philanthropist_briefcase

Last week I wandered into the SOHO canyons to buy my wife a gift. Since we’ve been in New York, we’ve spent every weekend exploring the different burrows of New York. For whatever reason, we’ve ended up finding ourselves in the heart of SOHO.

Every. Weekend.

My wife needed a new wallet. I headed straight for Peter Hermann Leatherworks. They had the wallet my wife had, a week earlier, grown attached to. So I was going to be the hero husband and get it for her.

What I didn’t expect was to spend a week going down a rabbit hole, attempting to connect the dots on a $400 men’s tote bag made out of cotton from Uganda, and why it was oddly named The Philanthropist Briefcase.

It all started when I casually mentioned (I don’t remember why) the magic words that usually either produce a blank stare in the geographically challenged or triggers interesting dialogue: I am from Uganda.

The salesman immediately pulled out the bag, gave me the whole story on how the cotton was imported from Uganda from an organization based in Jinja. I picked up the bag, read through the sympathy marketing pitch on the flier that was in one of the pockets. The token no-name African woman standing in her cotton field was prominently displayed. I tried to hold back criticism and instead directed my senses to bathe in the glow of pride that someone, somewhere was using Ugandan cotton in a shop in SOHO!

In Uganda, such a happy encounter is usually serenaded by a short exclamation: Imagine!

I turned over the bag and zeroed in on a small square label. I stopped imagining and started getting curious. This was an Invisible Children collaboration. So naturally, I marched the shop attendant outside, propped the bag on a chair and took pictures with my phone.

I didn’t do anything with the images until this morning when I started digging around.

This is where I realized I was in over my head.

I looked up the company that makes the bag, Apolis, which touts itself as a “a socially motivated lifestyle brand that empowers communities worldwide.” They have similar raw materials sourcing partnerships in Bangladesh, Peru, India, Israel, and Honduras.

For the Philanthropist Briefcase, Apolis partnered with famed luggage & bags outfit, Filson. The partnership is explained in this brief video embedded below:

That’s all well and good but I couldn’t find the connection to Invisible Children until I went back to the Apolis site and found, none other than Jason Russell waxing poetic stammering on about the tenants of sustainable development:

Still not satisfied, I dug a little deeper and hit the mother load.

During last year’s Kony 2012 video phenomenon, Bruce Wilson at Talk to Action published an exhaustive backgrounder on Invisible Children, the origins of the Apolis Global partnership, and how it ties into The Fellowship – what I can only describe as a far right Christian group and largest international funder and promoter of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill – which has led to the unnecessary deaths of many Ugandan equal rights campaigners.

One of the most immediate IC-Fellowship connections traces directly through Jason Russell, and other top Invisible Children leaders, and the co-founders of Apolis Global – a California for-profit boutique high-end clothing brand which Invisible Children has partnered with in a joint project in which cotton for Apolis clothes is grown in Northern Uganda.

Somehow, I knew it was too good to be true. A truly well-meaning market-centered initiative that was willing to engage Uganda’s most impoverished area in order to bring about economic development. Instead, what I uncover, and I am sure many people have connected these dots, is yet another scheme attempting to white-wash clear acts of sovereign interference in the name of doing good.

I, along with many Ugandans, flocked to the microphone last year to defend our country against the blatant defamation and robbery of agency being inflicted on us by Jason Russell’s organization.

It is disappointing to discover that we are nothing but pawns in a grand game of ideological leverage. Even our smallest efforts to rise from the ashes can be hijacked in the name of global good.

Instead of me walking out of a high end shop proud that my country was a partner in the production of a product worthy of being on the shelf in a SOHO boutique, I am newly skeptical of any partnership that doesn’t have us as the originator and producer.

If we as Africans are going to rise — truly rise — we need to examine what is really in our best interest. The best interest of our children and nations as a whole. I am fully aware that in some situations, we may not have the cards to leverage partnerships in our favor all the time. But I think if we stop and realize that the biggest bargaining chip, one that no one can devalue except us, is our pride. If we truly own and understand the notion that standing tall – even with nothing – is the most powerful tool one can leverage, we can build empires.

I am truly disappointed that what could have been a beautiful, empowering story about a Ugandan bag in a SOHO boutique, is instead a depressing story about a $400 bag of hurt, dressed up as philanthropy.

  1. It’s really disappointing to see you peddling conspiracy theories that do logical backflips to try and tie Invisible Children to the extremist Christian right and repulsive “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda.

    It is truly remarkable that you took a designer bag made you saw in a store and turned it into a story about you are bravely defending Uganda from the legions of white saviors who are seeking to somehow usurp Uganda’s agency by selling a bag made out of cotton from Uganda.

    Though I’ve never really agreed with your opinions, I respected them. However, I’m finding it very hard to do that now that you’ve strayed from the realm of rational and fair disagreement into conspiracy theories and cloak-and-dagger subterfuge.

  2. (EDIT: Typos corrected)

    It’s really disappointing to see you peddling conspiracy theories that do logical backflips to try and tie Invisible Children to the extremist Christian right and repulsive “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda.

    It is remarkable that you took a designer bag you saw in a store and turned it into a story about how you are bravely defending Uganda from the legions of white saviors who are seeking to somehow usurp Uganda’s agency by selling a bag made out of cotton from Uganda.

    Though I’ve never really agreed with your opinions, I respected them. However, I’m finding it very hard to do that now that you’ve strayed from the realm of rational and fair disagreement into conspiracy theories and cloak-and-dagger subterfuge.

    • So are you denying the linkages? If like to know what specifics you consider conspiracy theories.

      Seems like you follow my work, so you should know I am always up for a teachable moment.

      Over to you

      • The linkages remind me of a similar style of logic that was used by the internet to name many an innocent person as a suspect in the Boston marathon bombing before the actual suspects were named. You know the type of videos where the “evidence” is photos with red-circles drawn on them? Absolutely false conclusions were made from faux evidence in those cases. Even if my analogy is not perfect, you get my point.

        So, we have IC working with Apolis to make a designer handbag. Apparently, the founders of Apolis used to be a part of an influential far-right Christian group. You don’t explicitly say it, but you link to an article that does: you imply that IC is in league with a group that supports the Kill the Gays bill and supports the repugnant way Ugandan LGBT rights activists have been treated.

        That is where my outrage came from. IC is a very LGBT friendly organization. They’ve got a conference coming up and as a part of that conference they are screening the films Call me Kuchu and God Loves Uganda. They’re also hosting a panel discussion on whether religion is hurting or helping the world. Because despite the religious affiliation of some members of Invisible Children, the organization is secular.

        I read this piece several times and I just can’t figure out where the link is between the bag and then the picture you paint of IC using Ugandans as “pawns.” How did we arrive at that point?

        I’m getting a bit off track here, but I’ve always wondered: Do you know much about the work IC does outside of that YouTube video they made last year? You might be surprised. Or you might not. It’s just hard to stomach reading this article when I read this one earlier today, as well: http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2013/07/16/community-dialogue-conference-held-to-educate-about-lra-and-draw-staretgies-to-end-the-war/

        Best,

        • Thanks for the reply.

          I have known about IC for a almost a decade now, but it wasn’t until last year, in the wake of the Kony 2012 debacle, that I actually penned an op-ed…

          Before the dust settled I had written 4 and appeared on a number of media outlets to discuss the issue.

          I also had dialog with IC staff on the issue and I commended them for reaching out.

          This bag is a story that I desperately wanted to tell (and praise IC for) as a different side to IC. THis is the work they should have been doing and making 20 minute videos about. In the end, it turns out that it actually isn’t.

          The close association to The Family isn’t coincidental and Bruce Wilson, who’s piece I linked to isn’t a fly-by-night investigative journalist. He has a proven track record as a researcher. My piece does not blame IC for the sovereign interference on the LGBT issue. If that is the impression you got, then I beg you read the piece again. I also realize that correlation does not equal causation. However the relationship between the two firms is too close for comfort, knowing the damage that’s been caused by the LGBT bill. If IC is truly LGBT friendly, then they should publicly distance themselves from the views of The Family. If they have and I am aware, please let me know.

          IC’s mission in Uganda has gone through constant change (a common symptom of most NGOs in Northern Uganda). Their current form resembles an advocacy group desperately searching for a reason to continue existing. I hope that they do find one. Because at the end of the day, we need more good than we need bad.

          I just wish they didn’t do it at the expense of our agency, which they’ve stolen and profited on a-plenty. Fully getting it back does not mean that IC has cease existing, but it does mean they can’t continue to do for us, without us.

  3. I have no idea what happened with that last post, so please feel free to delete it. Here is my post again for the sake of clarity.

    JRB here. My display name changed and I can’t seem to change it back.

    Thank you for the opportunity to have this discussion.

    You mention the bag as work IC should be doing. IC is actually doing that sort of work: http://invisiblechildren.com/program/mend/ – I’m not here to spam links to IC’s page because all the work that IC does in terms of micro-finance, empowerment, literacy, protection, education etc are easily found on their website. Most, if not all of their programs in UG and the DRC are created by, lead by, and often implemented by respective local experts whether that’s a Ugandan architect, a Congolese priest or a Central African technician.

    Before I write this next paragraph it’s worth knowing that I am both staunchly agnostic and a fierce LGBT-rights supporter.

    You have much more faith in Mr. Wilson than I do. While he is undoubtedly a champion of LGBT rights, his writing reeks of a phobia toward Christianity and religion as a whole. He takes largely innocuous facts and strings them together into a grand Christian conspiracy. That Christian conspiracy obviously exists to a certain degree as evidenced by the heavy influence evangelical Christianity has in Uganda, but he is determined to tie IC into it, no matter what reality is. Did an IC exec go to some prayer breakfast years ago? Probably so. Was the Apolis leadership a part of the Family years back? I’ll take Mr. Wilson’s word for it. But then taking that information and somehow arriving at the conclusion that because IC is working with Apolis on a designer bag that this must be part of some plan to undermine Ugandan’s agency and increase Christian influence in the country is a massive leap in logic.

    Why would IC ever distance themselves from a relationship that doesn’t exist in the first place? Again, I don’t dispute some points that Mr. Wilson makes, but I definitely dispute the connections between them that he fabricates. IC has clearly stated that they are LGBT friendly (http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2012/04/09/justice-for-some-is-not-justice-for-all/). Consider that their focus is not on LGBT rights, I’m surprised that hiring openly gay staff, posting publicly about their support for LGBT rights and screening Call Me Kuchu at their upcoming conference is not enough to clear IC’s name of any anti-LGBT slander, then I don’t know what is.

    I appreciate your sentiment that you don’t simply hate IC for the sake of hating IC, but would rather see them grow and improve. That sets you apart from many critics. However, I disagree that IC is desperately search for a raison d’être. To say that IC is desperately searching for reason to exist is to imply that the LRA conflict is not worthy of the attention it has/is receiving. I do not think you fully appreciate the suffering still inflicted by the LRA. The key word is “still.” I do not doubt how well you know the stories of the LRA of the past. I may be wrong in my assumption, but I feel like you (and others) downplay the threat of the LRA today. Sure, it’s not on the scale of the Syrian civil war or even of what it was in the past, but that does not mean that there are not folks who are still being abducted, raped and killed by them every week. Because they are. That’s my job: I go through all possible information on the LRA to try to best figure out what is and is not happening in the region in which they operate. I am not bragging when I say there are few people on this planet who understand the current state of the LRA conflict at the same level as I do. The only ones who do are a handful of other experts and of course every person who has had to suffer at the hands of the LRA.

    “Profited on a-plenty” is a pretty loaded phrase considering that “profit” is what gets funneled back into IC’s programs whether it’s advocacy, literacy or hygiene. I can understand how the western-centric focus of IC’s advocacy can seem like it is robbing Ugandan’s of their agency, but the LRA conflict is not truly a problem for Uganda anymore. Museveni profits off of the conflict while the UPDF pursue the LRA in CAR, but the average Ugandan does not fear the LRA anymore, as the conflict exists almost exclusively in the DRC and CAR. And it is the people of the DRC and CAR that are asking for intervention whether it is from the West of the African Union (http://blog.invisiblechildren.com/2013/04/02/handwritten-responses-from-citizens-in-car/). So I disagree that focusing on the empowerment of Western youth is robbing Ugandans of their agency. Rather, I see it as amplifying the voices (or their agency, if you will) of those who are still directly affected by the conflict: the Congolese and the Central Africans.

    I’ll close with this point: I’ve probably consumed every critical piece written on Invisible Children by someone with a PhD or blog. There’s a vast range of valid points and opinions out there, but one thing that has always bothered me is that most of these informed and intelligent critics lie in wait for outrage: They wait for the video or the interview about IC that they disagree with and then they unleash their diatribe. In the months in between each outrage these critics conveniently ignore the massive drop in LRA killings, the spike in peaceful defections, the cross-border dialogues hosted by IC, the scholarships, the first rehabilitation center of former LRA child soldiers in the Congo… they ignore all this. And they wait until they can be outraged once again. Case and point anything ever written by Africa is a Country on IC.

    That’s what I hope to see some day when my Google alerts come in: people who give praise where praise is due and then constructively critique where improvements are needed, because right now everyone is either all in favor or all against. The nuance, and thus the reality of what IC truly is, is lost.

    Thanks again for taking the time to have this discussion.

    -John

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