Ben Affleck Testifies About the Congo on Capitol Hill
Defying the taunts of the right-wing blogosphere, Ben Affleck appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and offered a compelling case for America's continued interest in the war-torn Congo.
"I am, to state the obvious, not a Congo expert," said Affleck, who was ridiculed widely on the Internet for being asked to appear on a panel of Congolese experts testifying on the situation in the African nation, where more than five million people have been killed in fighting since 1997. "I am an American working to do my part for a country and a people I believe in and care deeply about."
Affleck has visited the central African country nine times since 2007, when he took his first trip to the Congo with the International Medical Corps. Four years ago, the actor started his advocacy organization, Eastern Congo Initiative, dedicated to helping bring peace and prosperity to the region. Recently Affleck's group teamed up with Theo Chocolate to help farmers in the Watalinga region increase the quality and quantity of their cocoa production. The farmers have more than doubled their output, leading to the partnership with Theo to create two new chocolate bars, now on sale at Whole Foods.
The actor told the senators that while the Congo is a more peaceful place than when he first visited the region 11 years ago, it remains at a crossroads.
"People view the fire as having gone down a little bit," he said. "We are now at that critical juncture that it will be OK. This is the critical moment when things are starting to congeal."
Senator John McCain, known for his tough questioning of panelists, praised Affleck for his dedication to the Congo.
"From time to time we have people who have some celebrity status," McCain said. "You are imminently qualified to give us the benefit of your experience and knowledge."
Later Affleck joked: "I've always considered McCain the real celebrity here."
Others appearing on the panel Wednesday included: Sen. Russell Feingold, the special envoy for the African Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Roger Meece, former US Ambassador to the Congo; and Raymond Gilpin, academic dean of the African Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.
In an interview with the Associated Press before the hearing, Affleck said he takes his involvement in the Congo "extremely seriously."
"Outside my family and my work, this is it," Affleck said. "This is my legacy. This is the thing I will be identified with."
The controversy over Affleck appearing before the senate committee ignited earlier his month when the site Foreign Policy reported that the Seattle-based advisory firm working for Affleck, WilliamsWorks, tried to set up a similar panel discussion in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, but Republicans did not accept.
According to Foreign Policy, it was unclear if Republicans "declined due to scheduling issues or philosophical differences. One GOP aide at the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the meeting would be inappropriate given the wide offering of other experts available to speak on the issue."
The site quoted a source as saying: "People serious about resolving problems -- especially problems related to life and death -- want to have serious conversations with experts and leaders in the field, not celebrities."