Senegalese education activist Amy Sarr Fall interviews actor/director Ben Affleck and businesswoman Whitney Williams about how the Eastern Congo Initiative, which they founded, has changed lives — including their own.
More than 10 years ago, Ben Affleck and Whitney Williams met on an airport tarmac in Tanzania. It was Affleck’s first trip to Africa. Williams was directing his learning tour. The goal was for the actor / director to learn about the causes and consequences of extreme poverty.
But the pair’s discussions with African leaders and ordinary Africans across Kenya and Tanzania kept taking the same detour to a different geography — Congo. At the time, Darfur was the poster child for needless death and suffering in Africa. Meanwhile, Congo was nearly invisible in the U.S. media. And yet, when comparing the death tolls between the two countries — 300,000 dead in Darfur to (by some estimates) Congo’s more than five million dead — the lack of attention paid to the latter made little sense.
It occurred to Affleck that Congo seemed to be an overlooked opportunity to change history — if not change lives — and he decided to shift his attention there. After several trips, the pair charted a two-pronged path forward: advocate for the interests of ordinary Congolese, while supporting community-based organizations, led by Congolese people serving Congolese people’s most urgent needs.
Schools, water, sanitation, health care, access to justice — they were all being delivered by scrappy organizations with very little resources who made things work because they knew their communities best.
Over the next 10 years, Affleck and Williams awarded more than US$ 10m in small direct grants, mostly to organizations that, like Congo’s war, have not gotten the attention they deserve. Schools, legal aid services, entrepreneurship programs, support for farmers, especially organizations that serve women, are a focus. One of the few stars among their grantees is Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and Pentecostal pastor who founded and works in a hospital in eastern Congo and specializes in healing and repairing women, girls, and infants who have been raped.
Meeting, investing in, and empowering these homegrown Congolese champions has helped change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Congolese as well as these two American philanthropists. We sat down with Affleck and Williams to learn how.
Ben Affleck: I wish I could tell you I had that sort of “aha!” moment. If I was writing a movie, I would add that moment where the character would have a revelation. In truth, it was more of an internal process. I felt I wasn’t contributing enough to the world.
I grew up in a very modest working-class family with a single mother who was a teacher and a dedicated social activist who always gave my brother and I some sense of social responsibility.
When I became successful, I started to become aware of my own responsibility in terms of trying to participate in making the world a better place. I was looking to contribute to the world in a way that would be both meaningful and authentic, and where I was really needed. However, I was a bit self-conscious of not knowing enough, not wanting to show up and be someone from the West and say this is what should happen in Africa, without knowing enough about the continent. So, I decided to educate myself on what was really happening. I took a trip to talk to people living and working there.
It was important for me to approach this with humility. Not understanding and needing to learn. I was very mindful of not wanting to be presumptuous — maybe I didn’t have anything to offer. So, I asked Whitney to put together a series of trips to learn more. We went to Kenya, Kinshasa, eastern Congo, Rwanda, the Republic of the Congo, north and south Sudan, and Uganda. We tried to do in-depth learning trips meeting with NGOs, philanthropists, survivors, people on the ground, to find out what are the best ways to make things better.
We ultimately both arrived at the same conclusion: that the groups, the organizations who were the most effective in terms of changing people’s lives, were community-based organizations of Congolese people who were working hard and dedicated to making their own lives and their own communities better. They had a much deeper, richer understanding, obviously, of how their communities function. These organizations were a paradox: they were the most effective yet least funded, least supported. So, I figured we could help by supporting them, especially organizations working with women because of the level of gender-based violence.
Ben Affleck: We definitely recognize the importance that women in particular play in these communities. We want to support that and foster that. Women were suffering tremendously, and we knew that when you help women, you help families and communities. We spoke to Dr. Mukwege who was doing fistula surgeries all day long. It was a horrible sexual violence crisis that was really galvanizing and moving to us.
The impact we’ve supported includes this female-led radio station, which was going far out in the bush and interviewing other women on tape recorders and getting their stories. We also worked with DFJ (La Dynamique des Femmes Juristes), who were working to achieve justice for survivors of gender-based violence. We have, since then, helped over 2,000 victims of sexual assault find justice through the court systems. All of the research we saw indicated that where women were more empowered and prosperous, society was more prosperous. That relationship was quite clear to us.
Whitney Williams: Ben and I have always had a shared vision, including this idea of being advocates. Over the past 10 years, we’ve put US$ 10m in small direct grants to local, mostly women-led and women-focused organizations. We have never wanted to build a big organization ourselves, rather giving direct help to the Congolese.
For example, we found farmer cooperatives in the Kivus who were doing great work producing cocoa and coffee and who really only need capacity-building support to up their game a little bit, so that their really beautiful product could be sold across international markets. Ben came to Seattle to meet with the then Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, and said, “Hey, here is some great coffee. You guys have never bought from Congo before. How about giving Congolese farmers a shot?” And that’s how Starbucks came to Congo. We went on a trip with them, connected them with the cooperatives we had been working with. And now Starbucks buys coffee from the Kivus. And the best part, we actually do not need to be involved in that anymore because farmers are directly connected to this international market now. That really is the ultimate success, right? To put yourself out of business — it should be the goal for all of us.
The work that we do to support farmers is really about supporting women. Because the majority of small farmers on the planet are women. We know when you put money in the hands of women, they spend it on their families, on their kids.
Whitney Williams: I encourage social investors and anyone pursuing philanthropy to trust local people to do the job. They know best, and will always understand local needs, challenges and solutions better than the rest of us.
And partner with great people and let them run the organizations. Our fundamental philosophy is trusting and applying local solutions and we hope others will do the same.
Ben Affleck: There is no question in my mind that I get much more benefit personally, emotionally, and psychologically, from my involvement with ECI than ECI gets from me. My life has been enriched by exposing myself to the lives and experiences of others. There is something about being in the field that strips away pretenses. You recognize, all of a sudden, your common humanity. That sort of compels you to act and recognize the urgency and necessity to act in a respectful way.
So I make time for it. The work that we do with ECI means a lot to me, and on a personal level, it helps me to grow as a person. Human beings feel good when we are in a genuinely respectful partnership with others, when we forge connections, and when we recognize one another’s basic and essential humanity. It’s humbling, empowering, and enriching. I am grateful for this experience.
Ben Affleck: We will continue our mission. We will continue developing trust with our partners in Congo, including Asili, which is a social enterprise in-line with our business-based, private sector–based, profitability oriented model.
The model is you get an initial investment from a philanthropist that invests in an infrastructure, for example the health clinics or water system. And then these health clinics and the water systems charge fees that people can afford. For the 5% to 10% of people who can’t pay for the service (in this case health care or water), there is a third-party, subsidized payer system. So, the services are offered to all. We find that the people in the community are very responsive in helping create those lists of people who can’t afford the service and need the subsidy.
What we loved was the dignity of being a customer, the pride, the expectation. It is a very different relationship than a traditional philanthropic relationship. As a customer you have a set of expectations and it is the responsibility of the company to meet those expectations.
What makes this a powerful model is that the health care is going to be paid for by the people who receive it and it’s going to be able to continue in perpetuity, long after we are all gone. This is going to be a Congolese hospital, health clinic paid for by them.
Even in communities with extreme poverty, you can find ways of creating sustainable businesses that fit the economy and people’s needs. That’s the way you empower the economy. We basically just want to be the catalyst for that, for the communities and hopefully for other philanthropic organizations to look at that and say this model works, it’s a success story. We see Africa differently, we see investment differently, and it is a real honor for me to be a part of a model that is empowering Congolese to
improve their own communities.
La Dynamique des Femmes Juristes facilitates women’s access to justice in and out of the courtroom. It strengthens women’s leadership skills and knowledge of their rights so that women can promote, protect, and defend their own rights.
“Per year, we refer between 500 to 600 rapes and sexual assaults to court,” says Claudine Tsongo a lawyer who coordinates La Dynamique des Femmes Juristes. “There is not a single day without a case being reported. ... Previously, access to justice was our priority. But with ECI funding we have expanded to promote women’s leadership and economic empowerment.
“We are all legal professionals, but we had neither the knowledge for project management, nor the evaluation and programmatic tools. We go to court to defend the rights of vulnerable women. But thanks to the tools that ECI made available to us, we were able to design projects with visible impact.”
Un Jour Nouveau (A New Day) supports entrepreneurship through social enterprise initiatives, training, business incubators, and education.
“At the start of the pandemic, our dressmaking social enterprise noticed that clients weren’t interested in buying clothes because of the COVID-19 crisis, so we pivoted to making fabric masks. Individuals, businesses, and organizations quickly came to us to stock up. Then we won a contract to make 50,000 masks,” says Claudine Nshokano who leads the program that turned US$ 500 in fabric into US$ 50,000 in mask sales. “We hired 50 dressmakers, 47 women and three men, to work tirelessly in order to produce an order of that size. And if all goes well, we will deliver another order of 50,000 right after completing this first order. With the proceeds from the mask sales we invested in our program and paid a salary to the tailors to help them escape poverty … it helps the women in precarious economic situations — military widows, combat veterans, women living with HIV — who do the work.”
Asili, ECI’s social enterprise, uses market-based approaches to improve health through self-sustaining businesses and services including health clinics, clean water distribution systems, and agricultural cooperatives.
“I was drawn to Asili’s services because they meet the basic needs of the communities. Water supply, health and agriculture are the primary needs of human life,” says Salomé Byenda, who leads social marketing and community engagement for Asili in Bukavu and is known affectionately as “Mama Salomé.” “Every day, I do social marketing in households (door to door), in associations, in churches, in schools, in the market (with megaphone), in neighborhoods and streets. The aim is to educate people about the quality and affordability of Asili services in order to increase the number of users of these services. I also teach the correct way of washing hands in schools, in the streets, on the football field, in churches, in households, in order to prevent children, especially, from contracting diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, COVID-19, and diarrhea … I felt happy working for Asili when I noticed that the cholera rate in the Kabare area has dropped significantly as a result of drinking water from Asili.”