Ben Affleck back on Capitol Hill, offers Congo progress report

Ben Affleck back on Capitol Hill, offers Congo progress report
Actor Ben Affleck testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26, 2015, before the Senate State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittee hearing on diplomacy, development and national. security. (Lauren Victoria Burke / AP)

Ben Affleck made his way back to Capitol Hill on Thursday to testify on behalf of Eastern Congo in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Oscar winner, who was joined by wife Jennifer Garner and philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, spoke about his Eastern Congo Initiative in front of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee hearing on diplomacy, development and national security to ask them to allocate some of their budget to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


He last went to Washington in December 2012 to testify in front of the House Armed Services Committee about the "pursuit of durable peace" in the war-torn democratic republic.

The "Gone Girl" star, 42, sped through the written pages in front of him to persuade the committee to make targeted foreign-assistance investments in public-private partnerships to drive economic development programs that would make a lasting impact in Congo.

He also acknowledged Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made several contributions to developing ways to support sustainable agriculture in Africa.

"I'm humbled by this esteemed panel. Thanks for having me follow the greatest and most important philanthropist in the history of the world," Affleck joked. "I'm sure I'm going to come off great."

Affleck's organization is hoping to launch an initative to expand ECI's agricultural work to help an estimated 15,000 farmers improve their production of stategic crops, including coffee and cocoa, and link them to premium markets so they can increase their income, send their children to school and access health care.

He also wants to expand the work to 10,000 more farmers in the next four years to help the 40 million people there who rely on agriculture as a source of income, he said.

"The U.S. leadership played a vital role in the recent yet fragile progress toward peace and stability. To ensure this fragile progress does not come undone, we urge you to join ECI and other groups like Open Society, Humanity United, Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project in calling on the administration to appoint a new special envoy without delay," Affleck said.

The "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" star started his testimony by recognizing Sen. Patrick Leahy, who had a cameo role in another "Batman" film — 2008's "The Dark Knight Rises" — and is an avid fan of the Caped Crusader.

"I would be remiss not to recognize my costar in 'Batman,' " Affleck quipped. "Your role was marginally smaller than mine, but I understand you were quite good. Good morning, sir."

The "Argo" director and star first visited the central African nation in 2006 after reading about the decades-long conflicts there. On Thursday, he offered a case study to Leahy and Sen. Lindsey Graham to show them what achievements U.S. aid has already made and how, with Congo elections happening in the next two years, the U.S. has a "window of opportunity" to move the nation "toward democratic transition."

Affleck cited the worst of Congo's past with "two decades of armed conflict, estimated 5 million deaths due to violence, disease and starvation, 2.7 million who remain displaced today and the appalling level of sexual violence."

"But these statistics tell you nothing about Congo's future or about the extraordinary and resilient people working every day to rebuild their nation. Despite the many challenges, the Congolese people refused to be defined by their country's past and in spite of those who may question the effectiveness of our foreign assistance I can tell you firsthand that U.S. diplomatic and financial investments in Congo are working."

The actor explained that the organization's previous work, with the help of government funding that he was asking for again on Thursday, has helped revitalize Congo's coffee sector and said that it was just "good business."

The father of three used the example of ECI's partnerships and investors that assisted local coffee farmers to "dramatically increase the quality and quantity of their crop and to help maximize farmer profits" over two years in a special cooperative.


"The final puzzle piece was getting this coffee into American homes, so ECI brought in another investor, which was Starbucks," he said, before explaining the coffee giant's latest move.

"Starbucks has already purchased 40 tons [of coffee]; that may not mean a lot for Starbucks, but it's a heck of a lot in Eastern Congo, I assure you," he said. "It's the entirety of the cooperative's very first export that will be representing millions of cups of coffee that will be sold in the U.S. market."

Affleck said a "relatively modest investment" like that allowed farmers' incomes to more than triple.

He then called on the senators to "make smart and effective financial and diplomatic investments" to "foster the next generation of Congolese entrepreneurs and leaders" to be a model for the region and continent.

At the end of his remarks, Graham said, "Jennifer and Violet are very proud. Very well done."

Follow me on Twitter @NardineSaad.