Donations or Development? The Economic Implications of Kony 2012

Freya McCormick


April 8th, 2012

Chances are you now know who Joseph Kony is. Since its release on 5 March Kony 2012 ( has attracted more than 100 million hits on YouTube and Vimeo and has become the most successful viral video in history.

Chances are you now know who Joseph Kony is. Since its release on 5 March Kony 2012 has attracted more than 100 million hits on YouTube and Vimeo and has become the most successful viral video in history. The film, produced by the US-based non-profit organisation Invisible Children, aims to make the Ugandan guerrilla leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony ‘famous’ in order to have him arrested by 31 December 2012. The film’s success has thrown Invisible Children, along with Joseph Kony, into the public eye and the organisation is facing ongoing scrutiny and critique. Invisible Children has responded to criticisms on its website and has produced a more nuanced and comprehensive sequel Kony 2012: Part 2 – Beyond Famous.

Of common concern is the manner in which Invisible Children has oversimplified a complex geopolitical situation for the purposes of the Stop Kony campaign. In the first film director Jason Russell uses an interaction with his young son as a means to explain who Joseph Kony is. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is depicted as a thousands strong force, whereas recent estimates suggest the number is under 400. The film focuses almost exclusively on Uganda and does little to explain that the LRA is now solely active in the neighbouring regions of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Amongst the multitude of responses to the Stop Kony campaign one has gone relatively unnoticed: the official response of the Ugandan government. In an eight-minute video address Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi denounces the LRA leader as an ‘evil criminal’ and applauds the efforts of Invisible Children to draw attention to his long and brutal guerrilla campaign. The Prime Minister then goes on to explain that Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda and that the LRA has not been active in the country since 2006. His message is simple: Uganda is a ‘modern developing country’ and is at peace.

Kony 2012 begins with the line ‘nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. Perhaps a more appropriate opening line would be ‘nothing is more dangerous than a misguided advertising campaign’. Kony 2012: Part 2 expands on the first film and clarifies some of the truths and misconceptions. But the damage has already been done. A significant proportion of the 100 million people who have seen the video are now under the false impression that Uganda remains a country embroiled in brutal guerrilla conflict where children are routinely kidnapped and forced to be child soldiers or sex slaves. This perception will undoubtedly have a negative impact on Uganda’s economy

Late last year Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide publisher, named Uganda its top country to visit in 2012 writing that ‘[i]t’s taken nasty dictatorships and a brutal civil war to keep Uganda off the tourist radar, but stability is returning and it won’t be long before visitors come flocking back’. Data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization shows that the number of tourist arrivals per year increased by almost 500,000 between 2005 and 2010. Furthermore, World Bank statistics indicate that foreign direct investment in Uganda has been steadily increasing for the past decade. Investor and consumer confidence is integral to the continued development of Uganda’s tourism industry and ensuring that foreign direct investment continues to grow. The Stop Kony campaign has the potential to derail this and the Ugandan government’s concern is evident in Prime Minister Mbabazi’s address.

This issue is representative of the trade-off faced by all non-profit organisations working in developing and conflict affected parts of the world. To attract donations and support an organisation must project an image of country in need. For this reason food shortages, unsafe drinking water, disease and inadequate infrastructure become the focus of marketing campaigns. Organisations with a lobbyist agenda, such as Invisible Children, highlight corruption or conflict.

The problem is that non-profit campaigns often profoundly shape the international image of developing countries, and whilst projecting an image of neediness, poverty and instability attracts funds it simultaneously harms a country’s economy by reducing tourism and investment. In an increasingly competitive non-profit sector organisations need to remain financial, however they must be aware of this trade-off and so must the people who give money and support. Irresponsible campaigns such as Stop Kony can do irreversible damage to a country’s international image and consequently their economy.


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The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Sharon Lai

    Great article Freya – you’ve taken quite an interesting economic perspective on this issue. Is there much empirical evidence on this relationship between non-profit campaigns and FDI and tourism in developing countries? I suppose given that developing countries are likely to have lower levels of both FDI and tourism it would be difficult to determine causation, however in this case it would be really interesting to compare, say FDI in Uganda a year or two from now (in the aftermath of the Kony campaign) with current levels. Perhaps another article then?
    Also just another point. Depending on which stage of development a country is in, it may be more important to first attract those donations and support that create the economic fundamentals – reasonable living and health standards, food security, disease control, and adequate infrastructure. Moreover if the particular country is widely known to have corrupt leaders and is routinely subject to violent occurrences, non-profit campaigns are unlikely to contribute much further to reducing FDI and tourism. The trade-off in damaging a country’s international image may then be viewed as quite necessary.

    • Freya McCormick

      As far as I’m aware there is no empirical research into the effect of non-profit campaigns on tourism and FDI. There is definitely scope for some investigation, though you may be right in suggesting that it would be difficult to identify a causal relationship (or even a correlation) simply because non-profits are often working in countries that have low levels of tourism and FDI to begin with. Aid, for example, is often found to be negatively correlated or uncorrelated with growth, partly because aid often goes to countries with low growth.

      I agree with your second point, in some cases the reality of a country’s situation may be such that a ‘negative’ campaign is justified in order to attract donations and support. I think Kony 2012 is such a unique case that it is difficult to predict the long-term effects. There may be so much attention, scrutiny and analysis that tourism and investment in Uganda will increase!

  • Michelle La

    Fantastically written, Freya! Despite there being an evident trade-off between attracting donations/FDI and an escalating scale of corruption and conflict in many developing nations, an irresponsible campaign. like Kony 2012. does tick one box. It is capable of shedding light on an issue that would otherwise go unnoticed in our oblivious and blissfully ignorant developed society. Such a discussion encapsulates the essence and importance of foreign aid in assisting countries who are trapped in the cyclical motion of poverty – highlighting the disparities between the developed and developing worlds.

    The mere fact that countries are labelled as ‘developing’ and require FDI is damaging enough and deters many from travelling to a particular location; regardless of any side issues that are likely to be forgotten as time passes. It will take revolutionary reform and radical globalisation to rid of the stigma associated with developing countries.

    • Freya McCormick

      Thanks for your feedback, Michelle. I agree that separating the world into ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ can be counterproductive. I think this is one reason why we continue to experiment with terms – such as third world/ first world and global south/global north. A greater awareness of the impact a name and image can have on a country’s economy should be encouraged!

      Whilst foreign aid continues to underpin development work we should not underestimate the potential of FDI. Studies, such as Dollar and Kraay (2001), show that FDI has a powerful growth effect. This is one reason for the divergence we see between developing economies and ‘underdeveloped’ countries who have been unable to attract investment. Where there exists a trade-off between aid and FDI it is important to consider the pros and cons of both.

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