The Strange Case of Joseph Kony and the Role of Trust in Development Work

When people work for or donate to NGOs, they often want to know what they can do to see if their actions are getting things done – that is, whether they can really trust the organization. That was certainly one of my concerns when I joined Asia America Initiative at the beginning of the summer. Before I continue, does anyone else remember Kony 2012? If you don’t, the gist is that Kony 2012 was a public awareness campaign designed to lobby for world leaders to take action against a Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony, infamous for recruiting child soldiers.

It later turned out, of course, that the campaign was essentially a scam. The international community was already fully aware of Kony, who had actually himself been inactive for years at that point. Most of the donations and profits from merchandise went toward the Kony 2012 staff’s salaries, and the campaign was heavy on social media posts while remaining light on action. I recall that from then on, people laughed at the idea that raising awareness or creating networks was an important goal for charity work.

Fortunately, my fears weren’t warranted when it came to AAI. Interning at Asia America Initiative gave me a completely new perspective on how development works in the real world. I learned that incidents like Kony 2012 shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof that all charity needs to be based on cold, robotic utilitarianism. Building relationships is, in fact, vital to creating effective development programs. The problem with Kony 2012 was not the tools, but the intent. AAI does not use outreach and social media to achieve wide public recognition, but to accomplish its goals.

As an AAI intern, I saw that a focus on building trust and connections with both the people our organization helps and potential donors to our projects can help a small but dedicated NGO like ours make lasting changes. A child will receive life-saving liver surgery thanks to donation requests we made via Facebook. One of my duties was to write and revise a letter of inquiry to foundations that could provide us with the money to buy the hundreds of children with school supplies we donate to schools each year. Without maintaining relationships with people in the Philippines who otherwise might not have trusted us, we would not be in a position to make real differences in their communities. You can tell whether trust an organization using a website like Charity Navigator to test for transparency – but if you want to be absolutely sure, look for personal investment and dedication. The chance to work for AAI is a chance to be part of an organization that has proven it cares.