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Affleck’s Toughest Role: Helping War-Ravaged Eastern Congo

By Tom Watson on April 16, 2011No Comment

Celebrity philanthropy can be a mixed bag. For all the attention it can bring to a cause, sometimes the baggage simply isn’t worth it. [See Madonna, Malawi et al]. Yet when actor Ben Affleck sat down with Laurene Powell Jobs at the Global Philanthropy Forum’s 10th anniversary gathering in Redwood City this week, the ego factor was conspicuously absent.

But as Affleck told the assembled philanthropy leaders, life in the eastern Congo can humble any Hollywood attitude. In a region where one in five children die before their fifth birthday, where three million have died  in ongoing civil war and genocide, and where the sickening use of rape as a weapon of war in rampant, Affleck said he chose to use his fame to focus on the DRC simply “because it was the worst of the worst.”

Affleck founded the Eastern Congo Initiative as “the first U.S. based advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on working with and for the people of eastern Congo.” The organization helps plan and support community-based initiatives to changes lives on the ground in the region, and it uses Affleck’s position as top film star to lobby for more attention from the international community and the American government.

The organization’s partners include the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Humanity United, the Bridgeway Foundation, Cindy McCain, Google, and GlobalGiving. Laurene Powell Jobs of the Emerson Collective is also a partner and interviewed Affleck at the Forum about how he put ECI together. “I’m not an expert in any of this,” said Affleck, “so I decided to surround myself with season philanthropists.” Last month, Affleck and McCain teamed up to testify before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, arguing against cuts in aid. “The federal budget may be the zero sum game, but our morality, our decency, our compassion for our fellow human beings is not,” Affleck testified.

He repeated the call at the Global Philanthropy Forum, arguing that the region needs more attention from U.S. government – in the form of a cohesive strategy, and making development there a  real priority – “we need to say this is in our national interest,” he said. But Affleck also talked about how he was affected by his first trip to the Congo and witnessing the resilience of the people there. “They know they can change this,” he said. “And you just see all those little kids with big eyes – five, six, seven year old kids – and it just breaks your heart.”

Education, said Affleck, is crucial to the broken society’s future. “Kids are dying to learn. They are dying to learn.” Of the typical former child soldier – who has killed and watching killing through adolescence – Affleck said: “yeah, he’s got a Kalashnikov but what else?”

Affleck was passionate and informed, prompting Philanthrocapitalism co-author (and noted skeptic) Matthew Bishop to tweet:

Fairly effective pitch by Affleck, who seems to know what he is talking about and to have studied best practice in “celenthropy”

Perhaps so, and Affleck was indeed effective. And with needs as great as what’s left of civil society in the battered eastern Congo, an effective spokesman and advocate seems good medicine indeed.

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