By Jane Wales
This afternoon at the GPF Conference, we welcomed Ben Affleck for a conversation with Laurene Powell Jobs. The actor, writer, director, activist, and philanthropist premiered a short film he created to show both the tremendous tragedy and the incredible hope and resilience he’s seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The film opened with a Congolese proverb -- “No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come” – that perfectly captured the essence of the film.
At Laurene’s prompting, Ben shared the history of his involvement in the region. After being asked to lend his support for advocacy efforts regarding the crisis in Darfur, he sought to educate himself about the region. He was shocked by the tremendous level of human suffering in the eastern Congo, about which he had not known enough. He spent the next year making multiple trips to the conflict-torn republic learning all that he could about the issues and the actors involved. He jokingly reported that he set out to get a graduate degree in the region without having completed college.
Undaunted by the larger challenges of working in a failed state that have kept other donors away, Ben decided to make the DRC a focus of his philanthropy. He reached out to smart, seasoned philanthropists, such as Howard Buffet, Pam Omidyar, and Cindy McCain, to devise a strategy that combines advocacy with philanthropic investment. In March 2010, Ben founded the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), the first US-based advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on working with and for the people of the eastern Congo. ECI grants directly support innovative Congolese-led community-based organizations that are working to create a vibrant, sustainable civil society in the long-troubled region.
A thoughtful, informed and committed philanthropist, Ben made a persuasive case. When asked how the lessons he has learned might inform the work of the many donors in the room, he spoke of the lack of shared learnings in philanthropy as one of its greatest failings. “It’s almost inexcusable,” he said. We must do better at transferring knowledge so that each does not have to reinvent the wheel. Convenings like the GPF and constant building of our learning networks are crucial for advancing philanthropic practice.
To conclude, Ben introduced the musical group Maisha Soul, four brothers from the DRC ranging in age 13 to 22. Prince, Eric, Achilles and Innocent chose music – a combination of R&B, blues, hip hop and traditional song – as their means of overcoming the pain in their lives. Their moving performance embodied the hope and promise of the youth of the DRC, and the future they will usher in for their country.