November 19, 2008

Invisible Children: Exposing Humanitarian Needs

by Emily Norton

As has been said countless times before, we of the global North failed our brothers in the Rwandan genocide. Unwilling to let another African catastrophe slip by unnoticed, three boys documented their trip through Northern Uganda and ended up launching a life-changing NGO, Invisible Children Inc. A completely grassroots non-profit, it has succeeded in raising worldwide awareness and support (nearly 3.5 million dollars in the last year and a half) for the thousands displaced by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. While it began as a rough documentary, the organization's mission statement now accounts for "improving the quality of life for war-affected children by providing access to quality education, enhanced learning environments, and innovative economic opportunities for the community." The crazy thing is, they are actually accomplishing this goal. However, it's not necessarily just their programs that are doing it, but rather the mass support and attention garnered f by their excellent Western world-friendly media.

It almost seems as though we've heard it all before; the mantra of "stories changing lives." So what happened in Rwanda? Television was not entirely devoid of those scenes of carnage, and yet the desired active response was not elicited.

Invisible Children points to an adage frequently repeated by my parents (usually to quell heated words between my sister and me): it's not what you say, but how you say it. Sometimes a good hook or carefully repeated image will carry a farther reaching impact than a briefly distressing scene or statistic. The Invisible Children organization has displayed genius at marketing and presenting their cause. Their website is filled with photos of the shining faces of the young, hip activists and Africans, big-band name benefit concerts, well-constructed YouTube-style videos, and interesting advertisements of hands-on simulation events that bring the tribulations of Africans to American soil. I personally was greatly affected by their "Global Night Commute" a nationwide event in which thousands walked miles to sleep in outdoor locations, symbolizing the Ugandan children who commuted to hospitals nightly to escape abduction into the army of child soldiers of the LRA.

This on-fire group has developed a humanitarian aid teen subculture, perpetuated by the first positive media-induced domino/bandwagon effect I've seen in a long time. Once you participate in one of their events, you become a member of the cause (and their very thorough and enlightening e-mail list!). Though it could be said that they are trying to manipulate an emotional response, I don't think they're duping anyone. Currently, they are actually offering followers the opportunity to go on site and see the effects of their fundraising and petitioning. With their flashy website and appeal to the belief that youth can "make a difference," Invisible Children Inc. has sparked an international compassion movement.

(The photo of three Ugandan boys in a diplacement camp is part of the promotional materials compiled by Invisible Children.)

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