How to Help African Children At Risk

Constructive Activism beyond “KONY 2012”

A child in a Congolese refugee camp. (babasteve / flickr)

Thanks to the "KONY 2012" video made by the San Diego-based organization Invisible Children, millions of people are suddenly interested in humanitarian crises in Central Africa. This is great news, but the challenge now is to translate that concern into constructive activism.

Joseph Kony has led the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) since the mid-1980s. He created it from the remnants of a quasi-Christian movement led by the mystic and spiritual leader Alice Auma; its early followers opposed the marginalization of the Acholi people in northern Uganda by the government of Yoweri Museveni. At times the LRA was supported by the government of neighboring Sudan, as retaliation for Museveni's support of rebels there.

From 1987 to 2006, the LRA attacked and murdered civilians in northern Uganda. More than two million people were uprooted from their homes and most ended up living in camps that lacked food, clean water, and sanitation. Over the course of the conflict, tens of thousands of children were abducted and turned into soldiers, porters, cooks, laundresses, or sex slaves. Many were killed or forced to harm or kill others, including their own relatives. Some eventually escaped.

To protect their children from abduction by the LRA, parents in the countryside often sent them to sleep in the relative safety of nearby towns. Every night, children could be seen walking into towns. Hundreds of these "night commuters" would march for miles before bedding down in schools or churches or under storefront awnings. Community leaders and aid workers tried to protect them, not just from abduction but also from other threats such as harassment, exploitation, and rape. The phenomenon was only one among many tragic symptoms of a shattered society.

In 2006, a ceasefire agreement between the LRA and the government brought relative peace to northern Uganda. The vast majority of people living in camps have gone back home to their villages and are beginning to support themselves again. If the war has stopped, however, its legacy remains. State services have not recovered and the Ugandan government still needs a great deal of technical and financial assistance. At this point, my organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), continues its work in northern Uganda while focusing mainly on the unique needs of women and girls -- training health workers to provide clinical care to survivors of sexual assault, running programs to promote women's social and economic empowerment, and supporting the government's efforts to rebuild effective institutions.

For its part, the LRA, having retreated from northern Uganda, has moved on to neighboring countries, with its few hundred remaining members attacking isolated populations in the near-impenetrable area at the intersection of South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic. In July 2011, Oxfam of Great Britain carried out a survey in northeast DRC which revealed how fearful people there were of LRA attacks. Oxfam called for reform of the Congolese army, more UN peacekeepers, and more support for communication and infrastructure projects in order to make communities less vulnerable. Last October, President Barack Obama approved sending U.S. military advisors to work with the Ugandan and other armed forces in the area to rout the LRA, but for now Kony remains at large.

The LRA is still a problem, particularly for people in the impoverished far corners of the territory it plagues, but today pressing humanitarian crises on the continent in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, and the east of the DRC affect many more people. In the Horn, the famine conditions in southern Somalia ended in February, but more than 2 million people throughout the country remain in crisis, unable to feed themselves. Somalis who fled to Kenya and Ethiopia to live in overcrowded camps, or who are hiding in cities, need aid and protection. South Sudan, the world's newest country, may also be its most fragile, and fighting in several of Sudan's border areas is making the situation worse. The DRC has been engulfed in conflict for over a decade, and needs help recovering and rebuilding. In eastern Congo, rape has been used as a weapon of war; programs are needed to not only help the victims of sexual violence but to prevent attacks in the first place.

As with the LRA, all these situations are complex and intractable, with no quick or easy solutions available. Outsiders, moreover, can at best play only a secondary role in resolving them, providing some relief and supporting the efforts of locals to move their countries in a more promising direction. But callousness and fatalism are simply not options for moral people, and there are things you can and should do that can make a real difference.

First, you should educate yourself. The more you know about a problem the more intelligently you can choose how to respond to it. Regarding the LRA and its crimes, for example, you might read the website and reports of Human Rights Watch, Resolve, and Enough. The International Crisis Group is a go-to source for journalists, diplomats, and aid workers for understanding other crises on the continent. Refugees International publishes reports on the problems of displaced people. Relief Web is a clearinghouse for maps, press releases, and reports from the UN, aid agencies, and others.

Second, you should give and raise money. There are several reputable non-governmental organizations working on humanitarian crises in Africa and your contributions to them will directly improve the lives of countless suffering people. A few of the many U.S.-based groups doing good work on the crises mentioned include the IRC, CARE, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, International Medical Corps, and Oxfam. Faith-based groups with significant reach in Africa include Catholic Relief Services and World Vision.

Third, you should raise your voice. After doing your homework, you will have a better sense of what policy issues are being debated in Washington and other capitals, but you do not have to become an expert to influence U.S. foreign policy. By writing or calling your elected representatives to say you care about a situation and asking them to do something, you will prompt them to learn and act. Politicians listen when large numbers of their constituents speak. Personally written letters faxed to offices get the most attention, but e-mails and phones calls in large numbers from constituents are also hard to ignore. So write or call the White House (1-202-456-1414) or your Senator or Member of Congress (1-202-224-3121) to tell them you are paying attention and want them to, as well.

Joseph Kony and his forces have been terrorizing innocent victims for over two decades, and even when he is brought to justice, the region he operated in -- like other troubled regions -- will continue to have problems. But the more people who know about those problems, and care about them, and try to help resolve them, the less suffering there will be. The success of the "KONY 2012" video shows the vast reserves of idealism and concern out there. If even a fraction of that could be translated into constructive activism, the world would be dramatically better off.

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