On the Radar
Ben Affleck certainly isn’t the first celebrity to advocate for a good cause, but the Hollywood actor and director has managed to maintain an uncommon level of credibility and expertise on the two-decades-long conflict in the Congo that has resulted in the deaths of more than 5 million people.
Affleck, who has founded an advocacy and development organization for Eastern Congo and has traveled to the region extensively, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and sat down with “On the Radar” to make his case for why the United States should invest greater resources to solving the conflict.
“This is who we are as Americans,” Affleck said. “We believe in helping others who are down, who are suffering. … We've been involved in several conflicts overseas, conflicts that may have sapped some of our will, and we've become, perhaps, a bit disillusioned with engaging overseas, but I don't think that we should give up on our core values.”
Affleck founded his Eastern Congo Initiative in 2010 after, he said, he had done extensive research on the conflict and was moved to take action upon encountering what he described as a spirit of perseverance and determination among the Congolese people.
“I probably subscribed at some level to that stereotype of Africans just sort of lying around and waiting for aid and wasting money on aid, and that couldn't have been further from what I saw,” Affleck said. “I saw people that had been through worse things than I'll ever imagine and who are ready to live again.”
Affleck points to the work of renowned Congolese gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege as one of single biggest sources of inspiration for his involvement in the Congo. Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital has treated more than 30,000 women in Congo who have been victims of sexual violence during the ongoing conflict.
“He is really emblematic of what I want to try to assist there, which is the contagion of success -- seeing one person do it, helping others want to contribute, training other doctors,” Affleck said. “That's the kind of electric desire to bring one's self up and to bring others with you and to save your fellow man or woman that really moved me.”
Affleck describes his work in the Congo as his “personal legacy” and said it wasn’t until he gave back to the world in this way that he found a deeper meaning for his life.
“There's this weird paradox where people always say, ‘Well, you're a celebrity, what do you know about this?’ Affleck said. “And until you engage in some issue, people sit down and go, ‘This is all you're doing, just being a celebrity? You're not giving back to anything in the world?”
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, who now serves as the U.S. special envoy to the African Great Lakes region, singled Affleck out as an exceptional celebrity ambassador for the United States, whose stick-to-itiveness should be “a model for the way the United States needs to approach” the Congo.
“Somebody can get interested in this, do it for a few months, get some credit and quit,” Feingold said. “He hasn't done that. He's given it sustained attention, and that's my motto for what the United States is trying to do here. … I think this kind of attitude that you stick with it and show people that you're going to stick with it.”
For more of the interview with Affleck, and to hear why Feingold says celebrity attention is so crucial to issues like the Congo, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Kendall Heath, and Mary Alice Parks contributed to this episode.
Tom Thornton, Richard Norling, Gary Rosenberg, Brian Haefeli, and Mary Quinn assisted in production.