Make a big difference

Oscar winner Ben Affleck is using his status to aid the war- torn Democratic Republic of Congo. He tells msafiri why he felt compelled to set up the Eastern Congo Initiative

BenAffleckThere are two sides to the public face of Ben Affleck. One of those faces, the Oscar-winning actor and director whose turbulent career has seen as many highs as lows, is well known. But Affleck is also a man with a moral compass who, rather than merely count his money and take the easy life in Hollywood, wants to use his celebrity as a force for good. Affleck is a liberal philanthropist. As far back as 1998, the star of Gone Girl became a supporter of the A-T Children’s Project after striking up conversation on the set of Forces of Nature with a ten-year-old boy who suffered from the progressive and rare disease ataxia-telangiectasia.

Inspired by a trip to visit troops in the Persian Gulf in 2003, Affleck is also a patron of two charities that support US armed forces – ‘Operation Gratitude’ and ‘Paralyzed Veterans of America’. He is a member of ‘Feeding America’, the national food bank network, as well as a long-time backer of ‘The Jimmy Fund’, a Boston-based cancer charity for whom he has made frequent telephone appearances.

However, it is his work with his own organisation that Affleck is now most associated. The Eastern Congo Initiative, formed with Whitney Williams in 2010 and backed financially by supporters ranging from Cindy McCain to Google, prides itself on being, “…the first US-based advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on working with and for the people of Eastern Congo.”

Eastern Congo Initiative
The reasons why Affleck formed the Eastern Congo Initiative are overwhelming. With a population of more than 168 million, only three African countries house more citizens than the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eighteenth most populous country in the entire world. A welcoming and tolerant people, more than 250 different ethnic groups reside in the country, speaking a total of 240 different languages. The wider Congo is also home to the second largest rainforest on the planet – around 18% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest can be found within the region.

Yet despite all that, the country is war-torn, with violence, poverty and disease having claimed the lives of over five million men, women and children. The eastern region, despite some humanitarian efforts, a supposed democratic election process and various peace agreements, remains greatly impacted by conflict on a scale that is difficult to envisage. The systematic rape and abuse of women in the Congo is endemic, the tragic result of years of internecine warfare where as many as six rival armies have fought to establish control of the region, sought-after for its rich mineral deposits. Around 1.3 million people have not been able to return to their homes.

This has resulted in a lawless society where, according to Affleck, “…human life has become very cheap”. So grave is the conflict, that many international aid agencies have simply ignored the escalating situation, believing that the country is beyond help. To his eternal credit Affleck steadfastly refuses to believe that version of things, and this attitude was a major driving force behind the actor’s decision to begin a campaign for change for the people of Congo.

“It’s a paradox that the most complicated and devastated regions tend not to receive attention and help because there’s a belief that they are beyond hope and resources are best directed elsewhere,” he says. “The Eastern Congo is a region where the worst tragedies have befallen some of society’s most disadvantaged people and when you try to make people in the US or in other countries aware of all those things it can be overwhelming and people turn off, not out of cynicism, but because it’s too much to take in. So I’m trying to put more focus on the good things that are going on and how there are many good people working hard and giving people hope.”

Affleck’s interest in the situation in Congo was initially piqued by a 2007 column in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof, who shone a light on the ongoing human rights abuses evident in the country. By 2008 Affleck had visited several times in order to be educated further by “philanthropists, people at NGOs, people who work on the ground, survivors”, reporting back on what he found for ABC News and directing a United Nations Refugee Agency short film, Gimme Shelter. The documentary highlighted “…stuff we would never even contemplate happening to us in the United States – living in camps or having to endure a world without security, where there’s the constant threat of being attacked or raped.”

The Congolese spirit
In among the conflict, Affleck recognised a humanity in the Congolese people that touched him, and the recollections of what he witnessed on those initial trips remain with him to this day.

“That aspect wasn’t really what I expected,” he admits. “The people living there weren’t hiding from their warlords, cowering from view. In many ways it looked normal. People still went to work in the city, they still went about their life. You’d see people on their little scooters, people selling things on the street. There was a human spirit. People wanted to get on and succeed. It was like America, the spirit was just the same. I was under the illusion that I would find that typical image of Africans in strife that we see so often on your televisions in America – the swollen stomach, flies everywhere, on their back waiting for somebody to go and help them.

“But there were actually community-based organisations on the ground trying to help in their own dedicated, smart, efficient way, doing their best. People are taking initiative and responsibility for their own lives. And I was struck by that spirit, the fact that the people of Congo were determined to get on with their lives, to try to better themselves. And it moved me to help.”

The manner in which local campaigners attempted to help the stricken and the poor helped stimulate Affleck’s overriding emotional response. Expanding on that topic, he marvels at “the amazing things the locals would do there. Organisations that were getting child soldiers out of militias, helping women who had been the victims of gender-based violence, founding schools, starting radio stations and giving tape recorders to women in the bush so they could tell their stories, or bringing together groups of women to try to galvanise the legal system to protect them. These are the people who deserve the most support, these local organisers that are doing incredible work, kind of in secret. Fortunately I have a lot of friends in the film industry who have enough money to write me a big cheque.”

Safe in the knowledge that he could rely on exactly that kind of monetary support from those very friends, Affleck formed the Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010. With two employees based in the United States of America and 12 in Congo, the ECI’S remit is essentially to be a grant maker for Congolese-led, community-based organisations, supporting more than 20 charities with money and capacity-building structures, helping victims of rape and sexual violence, increasing access to health care, reintegrating child soldiers into the community, encouraging economic prosperity and attempting, despite all the obstacles in their way, to promote peace and reconciliation.

At the sharp end
The method of that help and how it would be distributed was always going to be one of the defining characteristics of the Eastern Congo Initiative, and would be a huge factor in determining its success or otherwise. To avoid the charge of being a celebrity do-gooder with a vested interest, merely half-directing efforts from a safe distance, Affleck wanted to be at the sharp end of ECI’s social and economic aid operations. In order to achieve this, he personally sought out leading charitable experts to help him lead ECI so that the aid effort would be “sustainable and coherent”.

Naturally, this has proved problematic, with some aspects of the project far easier to accomplish than others. Much of what needs doing is not dependent on throwing vast sums of money at it, and as Affleck says some of the processes he has encouraged through ECI are common sense and cheap to deliver.

“Much of the time, the solutions are very basic: saving a child’s life is as simple as ensuring kids sleep under bed nets to avoid malaria and that they receive nutritional supplements and that they have immediate access to health care. This could save millions of lives a year alone and would cost less than US$30 a child.”

Other aims are far more challenging, but Affleck decided to continue with a smaller-scale, community-led approach which allowed for straight investments that would benefit locals directly. This included investments in traditionally strong Congolese exports, reinvigorating local coffee and cocoa production, as well as funding schools and community centres.

“When we looked at traditional aid models and at what was successful, we found a really mixed bag,” Affleck says. “In fact, opponents of aid will point out that US$50 billion has been given over the last 70 years, and there hasn’t been much progress. Part of what we believed was that was because, in large measure, it was about western people paying themselves to go over there and sort of wander around and do very short-term projects. So we wanted to do something sustainable that would raise incomes and that would be there long after we were gone. And so what we chose was coffee and cocoa, both of which for the Congolese were huge businesses and huge agricultural sources of revenue before the war.”

You only need to speak to Affleck for a short amount of time for his passion for ECI to come to the fore, and it is clear that the project has never had anything but the best intentions. Yet there were, perhaps inevitably and rather cynically, those who question the motives of a rich, famous Hollywood regular wanting to get involved with humanitarian projects in Africa. Self-awareness is another one of Affleck’s qualities, and as such he expected that attitude to be prevalent from some quarters. His answer is to let his actions speak for themselves.

“Obviously people hear about a celebrity in Africa, and they kind of roll their eyes,” says Affleck. “They’ve been conditioned to think it’s insincere, and there are definitely reasons to be critical or suspicious. But there are also people over there doing really good things, and I wanted to be part of that. I’m an American working to do my part for this region. I want to look back and say that I contributed to society in a way that is commensurate with the blessings I’ve had in life. Targeted investment will drive economic growth and produce jobs. We also have to support women and children against very oppressive circumstances. That is all I am helping to do.”

That help is starting to be recognised. Hot on the heels of being handed the Global Child Advocate Award by Save the Children at their 2014 annual Illumination Gala, at the 2015 People’s Choice Awards, Affleck was anointed Favourite Humanitarian.

In a statement, executive producer Mark Burnett was effusive in his praise for the actor: “We are so pleased to honour Ben with the 2015 People’s Choice Humanitarian Award,” he says. “This award… highlights a different side of a celebrity and helps bring awareness to a cause that our audience can support.”

The words were as empathic as they were true, and they left Affleck reflecting on his own selfless journey. “I’m not sure how I got where I am now; it’s been a long and winding road. I’ve experienced a lot of really interesting things and seen the world from a pretty unique vantage point. I work harder than I ever have, and that feels really good.”

The Eastern Congo Initiative
ECI envisions an eastern Congo vibrant with abundant opportunities for economic and social development, where a robust civil society can flourish. ECI believes that these local, community-based approaches are the key to creating a successful society in eastern Congo. We also believe that public and private partnerships, combined with advocacy that drives public policy change and increased attention, will create new opportunities for the people of eastern Congo.