous luxuries, all while (presumably) living off the government in their dilapidated house. They had no discipline, no work ethic, and therefore deserved none of my sympathy.

All of this I inferred from a quick drive past their house.

So I guess I’m not surprised that some people voiced a similar sentiment in response to last week’s post, including this person’s description of how he thinks the typical poor person spends their money (trigger warning: unsubtle racist stereotyping):

Cable TV $1500 a year
Cell phones for the family $2000 a year
New dr dre beats audio headphones $400 dollars for the family
Xbox $500 dollars
New Jordan’s and matching hoodies $800 a year
New rims for your whip $1000
Pack a day smoking $1200 a year per person X 2
Two monster energy drinks a day $1200 a year per person X 2…

Don’t tell me poor people can’t afford decent food… Don’t blame society for repeated stupid decisions by a certain percentage of the population, and then tell me I’m supposed to feel bad for them and subsidize their lifestyle. I’d like 4 monster energy drinks, some friggen ho ho’s and donuts and some lottery tickets to. The difference is I’m SMART enough not to do that every d*** day.

Too many of us use prejudice and caricature to justify an utter lack of sympathy for the poor, to rationalize the distance we’ve put between us and them.

But there’s something else worth noting. Even if it’s true that some people in poverty make things worse by buying stuff they don’t need and can’t afford (it’s a good thing the rest of us would never do that), we ought to ask why. Another commenter, Evan, hit the nail on the head:

Maybe if we didn’t live in a consumer culture that constantly tries to sell us wonderful things, and maybe if we didn’t treat being poor as a thing to be ashamed of, people would spend less on status symbols?

The top 100 advertisers spent more than $100 billion last year trying to convince us we need newer cell phones, faster cars, better makeup, and more credit card debt. They inundate us with billboards, banner ads, and TV spots telling us we’re not good enough unless we buy their stuff.

Do we really think this relentless barrage of advertising has no impact on our behavior, our sense of worth, our understanding of what we really need?

Everyone should be held responsible for their choices and actions. But that doesn’t just mean poor people who buy the $100 billion lie. It means those who sold it to them in the first place.

It means those who spend billions telling people it’s OK to go into debt. It’s OK to pay later. You can always take out a payday loan (at an undisclosed APR of 4,214%, of course). Just buy more stuff. How else will you be fit to walk the earth?

This exploitation in the name of “commerce” and “economic growth” is nothing new. Notice how the Old Testament prophet Amos described the merchants of Israel, who counted the minutes till the end of each holy day — which, among other things, were meant to be a temporary reprieve from such predatory commercialism:

“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

Their exploitation of the poor, God warned, would have consequences:

I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

All of us, rich and poor, make bad choices from time to time. And we often have to live with the consequences of those choices. But shouldn’t those who lay the trap be held responsible, not just those who walk into it?

The myth of the unemployed freeloader

More cracks in the stereotypical view of poor people as freeloaders: it turns out unemployment benefits don’t diminish a person’s motivation to find work. Just the opposite, in fact.

In a post on BillMoyers.com, Joshua Holland shared the findings from a multinational study by Jan Eichhorn, a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. The study was published in the October issue of Social Indicators Research.

The key finding was that the generosity of unemployment benefits had no effect at all on people’s drive to go out and try to find a job. “This means that claims about unemployment benefits resulting in complacent unemployed people who chose the situation and would be satisfied with it cannot be retained uncritically,” [Eichhorn] wrote.

This confirms similar findings from a 2011 study by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, which found that people who qualify for unemployment benefits actually spend more time looking for jobs than those who don’t quality.

In short, when society gives its most vulnerable members a hand up, they are more likely to demonstrate a strong work ethic, not less.

Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making

Photo by John Partipilo/The Tenessean

Behind the controversy over Dave Ramsey’s “20 Things” post and his defense of it, there’s an assumption that poverty in America is fundamentally different from poverty in the developing world.

Almost everyone — including Dave Ramsey — accepts there are systemic, structural injustices which cause poverty in the other parts of the world. “The third-world economy is and should be a whole different discussion,” Ramsey writes.

When it comes to poverty in America, however, it gets written off as a consequence of poor decision-making by individuals:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

How is it that we can see the systemic causes of poverty elsewhere, but not in our own country? Do we think because our ancestors got rid of institutional slavery and child labor that there are no more structural injustices to be rooted out? Or are we so beholden to a capitalist, materialist ideology that we can’t even entertain the possibility of any flaws in our economic system?

Or do we just think we’re better than everyone else? Again, Ramsey:

One of the main reasons our culture has prospered is because of our understanding and application of biblical truths.

Translation: we prosper because we understand the Bible better. The Bible gets reimagined as a roadmap to prosperity, instead of a roadmap to the cross. Financial success is reimagined as proof of God’s favor; Jeremiah’s lament against the wealth of the wicked is quietly purged from our scriptures.

And so we tell ourselves (and our impoverished neighbors): if you are poor and you live in America, it’s your own fault.

Really?

Sure, there are people in financial distress because of bad choices that were made. (In fact, in recent years almost all of us have experienced some measure of financial distress because of bad choices made not by those at the bottom of the economic ladder, but by those at the top.) But do we really believe there are no structural or systemic factors at work, causing and perpetuating poverty in America?

Blacks and Native Americans are nearly three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Do we really believe the economic and social disparities affecting black communities have nothing to do with centuries of slavery and segregation — not to mention subtler forms of discrimination that persist in our day? Do we really think the massive displacement (and partial genocide) of Native Americans is unrelated to the comparatively poorer health and economic outcomes they experience today?

Do we really think we can end poverty just by telling people to “live within their means” when a quarter of all jobs in this country don’t pay enough to put a family of four above the poverty line? Do we really think it’s just a matter of telling people to be smart with their money when the average amount needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment exceeds the average renter’s wage by $4.50 an hour?

Do we really think poverty is just a failure of personal drive to get an education when schools in poor communities receive less funding and have to cope with outdated equipment and crumbling infrastructure?

Do we really think poverty in this country is just a matter of personal decision-making?

To fail to acknowledge the systemic factors affecting poverty is to perpetuate them.

In response to the list I shared yesterday, someone rightly asked, “Where’s the hope?” It’s all well and good to diagnose, but what about actually helping people out of poverty? It’s a fair question. I believe the first step in tackling poverty is to be honest with ourselves about the causes and contributing factors. We cannot help someone until we dismantle the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing and understanding them properly.

20 things the poor really do every day

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[Note: This post has been updated to more clearly identify the sources for each claim made below. The original post included links to each source but did not call them out as clearly.]

Dave Ramsey probably wasn’t expecting this much pushback when he shared a piece by Tim Corley contrasting the habits of the rich with those of the poor. In her response on CNN, Rachel Held Evans noted that Ramsey and Corley mistake correlation for causality when they suggest (without actually proving) that these habits are the cause of a person’s financial situation. (Did it never occur to them that it might be the other way around?)

Ramsey fired back, calling the pushback “immature and ignorant.” This from a guy who just made 20 sweeping assertions about 47 million poor people in the US — all based on a survey of 361 individuals.

That’s right. To come up with his 20 habits, Corley talked to just 233 wealthy people and 128 poor people. Ramsey can talk all he wants about Corley’s research passing the “common-sense smell test,” but it doesn’t pass the “research methodology 101” test.

To balance the picture a bit, I wanted to take a fact-based look at 20 things the poor do on a daily basis…

1. Search for affordable housing.
Especially in urban areas, the waiting list for affordable housing can be a year or more. During that time, poor families either have to make do with substandard or dangerous housing, depend on the hospitality of relatives, or go homeless.
(Source: New York Times)

2. Try to make $133 worth of food last a whole month.
That’s how much the average food stamp recipient gets each month. Imagine trying to eat well on $4.38 per day. It’s not easy, which is why many impoverished families resort to #3…
(Source: Kaiser Family Foundation)

3. Subsist on poor quality food.
Not because they want to, but because they can’t afford high-quality, nutritious food. They’re trapped in a food system that subsidizes processed foods, making them artificially cheaper than natural food sources. So the poor are forced to eat bad food — if they’re lucky, that is…
(Sources: Washington Post; Journal of Nutrition, March 2008)

4. Skip a meal.
One in six Americans are food insecure. Which means (among other things) that they’re sometimes forced to go without eating.
(Sources: World Vision, US Department of Agriculture)

5. Work longer and harder than most of us.
While it’s popular to think people are poor because they’re lazy (which seems to be the whole point of Ramsey’s post), the poor actually work longer and harder than the rest of us. More than 80 percent of impoverished children have at least one parent who works; 60 percent have at least one parent who works full-time. Overall, the poor work longer hours than the so-called “job creators.”
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

6. Go to bed 3 hours before their first job starts.
Number 15 on Ramsey and Corley’s list was, “44% of [the] wealthy wake up three hours before work starts vs. 3% of [the] poor.” It may be true that most poor people don’t wake up three hours before work starts. But that could be because they’re more likely to work multiple jobs, in which case job #1 means they’re probably just getting to bed three hours before job #2 starts.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

7. Try to avoid getting beat up by someone they love.
According to some estimates, half of all homeless women in America ran away to escape domestic violence.
(Source: National Coalition for the Homeless, 2009)

8. Put themselves in harm’s way, only to be kicked to the streets afterward.
How else do you explain 67,000 63,000 homeless veterans?
(Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs, updated to reflect the most recent data)

9. Pay more than their fair share of taxes.
Some conservative pundits and politicians like to think the poor don’t pay their fair share, that they are merely “takers.” While it’s true the poor don’t pay as much in federal income tax — usually because they don’t earn enough to qualify — they do pay sales tax, payroll tax, etc. In fact, the bottom 20% of earners pay TWICE as much in taxes (as a share of their income) as do the top 1%.
(Source: Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, January 2013)

10. Fall further behind.
Even when poverty is the result of poor decision-making, often it’s someone else’s choices that make the difference. If you experience poverty as a child, you are 3-4 times less likely to graduate high school. If you spend your entire childhood in poverty, you are 5 times less likely to graduate. Which means your future has been all but decided for you.
(Sources: World Vision, Children’s Defense Fund, Annie E. Casey Foundation)

11. Raise kids who will be poor.
A child’s future earnings are closely correlated to their parents’ earnings. In other words, economic mobility — the idea that you can claw your way out of poverty if you just try hard enough is, more often than not, a myth.
(Sources: OECD, Economic Policy Institute)

12. Vote less.
And who can blame them? I would be less inclined to vote if I didn’t have easy access to the polls and if I were subjected to draconian voter ID laws that are sold to the public as necessary to suppress nonexistent voter fraud.
(Source: The Center for Voting and Democracy)

13. When they do vote… vote pretty much the same as the rest of us.
Following their defeat in 2012, conservatives took solace by reasoning that they’d lost to a bunch of “takers,” including the poor, who voted for Democrats because they want free handouts from big government. The reality is a bit more complex. Only a third of low-income voters identify as Democrats, about the same for all Americans, including wealthy voters.
(Sources: NPR, Pew Research Center)

14. Live with chronic pain.
Those earning less than $12,000 a year are twice as likely to report feeling physical pain on any given day.
(Source: Kaiser Health News)

15. Live shorter lives.
There is a 10-14 year gap in life expectancy between the rich and the poor. In recent years, poor people’s life expectancy has actually declined — in America, the wealthiest nation on the planet.
(Source: Health Affairs, 2012)

16. Use drugs and alcohol pretty much the same as (or less than) everyone else.
Despite the common picture of inner city crack houses, drug use is pretty evenly spread across income groups. And rich people actually abuse alcohol more than the poor.
(Source: Poverty and Learning, April 2008)

17. Receive less in subsidized benefits than corporations.
The US government spends around $60 billion on public housing and rental subsidies for low-income families, compared to more than $90 billion on corporate subsidies. Oil companies alone get around $70 billion. And that’s not counting the nearly $60 billion a year in tax breaks corporations enjoy by sheltering profits offshore. Or the $700 billion bailout banks got in 2008.
(Source: Think By Numbers)

18. Get themselves off welfare as soon as possible.
Despite the odds, the vast majority of beneficiaries leave the welfare rolls within five years. Even in the absence of official welfare-to-work programming, most welfare recipients enroll in some form of vocational training. Why? Because they’re desperate to get off welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

19. Have about the same number of children as everyone else.
No, poor people do not have loads of children just so they can stay on welfare.
(Source: US Department of Health and Human Services)

20. Accomplish one single goal: stay alive. 
Poverty in America may not be as dire as poverty in other parts of the world, but many working poor families are nonetheless preoccupied with day-to-day survival. For them, life is not something to be enjoyed so much as endured.

These are the real habits of the poor, those with whom Jesus identifies most closely.

[Note: For a followup to this post, see "Poverty is more than a matter of poor decision-making."]

How KONY 2012 is playing in Northern Uganda

Kony 2012 screening in Lira (credit: Reuters)

In my critique of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012, I said if we want to help vulnerable populations like those featured in the video, we should tell their story on their terms, not ours. We shouldn’t portray them as voiceless or hopeless. Our job is to stand alongside the poor, to regard them as equals. It’s not to “come to their rescue.”

Yesterday, CNN covered a screening of KONY 2012 in Lira, a city of 100,000 in Northern Uganda. This is the region where Kony used to wreak havoc — raiding villages, kidnapping children, and committing unspeakable acts of violence. This was ground zero for the LRA war.

The screening was hosted by AYINET (African Youth Initiative Network), a Ugandan NGO working to support those affected by the war. Several thousand people showed up.

Many of the children, women, and men in attendance lived through Kony’s reign of terror.

So what did they think of how Invisible Children presented their story to the world?

Today, AYINET issued a press release announcing that they’re suspending further screenings of KONY 2012, because:

At the Lira screening, the film produced such outrage, anger and hurt that AYINET decided that in order not to further harm victims or provoke any violent response that it is better to halt any further screenings for now.

According to AYINET, those in attendance share Invisible Children’s desire to see Kony and other LRA commanders brought to justice. But viewers were deeply disturbed by the main goal of KONY 2012: to make Joseph Kony famous.

It was very hurtful for victims and their families to see posters, bracelets and t-shirts, all looking like a slick marketing campaign, promoting the person most responsible for their shattered lives.

After the screening, one viewer was applauded when he stood up and said:

If you care for us the victims, you will respect our feelings and acknowledge how hurting it is for us to see you mobilizing the world to make Kony famous.

According to AYINET:

There was also a strong sense from the audience that the video was insensitive to African and Ugandan audiences, and that it did not accurately portray the conflict or the victims.

It’s time we started listening to those we claim to serve. If KONY 2012 is really about making a difference and not just making us feel better about ourselves, then we should listen long and hard to how the people of Northern Uganda feel about how their story has been told.

They’re the ones who bore the brunt of Kony’s evil. They should be the ones to decide how best to recover and rebuild. And it seems to me they’re saying that KONY 2012 isn’t the way to go.

For more on reaction to KONY 2012 in Northern Uganda, see:

>> KONY 2012 screening met with anger in northern Uganda (The Guardian)

>> KONY 2012: Ugandans speak (ONE)

Also well worth reading is this statement from AYINET director Victor Ochen, whose brother and cousin were abducted by the LRA:

>> A war victim’s opinion on Invisible Children’s KONY 2012

The #Kony2012 bandwagon: to jump or not to jump?

The problem with Invisible Children’s new documentary, KONY 2012, isn’t how it depicts Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. They hit that nail on the head.

Kony has made a career of kidnapping children, forcing them to kill their own relatives, and conscripting them into his violent (and pointless) crusade. Kony has long since abandoned whatever shred of humanity was left in him and become a monster.

Invisible Children is right to demand Kony’s arrest and trial before the International Criminal Court.

The problem with #Kony2012 isn’t its relentless optimism, either. Far too many people have resigned themselves to the seeming inevitability of injustice. Invisible Children is defiant in its belief that we can do more than observe history; we can shape it. That’s something else they got right.

And the problem isn’t, as some have charged, that Invisible Children spends most of its money on advocacy rather than direct aid. To be sure, I think they gave the wrong impression in #Kony2012 when they characterized their work in Northern Uganda as follows:

We were committed to stop Kony and rebuild what he had destroyed. And because we couldn’t wait for institutions and governments to step in, we did it ourselves with our time, talent, and money. So we rebuilt schools. We created jobs.

That’s unfair to the many humanitarian groups who were active in Northern Uganda long before Invisible Children existed. And yes, Invisible Children should have been clearer up front that direct aid is a relatively small part of their work. Still, there’s nothing wrong with being an advocacy group. We need organizations that provide critical services to the poor, but we also need groups who speak out against the systemic causes of poverty and injustice.

The problem isn’t even that #Kony2012 oversimplifies the story, as its director Jason Russell acknowledged this week. The problem with #Kony2012 is fourfold:

1. It oversimplifies to the point of being misleading.

2. It arguably diverts attention from more pressing issues.

3. It could undermine Invisible Children’s stated goal of seeing Kony brought to justice.

4. Most of all, #Kony2012 inadvertently perpetuates the stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless, hapless victims who need us to come to their rescue.

Several thoughtful reactions to #Kony2012 have been written already — for example, this post from Matthew Paul Turner and this from Rachel Held Evans. For me, one of the best is this video from Ugandan journalist and blogger Rosebell Kagumire (which I found thanks to my friend Nina, a former colleague at World Vision UK):

From watching #Kony2012, you might get the idea that Kony’s fighters, the LRA, are as big a threat today as they were eight years ago, when Invisible Children first started shining a light on Kony’s crimes.

But that just isn’t the case. Kony and his forces left Northern Uganda in 2006. Since then, life has been returning to normal for the region. World Vision, which has rehabilitated more than 14,000 of Kony’s child soldiers since 1995, reports that the number of kids coming through its Children of War Rehabilitation Center has “dropped dramatically.”

#Kony2012 alludes to this fact when the narrator mentions that “the LRA began to move into other countries.” But take a good look at the image that comes onscreen at this point…

Screen capture from Kony 2012

To me (and I think most casual viewers), this looks a lot like a map showing the extent of territory under someone’s control or influence. Which is misleading. Kony doesn’t control any territory. The LRA is a shadow of its former self, something Invisible Children fails to mention in its video. Most experts believe Kony has only a few hundred fighters left.

True, that’s still enough to cause mayhem. (And they have.) But the main narrative of #Kony2012 is about six years out of date.

In Kony’s absence, most of Northern Uganda has focused on rebuilding and reconciliation. So why is Invisible Children stuck in the past? Why aren’t they listening to thoughtful African voices who are warning against the danger of elevating Kony to celebrity status?

Some worry that #Kony2012 will backfire, sending Kony into hiding just as he might otherwise have been tempted to lower his guard. One advisor to the U.S. military command working with the Ugandan government to apprehend Kony said the video “couldn’t have happened at a more unhelpful moment.”

Night commuters in Gulu, 2006 (credit: World Vision)

I wonder if this is the danger of focusing your organization on a single issue. Your whole reason for existence becomes tied up with the continued relevance of that issue. The infamous “night commutes” that put Invisible Children on the map have long since stopped. There is much to be done in Northern Uganda, but the focus on Kony is misplaced. Maybe Invisible Children needs to move on or expand their focus, harnessing their enormous potential for other worthy causes.

There’s also the question of working with the Ugandan military, the UPDF, to fight the LRA, something Invisible Children seems to advocate. The UPDF has used child soldiers, just like Kony. They’ve helped Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, maintain an increasingly repressive grip on power. Can they really be trusted to protect the Acholi people of Northern Uganda, whom they’ve targeted for persecution in the past?

Sure, Kony makes a compelling villain. He is unambiguously evil. But there are bigger fish to fry in Uganda, much less other parts of the world. I wonder how much more could be accomplished if people like Jason Russell used their talents (and he has plenty to spare) to mobilize our generation to combat climate change or address some of the deeper structural issues that keep so many people in poverty.

Joseph Kony is an easy target — particularly because he’s so heinous. But because of Invisible Children’s video, he’s drawing attention away from far more deserving causes.

Finally, #Kony2012 inadvertently perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype of impoverished Africans as voiceless. While I think some of the criticism of #Kony2012 goes too far in painting it as yet another example of the “white man’s burden,” the film does appear to be driven by the assumption that Africans need us Westerners to give them a voice.

Which is a problem, because as Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire put it:

If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no place telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on.

It’s not our job to be a voice for the voiceless, because we shouldn’t think of anyone as “voiceless” in the first place. There are times when we can use our voice to amplify the voices of others, but we should always tell their story on their terms, not ours.

There’s more to justice than caring. There’s more to it than even caring about the right things. KONY 2012 makes for a compelling emotional drama, but it falls well short of the hard work, careful thought, and — above all — respect for those we’re all trying to help that ought to characterize advocacy initiatives like this.

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Update: Earlier this week, #Kony2012 premiered in Northern Uganda to an audience of thousands, many of whom are survivors of Kony’s terror. According to reports, their reaction was overwhelmingly negative — specifically, to the strategy of turning Kony into a celebrity and to the portrayal (or lack thereof) of Ugandans in the film. I believe it’s important to listen to what Ugandans are saying about a film and a movement that is largely supposed to be about them. Read more here.