The Worst Killer of Invisible Children is Not Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony is evil and should be stopped. He has allegedly abducted 30,000 children in his long military campaign.

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of children every year.

Joseph Kony has committed atrocities that make me furious. But malaria makes me angrier. Why? Because malaria deaths really do happen just because Americans don’t care enough.

The popular Kony 2012 video argues that Kony can be stopped just by making him famous. That might be true. But it might not be. We generally don’t focus our research on military interventions (more below on why we don’t), so we have little knowledge of the situation, but one thing that’s clear is that things aren’t as simple as Invisible Children is making them sound.

  • First off, American involvement with pursuing Joseph Kony did not start with Invisible Children’s campaign. It has a long history.
  • LSE faculty, writing in Foreign Affairs, state that “the LRA is, in fact, a relatively small player in all of this — as much a symptom as a cause of the endemic violence. If Kony is removed, LRA fighters will join other groups or act independently.”
  • Some are concerned that pursuing Kony could do more harm than good – not just by diverting resources and attention from more important problems, but via support to the Ugandan army and via provoking possible retaliation.

But we can stop a lot of malaria if we can just care about it more. Insecticide-treated nets drastically reduce malaria; they’ve been tested time and again; they’ve worked on a small scale and on a large scale; they’re safe, they’re proven, they’re cheap and they save lives. (Details at our investigation of insecticide-treated nets.)

The same can likely be said for some other malaria control interventions. The missing ingredient in malaria control? More money – it’s that simple. And you don’t have to lobby Washington to make that happen (though you can); you can also just write a check or get your friends to do so.

Africa has many problems that are like malaria: devastating, but also preventable with donor dollars. (Another one: parasite infections.) Raising awareness of these problems would, I believe, do far more good than raising awareness of Joseph Kony.

So why is Invisible Children focused on Kony?

I don’t know exactly how Invisible Children picked its cause, but I have a guess. Invisible Children is excellent at filmmaking and Joseph Kony – while not the worst problem in Africa – is probably the best movie-style villain. The atrocities he commits are unspeakable and emotionally gripping; he is a person, so we can identify with him enough just to truly hate him. He is a face of evil.

Individuals can change the world (and they’re already doing it)

Invisible Children is right when it says that the power of individuals is increasing. As a donor, voter and social networker, you have power. With that power comes responsibility. You have to decide whether you’re going to focus on the most important problems for Africans or the most cinematically apt problems for Americans. And whether you’re going to use your power to intervene in a complex, disputed situation that you don’t have the context to fully understand, or in a simple situation where all humanitarians really do agree.

If Invisible Children has inspired you to care more about Africans, that’s great news. We hope you’ll take that inspiration, passion and emotion and take it to the next level. If you can learn how to give as effectively as possible, you’ll join a worldwide community of individuals that is giving millions of dollars and saving children’s lives every year. GiveWell tries to be a crucial cog in that community by putting thousands of hours into research identifying the best charities available.


The Worst Killer of Invisible Children is Not Joseph Kony — 52 Comments

  1. Lisa and DMES, regarding the idea that one can support multiple causes: Just because you have options doesn’t mean that the causes are equally effective. To the extent that we are talking about giving money, it is likely that one cause will achieve more (for the same amount of money) than another. Since you cannot give the same dollar to more than one cause, you could accomplish more good by giving exclusively to the more cost-effective cause. Thus, while it may be true that one *can* support multiple causes, that doesn’t automatically mean that one *should*.

    Regarding the present question, there is a considerable body of evidence that giving to malaria charities like the Against Malaria Foundation has a profound effect on the disease and on human suffering, while I have seen no evidence whatsoever that giving money to Invisible Children will accomplish anything with respect to Mr. Kony or the human condition. So from where I’m sitting, the choice is clear.

  2. I came here to check things out. Our non – profit creates art, film, media, and events to raise support for causes – does this mean we will be compared or criticized for the stories we choose to tell? I feel a bit devalued already. We would love to tell the story of malaria and some of the solutions around that issue- there are so many great stories to inspire others.

    IC is a good example of peoples actual life experience being made into a movement – could happen around any issue. I would have been more supportive of IC if the film would have mentioned their on the ground impacts – it makes it seem as though they have one mission when they have accomplished more. Charity Navigator looks more inclusive. Their assessment of IC is straight forward:
    “We give the charity 4 out of a possible 4 stars for its Financial Health. It spends upwards of 80% of its budget on its programs and services. As such, Invisible Children is actually outperforming most charities in our database in terms of how it allocations its expenses….” They gave lower marks for lack of Board development.