While Invisible Children's recent Kony 2012 video aimed to bring attention to Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who had abducted 30,000 children as child soldiers, the controversy surrounding the viral video also exposed serious problems about modern charity.
One hundred years ago, most charitable acts would take place in one's hometown or church congregation. There one would naturally have a greater understanding about the problem and the necessary solutions.
Now, charity has gone global: With a 24/7 global news cycle, the public is more aware of worldwide needs, but are also more disconnected from the problems they are trying to solve. They lack the necessary perspective needed to create informed, long-lasting solutions.
Invisible Children's latest video, which has more than 100 million views, is so successful partly because it delivers a nearly irresistible message: Here is an enormous problem, you're the one who can fix it, all you need to do is buy this bracelet. This modern approach to charity is consumer-driven, playing on emotions and emphasizing how easy it is to "help."
Various charitable organizations use this tactic to raise awareness about injustices in the world. TOMS Shoes has built a footwear empire through its "One for One" policy: Customers purchase one pair of shoes for themselves and TOMS simultaneously provides a pair of shoes for a child in need.
But these charities, and the many like them, operate by skimming the surface of very deep problems without comparable depth in their solution, and sometimes even exacerbate the problem.
TOMS is providing shoes for the shoeless, which seems wonderful, but in reality, it doesn't actually help the shoeless provide shoes for themselves. The import of such a large amount of free shoes into impoverished areas without any additional industry puts local shoemakers out of business. Without additional solutions, poverty will still run rampant in the lives of children who just happen to now have new shoes.
Likewise, Invisible Children has succeeded in raising awareness about a very dangerous warlord who is guilty of damaging the lives of thousands of Ugandan children and killing and maiming his countrymen. But besides spreading outdated information, Invisible Children hasn't demonstrated how merely spreading Kony's name and selling bracelets will bring him to justice or help former child soldiers.
Invisible Children is, at best, hoping to solve a small sliver of an abiding, complicated international problem by encouraging the general public to get behind its message and wear it, quite literally, on their sleeve.
Real solutions and genuine charity are not so easy. Perhaps it is time for Americans to realize that nothing can replace their investment of time-in reading up on issues, researching nonprofits, and interacting with the people affected. Authentic charity requires more than a quick purchase. Authentic charity requires sacrifice and a willingness to invest in the real lives of those in need.