Celebritizing Conflict: How Ben Affleck Sells the Congo to Americans

It’s fairly clear that in the modern age there is a currency to celebrity, or celebrity is a currency, really. I’ve discovered that you can spend it in a lot of ways, or you can squander it. You can be taxed, as well. I really started thinking long and hard about how to use that currency as long as I had it.

—Ben Affleck on his work for Eastern Congo1

From serving as United Nations ambassadors to appearing as spokespersons for major NGO campaigns, global celebrities have become increasingly important in international development assistance. Acting as “aid celebrities,” they are indelibly linked with humanitarian work and public engagement.2 In the policy realm, celebrity endorsement may shift attention, shape decisions, and build or erode key alliances. Meanwhile, the figure of the celebrity offers an enticing lens to refract critical issues of power, influence, and voice within neoliberal north-south relations. This essay, using emerging literature on celebrities in north-south relations, analyzes the celebrity discourses and practices of the professional entertainer Ben Affleck and his engagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to understand how celebrities intersect with and popularize representations of poverty, conflict, and development in Africa.

Ben Affleck is a famous actor and director who initiated his own advocacy and grant-making group, the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), in 2010. Soon after ECI’s founding, the Chronicle of Philanthropy highlighted ECI as “an example of a smart approach.”3 From glowing compliments from then secretary of state Hillary Clinton to invitations to testify in front of the U.S. Congress, Affleck and his organization have been the recipients of much praise. Affleck was even awarded an honorary doctorate from Brown University in 2013 for his “contributions as a humanitarian advocate,” which were notably linked to his “working with and for the people of Eastern Congo.”4 Affleck’s ability to use his celebrity status to quickly become a major player in humanitarian efforts in the DRC raises provocative questions around an emerging hierarchy and evolving norms for celebrity interventions. To what extent do celebrity discourses intersect with or differ from other representations of Africa? How do these celebrity humanitarians perform neoliberal development solutions?

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About Lisa Ann Richey

Lisa Ann Richey is professor of international development studies and director of the Doctoral School of Society and Globalization at Roskilde University in Denmark. She served as founding vice president of the Global South Caucus and advisory board member of the global health section of the International Studies Association (ISA). In 2014 she was appointed by the Danish minister of trade and development to represent the research sector on the Development Policy Advisory Board (Udviklingspolitisk Råd). She is the author of the books Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World, with Stefano Ponte (Minnesota, 2011); Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); co-editor (with Stefano Ponte) of New Actors and Alliances in Development (Routledge, 2014); and editor of Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (Routledge, 2015). Her work focuses on new actors in international aid, citizenship and body politics, and gender and the global south. She leads the Research Network on Celebrity and North-South Relations.

About Alexandra Cosima Budabin

Alexandra Cosima Budabin is adjunct professor and research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton. She holds a Ph.D. in politics from the New School for Social Research. Her work focuses on nonstate actors in human rights, development, humanitarianism, genocide, and conflict. She is a core researcher of the Research Network on Celebrity and North–South Relations.