Actor and philanthropist, Ben Affleck sat down with David Brancaccio to talk about Affleck's foundation, the Eastern Congo Initiative. The organization is an advocacy and grant-making initiative focused on working with and for the people of eastern Congo. It provided Marketplace's Sabri Ben-Achour with some logistical support during his recent reporting trip there.
Five facts about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the history of conflict in the country:
- With a population of more than 68 million people, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa, and the 18th most populous country in the world
- The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world – 18% of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforests are in the region.
- More than 250 ethnic groups reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo and they speak more than 240 languages.
- Violence, poverty and disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo have claimed the lives of more than 5 million men, women and children.
- Despite democratic elections and multiple peace agreements, the eastern region is still impacted by conflict – more than 1.3 million people are not able to return to their homes.
Ben Affleck on his first visits to eastern Congo, and what made him want to help:
"The people who were living there were not, you know, hiding under tables. They were not cowering before warlords. You could go to a city and people were still going to work, and trying to sell cellphone chips and bananas and these little scooters, and that the human spirit was such that they wanted not only to live, but to thrive and to succeed. In fact, the very same things we believe in fervently here. Sort of the American dream. The Congolese had a very similar dream, and I was moved by that.
"You know I had a sort of ... subconsciously labored under this delusion that's fostered here when we see images of Africans. You know, swollen bellies, laying on their back, flies on their eyes, [saying] "help us," you know, that sort of thing, waiting for a handout. And these were people who in particular in the community-based organizations that I was drawn to who were doing that work for themselves and in an extremely smart and dedicated way."
On how he is trying to help:
"When we looked at aid and traditional aid and aid models and [at] what was successful, we found a really mixed bag. In fact, opponents of aid will point out that $50 billion has been given over the last 70 years, and there hasn't been much progress. Part of what we believed was that 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."
On being just another guy from California who thinks he's got the prescription for fixing problems half a world away:
"One of the flaws that we identified when I first started traveling and doing research was that you have large NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who sort of plant themselves in the region and say, "This is how you're going to do it." And I sort of liken it to as if the Chinese showed up in Iowa and said, "No, no, no this is how you're going to farm." They may have a good technique for farming, but the cultural issues and the dramatic change would be such that it would be counterproductive. So what we do is we identify the community organizations who are already in the communities. Who already have the relationships. Who are already leaders in the communities. Who have experience with what they're doing, and we help foster growth with them. We help support them. We help expand what they can do....
"I am keenly aware of the fact that I am a guy from California. That despite the fact that I've been [to] the region nine times, and have done a lot of research and know a lot of people down there, that doesn't make me an expert. What makes me smart is that I listen to experts, and most of all I listen to the Congolese."
Affleck also has a few suggestions for how to get involved and help. You can also listen to them by clicking on the above audio link:
- Support and buy products made by the Congolese.
- Become aware of the issues.
- Become a constituency and support politicians who support these issues.
You can find more information and ways to help at easterncongo.org
Note: Listen to Marketplace Morning Report this week and next for more stories about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Marketplace reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, went to Congo for two weeks, and produced stories about the difficulties the country is facing, corruption, war, and the courageous struggle that individuals have to go through to rebuild their lives.