Longtime readers know that I am very cynical about celebrity advocacy in general. My eyes glaze over when I see a link to a story about whichever starlet that John Prendergast is courting to “be a voice for Darfur” or a heartwarming 60 Minutes segment about Madonna becoming one with Malawi’s orphans.
For all the talk about “bringing attention” to “neglected crises,” the vast majority of celebrities who get involved on the African continent do little more than bring attention to themselves while funding small programs here or there that might or might not do anyone any good.
All that’s to say, this next sentence is going to shock some of you: at least one celebrity is getting it right when it comes to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I know. I’m shocked, too. When I heard that Ben Affleck was headed out to Goma and was starting the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), I groaned.
But the more I’m learning about the organization, the more I’m convinced that the ECI is getting it right. Starting with their mission to promote the hadisi, or the stories, of the people of the eastern Congo: “Every person has the capacity to create their own story. ECI supports local organizations, leaders and advocates in eastern Congo that are writing a new story for the region.”
What is the Eastern Congo Initiative doing right?
· Demonstrating a commitment to hiring local leadership. Very few international charities or nongovernmental organizations that talk about community development actually follow through by trusting locals to direct programs, manage budgets and run the show. Kudos to the ECI for a commitment to working differently from the beginning.
· Working with community organizations that have already established a record of solving problems, providing services and making programs work, even with extremely limited resources. This is not a program that involves outsiders coming in and telling communities what to do. Rather, ECI is focused on supporting organizations that have a proven record of leading development in their own communities.
· Not trying to reinvent the wheel. By working with existing organizations, unnecessary duplication of programs can be prevented. Best practices developed in Congolese communities can be expanded and transferred to other communities. Local expertise developed through the long years of the wars and the transition can be drawn upon.
· Being program-driven rather than personality-driven. Yes, the celebrity founder’s name is on the website. But the website isn’t all about the celebrity. Instead, the focus is on community empowerment in five areas: support for victims of sexual violence, support for vulnerable children, community-based peace and reconciliation, improved health care access, and economic opportunity promotion. That there are more pictures and stories on the website of Congolese leaders helping affected populations than of Affleck’s trips there is a good sign that the ECI isn’t going to be all about self-promotion. And that is a good thing.
I’m looking forward to watching what happens as the ECI names a country director and begins funding programs that work.
Every single time I’m in the region, I meet remarkable people who are doing amazing work to rebuild their communities without any outside support. If the ECI can use Affleck’s celebrity to raise funds and provide support to those community leaders in a way that empowers and builds up the eastern Congo while helping support the tremendous potential that exists in the region, I’m all for it.
Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column first appeared on her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.