Lately I've found myself thinking a lot about the meaning of "advocacy." Greg Mortenson was an advocate. Remember him? He was the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which used donor money to build elementary schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he got into big trouble when it turned out that parts of the best-selling memoir that launched him on the path to fame were fictional -- along with a lot of the record-keeping at his charity.
Earlier this month, in a long-awaited denouement to the scandal, officials in Montana (where his organization is registered) announced a settlement that ends a year-long investigation into the institute's finances. Under its terms, Mortenson has to leave the group's board of directors and pay back $1 million as restitution for funds he misappropriated for personal use. (One bright spot for Mortenson: earlier this week a judge dismissed a civil suit brought against him by readers angry that the non-fiction book they thought they were buying turned out to be closer to a novel.)
That news, in turn, came just a few days after "Cover the Night," the event that was supposed to be the climax of the Kony2012 campaign launched by the humanitarian group Invisible Children. On the night of April 20, activists around the world were supposed to put up posters and otherwise display their support for efforts to track down and capture Joseph Kony, the insurgent leader guilty of terrorizing East Africa. The now-famous video advertising the cause had urged its millions of viewers to make their opposition to Kony publicly known. But the planned action flopped. Posters were few and far between, social media buzz about the event virtually nil.
Why? Presumably because the video, while proving the extraordinary power of the web to rally people around a cause, got some important facts wrong. Invisible Children's highly simplistic and emotionalized approach (which included Jason Russell, one of the group's founders, showing Kony's picture to his young son) backfired when many Ugandans objected to what they saw as a caricature of their country and its problems. Earlier this month people attending a screening of the Kony2012 video in northern Uganda got so riled up that they ended up pelting the organizers of the event with rocks. (The photo above shows a similar showing of the film in March.)
As the non-event of "Cover the Night" suggests, the resulting storm of controversy appears to have undermined the group's support among its (mostly young and idealistic) followers as well. It certainly doesn't reflect well on your organization when high school students are warning their classmates to give you a wide berth. That one of the group's founders (who apparently suffered a nervous breakdown under the storm of publicity) was later arrested after cavorting in the nude in public probably didn't help much.
Both Mortenson and Kony2012 have their defenders. Soon after the Mortenson scandal broke (courtesy of a lengthy exposé by author John Krakauer and a devastating report by U.S. TV's 60 Minutes), one Pakistani reporter wrote that, whatever his sins, the American had at least succeeded in building some schools in remote regions (even if the number fell short of what Mortenson had claimed to his own donors).
Adam Finck, of Invisible Children, responded to his critics by arguing that Kony2012 succeeded in dramatically raising awareness of the need to capture the fugitive warlord. As he put it, citing the audience of the video, "100 Million People Can't Be Wrong." No question about it: more people now know that there is a bad man named Joseph Kony roaming around in the bush. And, needless to say, you have to know about a problem before you can muster the will to solve it.