Celebritizing Conflict: How Ben Affleck Sells the Congo to Americans
Alexandra Cosima Budabin, PhD, Research Fellow, Human Rights Center, University of Dayton and Lisa Ann Richey, Professor, Roskilde University. Department of Society and Globalisation.
With the growing presence of celebrities signaling their new status as salient actors, there is a need to better understand how celebrity-led NGOs operate in development. Beyond raising awareness and increasing funding, can celebrities exert influence across contexts located in the Global North and South? This project will offer a treatment of Hollywood actor/director Ben Affleck’s celebrity humanitarianism across the US and Congolese contexts. With the founding of the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) in 2010, Affleck entered the field of celebrity humanitarianism to spur social and economic development. ECI’s objectives are split between the US and DRC: advocacy in the North and grantmaking in the South. These contexts offer contrasting opportunities and constraints for celebrity interventions. In the North, Affleck raises funds from elite circles and lobbies political spheres in the US to shape foreign aid practices. In the South, ECI distributes grants to local partners, with a focus on civil society. This partly reflects the ECI’s negative assessment of the capacity for governance in a dysfunctional Congo. Examining the contexts for ECI and Affleck’s engagement enables us to pose provocative questions around celebrity interventions: How do celebrities function in different settings in the North and South?
In thinking about celebrities as new actors in development, we argue that this case demonstrates the strategic logic behind straddling contexts in both North and South in order to build credibility for a celebrity actor within elite circles. Moroever, a celebrity-led NGO may enjoy additional opportunities in the North but offers less transparency and accountability for development interventions. Overall, a celebrity-led NGO distorts development processes by coalescing elite support, political and financial, for a celebrity figure rather then following a path of public consultation and evaluation. Affleck’s ability to gain greater access and influence in the US context may outweigh the need to delve deeply in the Congolese context—but with what consequences?