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Abstract

Global celebrities are increasingly important in human rights—promoting causes, raising awareness, and interacting with decision-makers—as communicators to mass and elite audiences. Deepening the literature on transnational advocacy and North-South relations, this article argues that celebrities shape human rights narratives by selecting issues and interacting with dominant framings. This hypothesis is tested through a discourse analysis of professional entertainer Ben Affleck’s spoken and written texts along with organizational materials covering the establishment of the Eastern Congo Initiative. The study explains how celebrities’ ability to contend with narratives reflects elite practices in human rights advocacy.
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Advocacy Narratives and Celebrity Engagement: the Case of Ben Affleck in Congo
Alexandra Cosima Budabin* & Lisa Ann Richey**
Citation info: Budabin, Alexandra Cosima & Richey, Lisa Ann. "Advocacy Narratives and
Celebrity Engagement: The Case of Ben Affleck in Congo." Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 40
no. 2, 2018, pp. 260-286. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hrq.2018.0015
Abstract
Global celebrities are increasingly important in human rights—promoting causes, raising
awareness, and interacting with decision-makers—as communicators to mass and elite
audiences. Deepening the literature on transnational advocacy and North-South relations, this
article argues that celebrities shape human rights narratives by selecting issues and interacting
with dominant framings. This hypothesis is tested through a discourse analysis of professional
entertainer Ben Affleck’s spoken and written texts along with organizational materials covering
the establishment of the Eastern Congo Initiative. The study explains how celebrities’ ability to
contend with narratives reflects elite practices in human rights advocacy.
I. Introduction
Global celebrities have become increasingly important in human rights advocacy: promoting
causes, gathering resources, interacting with decision-makers, and even creating their own
organizations.1 Celebrities are critical human rights messengers: using discourse in event
appearances, documentaries, and social media communications.2 This article argues that
celebrities shape narratives by selecting issues and interacting with dominant framings. Using the
case of actor and director Ben Affleck’s engagement with the Democratic Republic of Congo
(Congo), the study explains how the ability of celebrities to contend with narratives reflects elite
practices that offer both opportunities and risks for human rights advocacy.
The impact of celebrities in transnational advocacy has been assessed in terms of their
ability to raise public awareness by bridging audiences to distant causes, complement the work
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of NGOs and civil society, and develop new models of visionary leadership.3 To date, there has
been little consideration of how celebrities are able to position themselves to contend with
human rights narratives. This article links the literature on human rights advocacy with the
emerging work on celebrity humanitarianism in North-South relations to interrogate Affleck’s
efforts on behalf of Congo. In 2010, Affleck established “The Eastern Congo Initiative” (ECI) to
promote economic and social development through grant support for local initiatives and high-
level advocacy in Washington, DC. In its short lifespan, Affleck and ECI have received
extensive attention and praise in comparison to other celebrities and NGOs addressing Congo.
While scholars who study celebrity engagement with human rights, international development,
and humanitarian causes have generally deemed such interventions ineffective,4 Affleck’s efforts
and the two-pronged approach of his organization are worthy of study as they may offer a
challenge to such criticisms. At the same time, this analysis of Affleck’s ability to contend with
human rights narratives will lead to a better understanding of how the increasing conspicuity and
influence of celebrities is related to elite practices in human rights advocacy.
This case raises provocative questions around a celebrity’s engagement in human rights
advocacy as an elite actor. First, in taking up Congo, Affleck chose to create an organization
around a less popular issue within advocacy circles. This decision, however, reflected a set of
factors that differ from what scholars have come to see as relevant in issue selection processes.5
Rather than considering issue resonance or availability of resources, Affleck enlisted a strategic
consulting firm to guide his decision, fundraised among philanthropic networks, and secured
himself access to policy-makers. Second, in his lobbying and media appearances, Affleck
presents his vision for “solving” the crisis, thus contending with human rights frames on Congo.
Here, Affleck’s advocacy activities seek to influence policy towards a country that has been the
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site of multiple interventions deemed, at times, misguided and ineffective.6 Advocacy and
policies on Congo, as Severine Autesserre describes, have typically been driven by frames that
are myopic in scope: coalescing around a primary (and singular) cause, consequence, and
solution.7 Third, it might have been expected that a celebrity would adopt the single “Congo”
narrative prevalent in global discourses for raising awareness and justifying interventions; but,
Affleck departs from this assumption to some degree. Overall, Affleck’s access to elites and
reinforcement of dominant frames lay bare many of the fundamental mechanisms of human
rights advocacy, in particular, the reliance on elite networks.8 Yet, this article also demonstrates
how Affleck, as an elite actor, has some latitude to select less popular issues and construct
alternate framings in ways that challenge prevailing assessments of celebrity interventions as
superficial. A celebrity backed by an organizational apparatus possesses the increased potential
for imparting both material consequences and representational impressions of human rights,
development, and conflict in Africa.
This article examines the human rights advocacy of Affleck and ECI through a
systematic discourse analysis to uncover how a celebrity founder established his organization
and communicated its mission, policies, and programs. Data studied include available texts
tracking Affleck’s initial encounters with Congo (2008-2009) and ECI’s first years of operation
(2010-2012) along with organizational materials. The study was limited to these years to allow
for a comprehensive review of the discourses and because they characterize the time period when
Affleck’s decision to focus on Congo was made and his vision presented to the media, public,
and political circles through congressional hearings. A LexisNexus search collected all
references to Affleck and Congo from January 2008 to December 2012; this data was
supplemented by a review of Google news and ECI’s press pages. Primary consideration was
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given to Affleck’s public writing and speaking: opinion pieces in popular newspapers, speeches,
press releases, and quotes cited in the media. Also included are references to this period that have
appeared in more recent coverage.
The article proceeds as follows. Part II introduces scholarship around celebrities in
human rights and presents theoretical approaches to studying issue selection, narrative frames of
advocacy organizations, and dominant narratives on Congo. Part III explores Affleck’s human
rights engagement, the factors underlying the issue selection process for his organization, and his
entry into the high-level policy circles dealing with Congo. Part IV shows how Affleck and ECI
tend to reinforce the singular narrative on Congo, but with some modest deviations that reflect
both Affleck’s experiences and ECI’s two-pronged strategy of advocacy and local engagement.
Theoretically, this case helps to explain how celebrities are able to shape human rights narratives
by selecting less popular issues and posing alternate framings; but, the article also suggests that
there are heightened risks for the increasing entrenchment of elite practices where celebrity
interventions amplify some perspectives and mute others.
Within the existing literature on human rights advocacy, the crisis situation in Congo has
been considered a paradox. Despite rich stores of natural resources and minerals, Congo is one of
the least developed countries in the world, and its status has worsened over the course of the past
decade, dropping from 167 in the 2006 UNDP Human Development Report to 176 in the 2016
Report.9 Characterized by mass atrocities, the cycle of violence in the Great Lakes region has
killed an estimated 5.4 million people between 1998 and 2007.10 Contemporary interventions in
Congo include humanitarian, development and peace-building initiatives; the United Nation’s
largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation has been in the country since 2003 and
helped organize democratic elections in 2006.11 But, peace talks and this extensive international
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intervention have failed to quell the violence, address the humanitarian crisis, and return the rule
of law.12 Meanwhile, within the world of US advocacy, public imagination, and media, Congo
possesses a strange notoriety as the “stealth conflict”13 or “forgotten crisis”14 compared to
situations in Darfur, South Africa, and Uganda. This article does not seek to assess the accuracy
of Affleck’s narrative nor its ultimate impact on Congo, but rather to evaluate his role in human
rights advocacy in shaping public awareness and US foreign policy.
II. Theoretical Approaches and Concepts
This article develops an interdisciplinary framework for analyzing discourse to situate celebrity
engagement in human rights advocacy by examining a celebrity’s role in issue selection and
narrative building. This framework is constructed from three literatures: (1) the emerging
literature on celebrities in North-South relations that studies new actors and alliances,15 from
media and communication studies to development and global studies; (2) the literature on issue
selection in advocacy organizations, drawing on political science and sociology; and (3) the
interdisciplinary literature on narrative analysis, from social movement and international studies.
A. Celebrity Humanitarians and Transnational Advocacy
Affleck’s entry into grant-making and high-level advocacy around Congo is the latest incarnation
of what scholars have called celebrity humanitarianism.16 This literature examines the
burgeoning industry for celebrities who have become important “messengers” for various causes,
deepening links between Northern publics and the Global South.17 Human rights organizations
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along with humanitarian agencies and charities have come to rely on celebrity figures; the
website Look to the Stars lists over two thousand charities with celebrity supporters.18
Today’s celebrities also enjoy high-level political access in both national contexts and
global policy-making venues such as the UN, the White House, 10 Downing Street, and Davos.
In these settings, a celebrity “seeks to influence the exercise of political power by way of their
fame and status.”19 As communicators, celebrities are able to “speak truths to power,” as Alison
Brysk asserts, by possessing “a special ability to gain attention, shape discourse, and articulate
human rights claims.”20 That celebrities appeal to multiple audiences is critical here; Andrew
Cooper observes how celebrities “have the power to frame issues in a manner that attracts
visibility and new channels of communication at the mass as well as the elite levels,”21 along
with the potential to act as ideational figures that can “expand on their status and sell ideas.”22
Thus, well-situated celebrities who capture the spotlight on an issue may possess the potential to
shape the policy agenda around human rights.
For communications scholars, celebrities have become ascendant at an especially tense
moment for the representation of distant causes. Lilie Chouliaraki maintains that with
contemporary humanitarianism under pressure from economic, political, and technological
transformations, solidarity has become “a problem of communication” that necessitates celebrity
performances to represent distant “others.”23 Human rights campaigns have clearly benefited
from celebrity attention. Yet, the influence of celebrities is often dismissed for their perceived
lack of “credibility, persuasion, local support, or policy expertise.”24 Africa, in particular, has
been the backdrop to many celebrity junkets and performances. Rita Abrahamsen argues this is
due to the increasing importance of affect in presenting Africa: “The celebrity is a different kind
of expert, whose knowledge is not derived from numbers, deduction, or semi-structured
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interviews, but from ‘feeling the pain’ of the poor and from offering an emotional connection to
the subjects of development.”25 With this emphasis on feelings, celebrities have supplanted more
traditional experts in mediating the public’s relationship with the complexity of Africa.
In terms of what celebrities signal about shifting political dynamics, their increased
visibility and access reflect elite practices embedded within human rights, development, and
humanitarianism. Moreover, while recent research suggests that celebrities do not, in fact, sustain
media coverage for advocacy26 and do not engage effectively with much of the “mass” public,27
these paradoxes do not stop NGOs and decision-makers from investing time and energy
cultivating celebrities. Ilan Kapoor criticizes the celebrity humanitarian performance of bridging
Northern publics to issues in the Global South for its purported “a-political” charitable
approach.28 The authors of this article have argued that celebrities benefit from an elite politics in
which “they offer all of the opportunities of resources, both financial and attention—and all the
pitfalls of undemocratic agenda setting.”29 These elite politics and celebrity humanitarian
performances underpin the trend of establishing celebrity organizations; along with Affleck,
other entertainers like Madonna and Sean Penn have established development NGOs in Malawi
and Haiti.30 Nonetheless, such organizational commitments may also challenge assumptions
around a celebrity’s lack of local support and policy expertise. An analysis of Affleck’s
organization and his advocacy narratives will deepen the literature on celebrity humanitarianism
by revealing how celebrities engage with human rights advocacy through elite practices that
present both opportunities and risks.
B. Explaining Issue Selection and Non-Selection
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A study of Affleck’s establishment of Eastern Congo Initiative extends research on how certain
issues come to dominate the human rights agenda. This work recognizes that not all, nor even the
most grievous, violations are prioritized in transnational advocacy. In their seminal text,
Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink posit that an issue must possess a causal chain that is
“sufficiently short and clear to make the case convincing” to be worthy of a transnational
campaign.31 They find that certain victim groups and types of human rights violations resonate
more than others; effective representations tend to concern “(1) issues involving bodily harm to
vulnerable individuals . . . and (2) legal equality of opportunity”32 or victim groups composed of
women and children rather than males.33 Clifford Bob shows how the landscape of human rights
causes has its own political economy: victim groups in the South must “market” their causes to
“gatekeeper” organizations to gain recognition, support, and resources in Northern spheres.34
Turning towards endogenous factors to explain issue selection, Charli Carpenter deepens
this work by examining advocacy networks to distinguish other relevant factors salient in
decision-making processes: broader context, issue attributes, entrepreneur attributes, adopter
attributes, and intranetwork relations.35 In the case of the Human Security Network, for example,
Carpenter finds that intranetwork relations matter for issue selection in authoritatively shaping
perceptions of issues and actors in making decisions.36 Throughout, Carpenter underscores the
role of global advocacy elites, the “gatekeepers,” who not only set the agenda but also “vet”
issues.37 Jonathan Coley builds on Carpenter’s work to explain why advocacy organizations paid
less attention to Congo than Darfur.38 Blending insights from the social movements literature, he
focuses on political opportunities, issue framing, and organizational resources. Coley argues that
Congo failed to get on the agenda due to issue attributes, organizations’ perceptions of the
framing valence of genocide, a more favorable political context stemming from the status of
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Sudan in the “war on terror,” and the organizational resources having been already committed to
Sudan as part of earlier campaigns.39 These investigations show that, despite differences in
severity of the human rights violations, issue selection reflects internal and external forces that
are mediated by advocacy elites and reflect their preferences.
Analyzing the case of Affleck and ECI expands the issue selection work by posing a
celebrity as part of the advocacy elite, who operates with certain privileges. Indeed, celebrities
not only engage with other advocacy elites in decision-making processes but also act as
gatekeepers themselves in choosing pet causes, and thus, reinforce power imbalances in the
world of human rights advocacy. Critically, Affleck aimed to create a new organization, rather
than attempting to draw the attention of an existing advocacy network towards a new issue area.
Following Carpenter and Coley, this study will use a discourse analysis to detect the main factors
driving Affleck’s issue selection to explain how a celebrity had the capacity to adopt a seemingly
“non-issue”: the “invisible conflict” in Congo. As celebrities become more prominent, the notion
that celebrities can serve as “gatekeepers” and influence how time and resources are allocated
will have consequences for human rights advocacy.
C. Constructing Advocacy Narratives
The importance of narratives in human rights advocacy has been established in the literature as
another way to think about the discursive power of issue frames. Presented by legal
commissions, NGOs, humanitarian agencies, and the media, human rights discourses are
recognized by political scientists for playing a key role in challenging sovereignty, suggesting a
kind of “new rhetoric of justification for intervention on behalf of the weak and powerless.”40 As
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discursive devices, narratives turn issues into problems and establish responsibility41; on
empirical and moral levels, the causal stories must “move situations intellectually from the realm
of fate to the realm of human agency.”42 A narrative also includes a cast of characters. As Makau
Mutua argues, the actors in human rights causes are reduced to categories of savages, victims,
and saviors.43 Social movement scholars observe that an emotional connection to one of these
characters is important for audiences;44 in advocacy directed to Northern publics on behalf of
distant causes, audiences want to identify as the potential savior.
Though the significance of using narrative frames to capture attention for human rights
campaigns has been well established, more consideration is now being paid to the consequences
of heightened visibility that is gained through simplification. Reducing human rights causes for
pithy presentation to popular audiences risks producing adverse outcomes if the narrative
manages to undergird policy-making. This is because, while various narratives circulate,
transnational advocacy may coalesce around a “singular narrative” structure to meet
organizational needs and messaging purposes.45 This, in turn, could limit responses, as Roxanne
Doty argues, since representations are responsible for “constituting particular interpretive
dispositions that create certain possibilities and preclude others.”46 Human rights narratives that
do gain traction become global discourses for justifying actions and inactions by governments
and institutions such as the UN Security Council.47 Recent work has revealed the paradox that
heightened awareness, garnered by transnational activism, drove ill-fated responses to
humanitarian and conflict situations in Uganda, Burma, and Guatemala among others .48 This
relationship between single narratives and action is invoked to explain why those issues and
victim groups receiving advocacy attention and media coverage may not see positive gains
simply because they are the subjects of campaigns.
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Through narrative analysis, scholars have sought to understand how robust interventions
have fallen short in Congo. While neglected for the most part by advocacy circles, media, and
the popular public, Congo has actually received outsized attention from other institutional
players, like the UN. However, the country has long suffered from colonialist and imperialist
“imaginings” that downplay Western responsibility, sustain myths about Congo’s “new
barbarism”, and privilege “Western definitions of state, sovereignty, and security.”49 Based on
the stabilization plan conceived by the Congolese government and UN, dominant discourses
propose to strengthen the security sector, restore state authority in Congo, and support social and
economic development.50 Significant resources and the work of numerous foreign interveners are
thus being expended to advance peace-building efforts in the country and assume various public
functions.
The work of Autesserre, a scholar who has been involved in local-level research in
Congo since 2001, is at the forefront of investigations into how narratives have shaped the
actions of foreign intervenors.51 She is not alone in arguing that peace building and democracy
initiatives in Congo, with their focus on aid and state reform and neglect of Rwanda, have at
times done more harm than good.52 In Autesserre’s analysis, the current intervention narratives
adopted by numerous actors concentrate on a, “primary cause of the violence, the illegal
exploitation of natural resources; a main consequence, sexual abuse against women and girls;
and a central solution, reconstructing state authority.”53 Advocacy organizations that appeal to
mass and elite audiences, such as Enough Project, have come under harsh scrutiny for
reinforcing flawed understandings by focusing attention on the purported relationship between
conflict minerals and sexual violence.54 Without dismissing the positive contributions made by
foreign interveners, Autessere demonstrates how the simple narratives dominating the Congo
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discourse have led to a series of detrimental outcomes.55 These discursive limitations in framing
“the problem with Congo,” Autesserre claims, render interventions inadequate for addressing the
country’s challenges.56
Combining understandings from the issue selection literature with discourse analysis will
yield critical insights into how a celebrity decides which human rights claim to support and
which narrative to adopt, and also when it is possible to pose an alternative discursive frame.
Human rights organizations are key vehicles for both “making and shaping” popular opinion
about human rights abuses, both domestically and globally.57 When celebrities found such
organizations, a new player with the potential for influence is added to the mix. Importantly, a
celebrity’s ability to shape and promote narratives speaks to his or her authority in the human
rights landscape. As Annick Wibben argues, “narratives, as such, are sites of the exercise of
power; through narratives, we not only investigate but also invent an order for the world.”58
Alternate narratives that circulate may rarely be heard in ways or contexts that effectively
challenge dominant frames. Nevertheless, when a celebrity chooses to step into the fray, in
Affleck’s case to focus on Congo, their discourses and narrative constructions will present new
opportunities for alternate narratives, along with risks that the heightened attention may produce
negative outcomes. The next section discusses how Affleck is able to position himself to
establish an organization, gain access to decision-makers and contend with human rights
narratives on Congo.
III. Celebrity Humanitarians and Issue Selection
This section examines first Affleck’s evolution as a celebrity humanitarian and then parses his
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decision to launch an organization focused on Congo. The ECI website, research pieces, and
Affleck’s spoken and written discourses provide the key texts through which to explore how
Affleck created ECI and interfaced with existing human rights narratives on Congo as a crisis in
need of global attention.
A. Affleck Builds an Advocacy Organization
Since 2006, Ben Affleck’s name and A-list celebrity cachè has been linked to over twenty-six
charities and twenty-nine causes including Feeding America, Robin Hood, UNHCR, and Vital
Voices.59 However, in 2008, Affleck began to publicly doubt whether fundraising for issues was
sufficient, even going so far as to criticize the charity work of NGOs for contributing to what has
become well documented as “compassion fatigue.”60 Showing sensitivity to misrepresentations,
Affleck questioned the practice of relying on images of an Africa “full of misery and awfulness,”
as he put it.61 Affleck’s public reckoning with the challenges of humanitarianism and human
rights advocacy reflected a behind-the-scenes process of engagement in Africa that had, in fact,
begun years earlier.
The decision to get involved stemmed from a personal desire to make a deeper impact, as
Affleck explained, to be able to say “I gave back; here are the footprints I left in the sand.”62 On
the advice of celebrity friends, Affleck hired williamsworks, a Seattle-based strategic advisory
firm whose founder and CEO Whitney Williams has gained a reputation for advising high-
profile donors such as Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton along with other celebrity-led
organizations like Bono’s ONE and Water.org (co-founded by Affleck’s childhood friend Matt
Damon).63 Beginning in 2007, williamsworks began the background research to support Affleck
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in identifying a cause for his own organization.
In 2007, Affleck and Williams made a tour of conflict-affected countries in Africa
including Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Congo. Meetings with academics and experts on
African advocacy supplemented this trip.64 Affleck’s choice of Congo was motivated, at least in
part, by celebrity adoptions of other countries: “I thought a lot of people are advocating on
Darfur. I’d just be a very small log on a big fire. I started getting interested in Congo and I
thought, this is a place where I can have a really big impact.”65 In addition to being without a
conspicuous celebrity ambassador, Congo was low on the public radar despite the severity of the
crisis. Affleck was struck by this lack of attention to violence in the Great Lakes: “[I]t was still
happening . . . . And I didn’t know about it, and almost nobody in America knew about it.”66
Based on the issue selection literature, a discursive reading of available texts
demonstrates that celebrities do not operate under the same constraints as other advocates and
organizations. First, Affleck does not appear to be responding to “issue entrepreneurs” such as
Congolese who have appealed to him to create an organization and lobby on their behalf.
Instead, Affleck is basing his selection on his own experiences and perceptions of the human
rights landscape, guided by expert advisors. Though there were a couple of small US-based
Congo advocacy organizations and campaigns such as Friends of the Congo and Enough
Project’s Raise Hope for Congo, Affleck chose to build his own organization, which would be
focused on the Eastern Region and where he could stamp his own personal brand and vision.
Second, the factor of “issue attributes” is key, but not in reinforcing a popular issue or
network priority. Rather than choosing an issue that had already gained traction, such as the
situation in Darfur,67 Affleck selected the non-issue of Congo, which held a contradictory
notoriety as the “forgotten” and “invisible” conflict. Affleck’s choice met with approval from
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those who saw his decision as embodying a sense of integrity instead of following trends; one
newspaper intoned, “[c]eleb do-goodism often is faddish—ever hear of a star taking up a cause
that’s not already popular?”68 Indeed, evidence suggests that Affleck chose Congo, in part,
because he perceived it as neglected and misunderstood (and because it lacked an obvious
celebrity ambassador). Moreover, he chose to focus on the eastern section of Congo, a region
that was suffering from a precarious political and security situation exacerbated by a thin
government presence and dozens of armed groups that were never fully demobilized.69 Massive
human rights violations in eastern Congo persisted in contrast to the rest of the country where a
fragile peace had taken hold. Thus, rather than respond to the larger network and follow other
organizations in neglecting Congo due to its complexity, Affleck took up the crisis as his
personal cause with a particular focus on a region with urgent needs.
Third, endogenous resources do not appear to be a constraint for a celebrity humanitarian.
Whereas a new actor in human rights advocacy focused on a neglected region might face
challenges in amassing resources and support, Affleck’s organization secured funding to the tune
of millions of dollars in multi-year commitments along with high-level endorsements.70 While
other Congo-related organizations operated with small budgets, Affleck’s organization is the
latest celebrity organization to receive ample resources and early endorsements from elite
political actors.71 Nor would ECI need to wait to gain popular support to test the resonance of its
issue selection; the organization does not depend on small donations to support its mission.
An auspicious set of political opportunities for Congo in Washington, DC may well have
been a factor. As Lauren Seay demonstrates, previous attention had been limited up through the
mid-2000s and extant advocacy campaigns toed the line, promoting a simple narrative on Congo:
in 2008, Enough Project launched its Raise Hope for the Congo campaign to lobby for conflict
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resolution. Meanwhile, an American named Lisa Shannon created Run for Congo Women as part
of increasing activism around sexual violence.72 One year later, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton paid a visit to Goma where she announced a $17 million plan to combat sexual violence
while the Obama Administration ushered in a new chapter of regional diplomacy, providing
billions of dollars in bilateral and multilateral aid as the largest donor to the peacekeeping
force.73
Looking closely at the decision-making process behind Affleck’s adoption of Congo
shows how the celebrity himself acts as the “issue adopter” who unilaterally chooses the cause.
Reflecting elite practices, Affleck selected his own issue, chose to ignore established
organizations, and created Eastern Congo Initiative to focus on a region of a country that had
long been at the margins of advocacy efforts. Diverging from traditional understandings of issue
selection, factors such as entrepreneur attributes, intranetwork relations, and organizational
resources played a lesser role.74 Meanwhile, the political context was favorable for advocacy
around Congo from a new celebrity backed by his own organization. That ECI would be based in
Washington, DC, hints at the ambitions of Affleck to increase attention to Congo and shape
policy in this receptive political environment.
B. Entrance into Policy-Making Spheres
In preparing for his public role, Affleck made nine trips to Congo between 2007 and 2012 during
which he visited refugee and IDP camps, hospitals, and gold mines while meeting with
grassroots organizations and UN officials. In March 2010, Affleck launched the Eastern Congo
Initiative, touted as “the first U.S. based advocacy and grant-making initiative wholly focused on
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working with and for the people of eastern Congo.”75 ECI’s mission encompasses political
objectives that are pursued in the US context and humanitarian programs that are implemented in
eastern Congo. In its humanitarian efforts, ECI re-grants funds to support social and economic
development through partner community-based organizations. According to Autesserre, the fact
that local counterparts were included in ECI management positions in Congo was a “rare
exception” to the preference for expatriate leadership.76 Advocacy efforts would be focused on
positioning Affleck and the organization to influence policy-making in Washington, DC. To this
end, ECI commissioned reports and a White Paper on the political and security situation in
Congo.77 In partnership with USAID, ECI also conducted a Community-Based Organization
Landscape Analysis.78 Seay argues efforts to collate evidence from the field stand in contrast to
the narrative-first approach of other organizations, particularly, in Congo.79 It is clear that
Affleck’s organization distinguished itself with its focus on data collection, expert consultation,
and local engagement.
Despite choosing a neglected issue, Affleck’s stature as an A-list Hollywood star might
have been enough to secure him early traction in Washington, DC but williamsworks contracted
with an international law firm to lobby policy-making circles to promote ECI’s vision and
reports. One year after ECI’s launch, Affleck joined the list of famous celebrity witnesses who
have been invited to testify before Congress.80 Identified as the “Founder of the Eastern Congo
Initiative” (Williams is the co-founder), Affleck appeared before the Subcommittee on Africa,
Global Health, and Human Rights of the US House of Representatives, alongside officials from
the Department of State and USAID, a representative from Catholic Relief Services, John
Prendergast from Enough Project, and Cindy McCain. Representative Adam Smith, Democrat
Representative from Washington, opened the session with special accolades for Affleck and ECI:
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Mr. Affleck and his organization are making a major contribution in focusing
political will on resolving the crises in [Congo] and bringing constructive
recommendations to the table. But just as importantly, he is setting an example for
all of us as to the need to direct whatever resources and influence we may have to
help those who are less fortunate and without a voice to help themselves. And for
his presence, perspective and example, the subcommittee is most appreciative.81
This zealous shout-out by a Congressman to Affleck confirms expertise in providing
“constructive recommendations,” building influence, and speaking on behalf of the Congolese.82
Affleck then gave a summary of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Congo
(MONUSCO) that included all the drama of a local gangster tale. Later, one of the committee
members, Donald M. Payne, Democratic Representative from New Jersey, commented on the
expertise on display:
Mr. Payne: You are pretty up on this stuff. You are very impressive.
Mr. Prendergast: . . . that was indeed a great answer.
Mr. Affleck: Thank you. I paid him to say that.83
Apart from the validations of Affleck’s expertise, various bits of testimony from Prendergast
signaled the high expectations for celebrities to influence policy-making; Prendergast himself
had worked with a variety of celebrities on Darfur and South Sudan. During the congressional
hearing, Prendergast refers numerous times to the effectiveness of Affleck’s celebrity in bringing
Congo into the media and onto the congressional agenda as well as promoting policy solutions.
He concludes with a call for the appointment of a Special Envoy “of stature commensurate to the
urgency of the issue.”84 Prendergast states: “We know President Obama moved on the special
envoy in Sudan because of George Clooney. Maybe he will move it in Congo because of Ben.”85
Affleck’s first appearance on Capitol Hill for a Congo-related panel raised the stakes that his
discourses would not just be disseminated widely but had already influenced policy. Indeed, two
years following these discussions, a new US special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa
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was appointed.
As the founder and leading spokesperson for ECI, Affleck operates as a consummate
celebrity humanitarian: speaking on behalf of Congo for both elite and mass audiences through
op-eds, media appearances, and speeches as well as connecting Northern publics to a cause in the
Global South. It is clear that Affleck sought and secured a platform from which to promote not
only the issue of Congo but also a distinct approach to tackling underdevelopment and conflict.
In creating an organization and becoming knowledgeable on Great Lakes issues through elite
connections, Affleck demonstrated the requisite clout to enter human rights debates on Congo.
That Affleck occasionally used his high visibility status to challenge the dominant narrative on
Congo is demonstrated in the next section.
IV. Celebrity Advocacy Narratives and the Global Discourse on Congo: Cause,
Consequence, and Solution
As discussed earlier, Affleck and his organization Easter Congo Initiative operate within a highly
contested discursive arena for justifying international interventions and supporting local actors in
Congo. Affleck and ECI’s discourses on Congo are read against Autesserre’s analysis detecting
three central narratives that constructed a primary cause of violence (conflict minerals), a main
consequence (sexual abuse of women and girls), and a central solution (reconstructing state
authority). These narratives are explored one by one to reveal adoption or deviation from the
dominant narrative.
A. Primary Cause of Violence: Conflict Minerals
20
Autessere demonstrates how the illegal exploitation of mineral resources is considered to be the
primary source of violence in Congo. Local and foreign-armed groups monopolize access to
minerals, thereby raising funds that enable them to commit further atrocities against local
populations to retain power. This narrative has dominated human rights circles and policy
debates since the late 1990s and has drawn media, advocacy, and research interest. Advocates
coalesce around the clear-cut policy goal of ending the illegal exploitation and market
consumption of these so-called “conflict minerals.”86 However, popular attention to the “conflict
mineral” coltan that is used in electronic devices fails to recognize that gold and tin are the
minerals that amount to over 90 percent of exports.87 A campaign launched in 2009 by Enough
Project that promoted the linkages between phones, “conflict minerals,” and sexual violence did
increase attention to Congo, but with unintended consequences stemming from misperceptions
due to a reliance on dominant frames.88 Competing narratives from think tanks, academics, and
Congolese intellectuals underscore other explanations for the violence: the presence of foreign
armed groups, Rwandan and Ugandan efforts at stamping out these groups, power struggles
among Congolese leaders, land issues, grassroots power struggles, and other economic sources
of conflict (including disputes over cattle, charcoal, timber, drugs, and taxation).89 The
persistence of this dominant narrative has sidelined efforts to address border-spillover, grassroots
conflicts, corruption, and state administration reform.
In contrast to this dominant narrative around conflict minerals, ECI sees the main
challenge plaguing Congo to be the lack of good governance, which impedes the development of
a flourishing civil society. Other obstacles, ECI maintains, include “personal insecurity, poor
health conditions and minimal economic opportunity.”90 An ECI report on security sector
reform, written in partnership with a dozen other organizations, describes “[t]he central cause of .
21
. . suffering [as] continued insecurity.”91 The trade in conflict minerals is mentioned only twice
in the report, in the executive summary and as part of a list of issues related to the absence of an
effective security sector.92 Meanwhile, ECI’s White Paper on strengthening US-Congo policy
urges political elites to move beyond the narrow debate around conflict minerals. In a review of
US congressional legislation, the White Paper notes that while attention is given to various
aspects of the crisis in Congo, including the “destabilizing effect of the conflict minerals
originating in the Congo,” the legislation fails to “address the overall needs of the Congo in a
unified fashion.”93 Here, the White Paper is referring to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and
Consumer Protection Act Section 1502, adopted in July 2010, to curtail the illegal trade of
minerals originating in Congo. ECI’s recommendations include building bipartisan congressional
support to create “a comprehensive strategy that would synthesize the various legislative acts and
hone the foreign policy rhetoric.”94
In Affleck’s media appearances, he makes a rare reference to the illegal exploitation of
resources, in a Washington Post editorial in which he asserts the case that US foreign policy
needs to go beyond conflict minerals. Affleck extolls the bipartisan support reflected in the
passage of the Dodd-Frank and urges Washington to enforce the measures laid out in the Act. He
emphasizes that “[t]o secure the peace, we must continue to support local leaders and trust their
ability to manage their own destiny.”95 He also delineates how the US, with its many interests in
the region, needs to take other specific steps: maintain a State Department office of special
adviser for the Great Lakes region, provide technical assistance and support for elections, and
support Congo’s local efforts to implement reforms. In his congressional appearance, Affleck
mentions conflict minerals just once, reiterating the main ECI recommendations for US foreign
policy.96
22
Overall, Affleck and ECI place greater emphasis on drawing attention to other sources of
violence and instability in Congo including those that link the humanitarian crisis to conditions
of endemic poverty and inequality. This line of thinking reflects ECI’s local knowledge
gathering and country expertise as an organization with a bottom-up approach. Affleck has not
adopted the dominant storyline of other advocacy organizations like Enough Project, choosing
instead to promote alternate explanations for violence and suffering.
B. Main Consequence: Sexual Violence Against Women
The spotlight on rape and sexual torture of women and girls by state security forces in Congo has
placed the issue of sexual violence at the top of the agenda. This dimension of the instability in
Congo began in 2002 and became the dominant narrative, earning media, NGO, and political
attention.97 In 2008, the UN Action appointed a Senior Adviser and Coordinator on Sexual
Violence in Congo. But, Autesserre maintains that the media hype over eastern Congo as “the
rape capital of the world” (coined by Margot Wallstrom, the first UN Special Representative on
Sexual Violence in Conflict) drastically limited the ways in which violence is discussed,
handled, or prevented at different levels from the UN to local hospitals.98 Disturbingly, the
familiarity of sexual abuse is one of the reasons why this narrative resonates in a global context;
coverage has emphasized the victimhood of survivors through certain modes of presentation. As
Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern lament, “[t]he ways in which outsiders have rendered
survivors’ testimonies have frequently been characterized by a pornography of violence.”99
There is also evidence that the issue’s sensationalism has been recognized by combatants who
use rape as a weapon of war to attract attention from international actors.100 Other forms of
23
violence are relegated as sideline issues among other constraining effects of this simplified
narrative.
With the disproportionate attention to the consequence of sexual violence, many aspects
of Congo’s instability are neglected: poverty, land conflict, hostile civil-military relationships,
disorganization within the army and policy, a weak justice system, physical and economic
insecurity, and enduring gender discrimination.101 Other consequences such as killings, forced
labor, conscription of child soldiers, non-sexual torture, and sexual violence against men and
boys are not given similar attention.
Affleck approaches the storyline of gender-based violence from a more muted tack. The
ECI website lists rape and sexual violence as a key issue but, besides listing the work of
community-based organizations and NGOs, it does not explicitly state how ECI addresses the
issue.102 Rape and sexual violence do not come under ECI’s advocacy objectives, which instead
focus on reform of the security sector, the health of mothers and children, and the creation of a
constructive economy. For ECI’s secondary advocacy objective on “Maternal, Newborn and
Child Health,” the pillar seeks to address the deaths of women in childbirth, child mortality, and
to increase access to healthcare for women and children. Even the Security Sector report has only
passing mentions of sexual violence and incidences of rape.
In the ECI White Paper, the situation related to sexual violence is cited a handful of
times, but usually in the context of other human rights violations and general insecurity, not in
stand-alone sections.103 As one of the key priorities, the White Paper calls for US support for the
“strengthening of local government capacities to address abuses against civilians, including
sexual violence.”104 The White Paper also refers to the Comprehensive Strategy on Combating
Sexual Violence in Congo that was developed by the international community as a working
24
framework. Objectives include addressing the culture of impunity, enabling victims to receive
justice against perpetrators.105
While the above priorities reinforce dominant narratives around sexual violence, the
White Paper outlines other provisions in addition to post-traumatic care and justice redress,
calling for the US to make the following changes:
[I]ncrease capacities within the Congolese National Police to prevent and respond
to incidences of sexual and other forms of violence by strengthening dedicated
and specialized capacities at the provincial level, notably, deployment of
specialized sexual violence cells within police units being deployed in eastern
Congo within the [Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for the
East]/[International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy] framework.106
In technical terms, ECI encourages the US to support the framework for political stability that
was created by the international community for Congo, the ISSSS. This framework, in turn,
supports Congo’s Stabilization and Reconstruction Program (STAREC). ECI’s White Paper
reflects the major proposals sought by the international community that seek to restore state
authority in the Eastern Region by rehabilitating administrative structures, supporting economic
development and re-establishing the rule of law.
However, in his congressional appearances, Affleck stressed sexual violence as a
fundamental problem in Congo in need of greater international attention. During his testimony to
Congress in 2011, Affleck offered statistics about displacement and rape in Congo in his very
first paragraph, describing the work of ECI as helping “protect the most vulnerable among the
population in the Congo, including child soldiers and survivors of sexual violence.”107 Since the
hearing coincided with International Women’s Day, he highlighted the “particular suffering of
women and girls in eastern Congo as well as the undeniable strength they exhibit in the face of
ongoing atrocities.”108 He then went on to share the story of a young woman who had been
captured and held as a sex slave for two years by rebel soldiers. This framing echoes common
25
metaphors of human rights advocacy with ECI acting as the savior to the women and children
who were victims of rebel soldiers, the perpetrators.109 Affleck extolled the efforts of a
Congolese organization that gave the young woman counseling and job training. Hers was the
only personal story that Affleck related, demonstrating another common trope of relying on
witness testimony as evidence.110 In a similar manner, the retelling of the testimony of a rape
victim by an outsider approximates the “pornography of violence” suggested by Eriksson Baaz
and Stern above.
Affleck’s written pieces regularly cited the rape statistics when describing the violence in
Congo while highlighting local solutions. In one sensational editorial, Affleck wrote:
Some 4 million Congolese died during the conflict and nearly another 1 million
have died in the lawless aftermath from starvation, conflict and preventable
disease. Tens of thousands of children were forced to become soldiers, and as
many as two out of three women were victimized by rape and other forms of
sexual violence.111
In the same piece, Affleck highlighted the work of the NGO Synergy of Women for Sexual
Violence Victims in North Kivu as “just one of the many effective community-based solutions
that bring about substantive change.”112 A final example comes from an essay he wrote with
Cindy McCain for Politico where they wrote: “It would seem no one there is safe from rape and
murder. It continues every day, throughout eastern Congo.”113 Here is a clear example of
Affleck’s dramatizing rape as the primary consequence of the conflict.
In reference to sexual violence as a focus in Congo, Affleck and ECI walk a nuanced line.
ECI’s website and reports do not speak extensively about sexual violence as a program objective.
However, when cameras are rolling, Affleck’s remarks about the horrors taking place tend to
include references to statistics on sexual violence and personal stories. He does attempt to temper
any graphic depictions of victimhood with inspiring tales of survivors and the work of
26
community-based organizations addressing the issue. With this topic, ECI and Affleck play to
different audiences to mobilize attention to Congo. But, Affleck’s adoption of an alternative
narrative that avoids emphasis on sexual violence and conflict minerals accords with growing
unease over their ascendancy as issue frames on Congo.
C. Central Solution: Strengthening State Authority
In contemporary narratives, the leading solution for addressing Congo’s multitude of ills lies in
the reconstruction of state authority. Increasing state capacity appeals to international
organizations and their state members as a traditional approach, propping up norms around
sovereignty and diplomacy. Community-based and religious organizations that are the mainstay
of the social services sector depend on a future transfer of these responsibilities to state
authorities. But, the focus on the state as the dominant narrative for “solving Congo” fails to take
into account the predatory, corrupt, and unstable nature of the Congolese state. As Autesserre
explains, “large parts of the population survive in spite of the state rather than with its help.”114
Vesting state structures with additional authority follows the risk of increasing capacity in an
already rapacious entity. However, Autessere finds no counter-narratives to state building as the
solution for Congo. This dovetails with other African scholars’ exasperation over the emphasis
on installing political democracies and misguided attempts to impose human rights and the
liberal tradition on the African state.115
In contrast to the state building ethos of policy makers and international organizations,
ECI splits the difference across its two-pronged objectives. The grant-making arm of the ECI is
entirely centered on funding local solutions, not state structures. According to ECI, community-
27
based organizations are crucial to development “[i]n a country with historically weak state
institutions and virtually nonexistent public services.”116 Instead of building state capacity, ECI
argues that supporting local organizations is “essential to creating a sustainable and successful
society in eastern [Congo].”117 The Landscape Analysis Report directly serves this objective by
collecting data on the many community-based organizations operating in eastern Congo and
relaying this information to potential funders. To support grassroots solutions, ECI has granted
over 2 million dollars to twenty-three Congolese organizations. This focus on local efforts
reflects ECI’s bottom-up approach and development implementation stands in sharp relief to the
dominant top-down narrative of state reconstruction.
However, as part of ECI’s framing of Congo’s problems, the lack of good governance is
cited as one of the main obstacles to a peaceful flourishing society. As noted above, ECI’s
primary advocacy objective is the “comprehensive reform of the Congolese security sector.”118
This includes the establishment of a well-organized police force, military, and judicial system, an
approach underscored in ECI’s report on Security Sector Reform as well as in the White Paper.
As the first objective for US Engagement and Support, the White Paper outlines a path for
renewed top-down political engagement, whereby “[t]he U.S. must provide strong support to the
[Congolese Government] to catalyze greater political will and engagement.”119 These policy-
driven papers reflect ECI’s intentions to strengthen the Congolese state as the solution to the
country’s ills.
When speaking to a wider audience, made up of potential funders, NGOs, and the general
public, Affleck’s discourses walk a careful line between the state-focused and local-centered
approaches. At times, he intensifies the contested narrative by referring to community-based
organizations and the local efforts of the Congolese people. At a high-level event sponsored by
28
the US government and UNICEF, where Secretary of State Clinton introduced Affleck, he
remarked:
Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen extraordinary efforts by the Congolese to usher
in a brighter future for their country. The Congolese must lead in this effort. We
firmly believe that. We believe that our role is there to support the Congolese and
support community-based organizations. But we believe all of us can help support
them and that’s really why we’re here today . . . . ECI is driven by the Congolese
and their resilience and determination on the path toward progress.120
At that event and in the Washington Post op-ed mentioned above, Affleck amplifies local voices,
touting the work of community-based organizations, calling them out by name. This alternative
narrative presents Congolese-led initiatives as demonstrations of local empowerment that would
benefit from further external support.
However, when Affleck speaks to political elites, pressuring the US government during
his appearances before Congress, he relates community-based efforts while promoting a state
solution. This may be influenced by the contours of state diplomacy in which advocacy
necessarily focuses on top-down, state-centric solutions. However, it may be a strategically
ambiguous strategy to open up possibilities for intervention in both civil society and state-
oriented directions.121 For example, in his remarks to Congress, after painting an inspiring
picture of local efforts, Affleck insisted, “[w]e hope the US will assert leadership and encourage
a stronger security sector, resulting in a safer society for Congolese families.”122 Likewise,
Affleck urges the US to follow a path towards building state capacity in Congo: assigning a
special adviser, providing technical assistance for future elections, and supporting the
government’s efforts in implementing administration and judicial reforms. This focus on
building political capacity addresses the main failure of state authority: the weak security sector.
By increasing US pressure on the Congolese government to implement reform, Affleck
29
reinforces the focus on state capacity but acknowledges that state authority has had perverse
results. From the available texts, it is unclear whether Affleck and ECI made a conscious and
strategic choice to present diverse and dissonant strategies as the solution to Congo. This
analysis demonstrates that Affleck and his ECI are not consistently reproducing the most
common Western narratives about violence in Congo that might be expected from a typical
celebrity involved in human rights work. To be sure, the impact of this pressure on the US
government cannot be exclusively tied to Affleck’s advocacy efforts. Still, certain policy shifts
are claimed in ECI Annual Reports as measures of impact: the US appointed a Special Envoy to
the region, foreign assistance increased between 2011 and 2014, and, since 2012, funding for
MONUSCO has been maintained at high levels.123 This emphasis on augmenting US attention to
and involvement in Congo fits the dominant narrative of supporting state authority.
V. Conclusions: Celebrity Engagement and Advocacy Narratives
Within the field of human rights advocacy, celebrities have been recognized for raising
awareness with both mass and elite audiences. Less understood was their interaction with human
rights narratives and ability to select issues. This article uses a discourse analysis to examine how
a new actor in the field of human rights, Ben Affleck, entered into the field of contested
narratives on Congo when he took up eastern Congo and its plight as a “cause.” Diverging from
assumptions in the issue selection literature, this research suggests that Affleck’s adoption of
Congo reflects elite practices. Affleck’s choice was made with the help of a Seattle-based
consultancy firm and, in 2010, ECI was launched as a well-funded organizational apparatus with
local initiatives that afforded Affleck the possibility to formulate a more nuanced understanding
30
of the country. Rather than following trends around funding, issue resonance, and intranetwork
relations, interests specific to a celebrity modality come into play. In Affleck’s case, the chance
to carve out space for one’s philanthropy and to distinguish one’s brand by choosing a lesser
known issue for which to advocate. Political opportunities did provide important context. Here,
again, high-level advice and elite relationships furnished a celebrity with expertise and guidance
to navigate a complex issue area. Affleck gained an organizational platform to perform as a
celebrity humanitarian: representing the people of Congo, asserting credibility based on his
experiences in Congo, mediating the issue of Congo in decision-making circles, and influencing
US policy.
Affleck’s engagement in the discursive construction of the contemporary Congo should
be taken seriously in consideration of celebrities’ power to amplify an issue in the public
spotlight, but with the heightened risk of falling into the trap of the single dominant narrative.
Affleck’s access to elite circles assured his advocacy would find active audiences and media
coverage. Based on prevailing framings of Congo’s conflicts in global discourses, outlined
above, as well as customary practices for celebrity humanitarianism,124 Affleck might be
expected to simply adopt commonly held narratives. Through the use of discourse analysis, this
article tracks the ways in which Affleck and ECI embrace or contest the dominant narratives
around Congo. A close reading reveals more contention than expected, depending in part on
which audience his performance is intended to persuade. Moreover, Affleck’s organization, ECI,
shifts beyond dominant narratives to strike a more nuanced orientation towards Congo: its two-
prong grant-making and advocacy strategies already shifts the focus beyond the three dominant
narrative lenses of resources, sexual violence, and state authority. ECI adopted some of the
alternate understandings and proposals for Congo in its reports and publications, Affleck’s public
31
engagement as spokesperson forces him to search out and sustain attention from diverse
audiences and indeed his discourses through media appearances and testimonials tend to
reinforce dominant Congo narratives. There are few challenges to the narratives around sexual
violence and both ECI and Affleck continually cite the statistics on rape victims. Yet, on conflict
minerals and state authority, Affleck and ECI exhibit a noticeable shift away from the dominant
global discourses towards the presentation of alternate framings. Rather than focusing on conflict
minerals as the main cause of conflict in Congo, Affleck discusses the challenges of good
governance. And rather than reinforcing state authority as the primary solution, Affleck and ECI
highlight the role of local initiatives. These latter two viewpoints may not resonate with the more
common representations of Congo that circulate in the public, policy circles, and media but do
accord with the views of many Congo experts and observers.
This case study demonstrates how celebrities are able to position themselves to enter
debates on humanitarian issues and the extent to which celebrity discourses reinforce and
challenge discursive representations of human rights, conflict, and development. Nevertheless,
the “needs” of celebrity limit the possibilities that individual celebrities might have in engaging
in alternative, more complex and less sound-bite friendly discourses. Moreover, the growing
conspicuity of celebrity engagement of Affleck that relies on political access and elite
endorsement in the Global North further suppresses the ability of the Congolese people to craft
and promote their own narrative. Thus, however well-intentioned this A-list entertainment
professional may be, the conclusion is that Affleck’s human rights advocacy for Congo holds the
promise of an alternative narrative for a neglected issue area, but, in the process, celebrity
engagement outweighs the prospects for increasing the power, influence, and voice of the
Congolese people.
32
Endnotes
* Alexandra Cosima Budabin is Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Center of the University
of Dayton. She is Contract Professor for the Faculty of Education at the Free University of
Bolzano. Her research looks at non-state actors in human rights, humanitarianism, and
development. She is a co-investigator in the research project ‘Commodifying Compassion:
Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ (2016-2020),
funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.
** Lisa Ann Richey is Professor of International Development Studies and Director of the
Doctoral School of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University in Denmark. She is a
Visiting Professor at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University (2017-2018). Her books
include Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with Stefano Ponte, Population Politics
and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics, New Actors and Alliances in Development
with Stefano Ponte, and Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place
and Power. She works on new actors in international aid, citizenship, body politics, gender, and
the global South. She leads the research project on ‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of
Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ (2016-2020), funded by the
Danish Council for Independent Research.
1 See Lilie Chouliaraki, The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the age of Post-Humanitarianism
(2013); Ilan Kapoor, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity: The Ideology
of Global Charity (2013); Lisa Ann Richey & Stefano Ponte, Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save
the World (2011); Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and
Power (Lisa Ann Richey ed., 2016).
2 ANDREW F. COOPER, CELEBRITY DIPLOMACY (2008); Alexandra Cosima Budabin,
Documentarian, Witness, and Organizer: Exploring Celebrity Roles in Human Rights Media
Advocacy, in THE SOCIAL PRACTICE OF HUMAN RIGHTS 63 (Joel R. Pruce ed., 2015).
3 TRANSNATIONAL CELEBRITY ACTIVISM IN GLOBAL POLITICS: CHANGING THE WORLD? (Liza
Tsaliki, Christos A. Frangonikolopoulos, & Asteris Huliaras eds., 2011).
4 See, for example, Heribert Dieter & Rajiv Kumar, The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The
Neglected Complexity of Development, 14 GLOBAL GOVERNANCE 259 (2008); DAMBISA F.
MOYO, DEAD AID: WHY AID IS NOT WORKING AND HOW THERE IS A BETTER WAY FOR AFRICA
(2009); Lisa Ann Richey & Stefano Ponte, Better (Red)TM Than Dead? Celebrities, Consumption
and International aid, 29 THIRD WORLD Q. 711 (2008).
5 THE INTERNATIONAL STRUGGLE FOR NEW HUMAN RIGHTS (Clifford Bob ed., 2009); Charli
Carpenter et al., Explaining the Advocacy Agenda: Insights From the Human Security Network,
33
68 INTL ORG. 449, 450 (2014); Jonathan S. Coley, Theorizing Issue Selection in Advocacy
Organizations: An Analysis of Human Rights Activism Around Darfur and the Congo, 1998-
2010, 56 SOC. PERSP. 191 (2013).
6 Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of
International Peacebuilding (2010); see Zachariah Mampilly, A Commentary on Séverine
Autesserre’s The Trouble with the Congo, 20 Afr. Sec. Rev. 101 (2011).
7 SÉVERINE AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND: CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND THE EVERYDAY POLITICS OF
INTERNATIONAL INTERVENTION (2014); Séverine Autesserre, Dangerous Tales: Dominant
Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences, 111 AFR. AFF. 202 (2012).
8 See DAN BROCKINGTON, CELEBRITY ADVOCACY AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (2014).
9 United Nations Human Development Programme, Human Development Report 2016 Human
Development for Everyone 216 (2016), available at
http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf; compare United
Nations Human Development Programme, Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity:
Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis 286 (2006), available at
http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/267/hdr06-complete.pdf.
10 International Rescue Committee, Democratic Republic of Congo, available at
https://www.rescue.org/country/democratic-republic-congo.
11 IAN D. QUICK, FOLLIES IN FRAGILE STATES: HOW INTERNATIONAL STABILIZATION FAILED IN
THE CONGO 17 (2015).
12 See AUTESSERRE, THE TROUBLE WITH CONGO, supra note 6.
13 Virgil Hawkins, Stealth Conflicts: Africa's World War in the DRC and International
Consciousness, J. HUM. ASSIST. (2004), available at https://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/71.
14 Ruth Gidley, Poll: Congo war is World’s Top ‘Forgotten’ Crises, REUTERS, 11 Mar. 2005,
available at https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/poll-congo-war-worlds-top-
forgotten-crisis (internal quotation marks omitted).
15 NEW ACTORS AND ALLIANCES IN DEVELOPMENT (Lisa Ann Richey & Stefano Ponte
eds., 2014).
16 See Lisa Ann Richey, Introduction: Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations—
Politics, Place and Power in CELEBRITY HUMANITARIANISM AND NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS 1,
supra note 1.
17 CELEBRITY HUMANITARIANISM AND NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS, supra note 1.
18 Look to the Stars, Charities with Celebrity Supporters, available at
34
https://www.looktothestars.org/charity.
19 John Street, Do Celebrity Politics and Celebrity Politicians Matter?, 14 BRIT. J. POL. INT'L.
RELAT. 346, 347 (2012).
20 ALISON BRYSK, SPEAKING RIGHTS TO POWER: CONSTRUCTING POLITICAL WILL 55 (2013).
21 COOPER, supra note 2, at 7.
22 Id. at 10.
23 CHOULIARAKI, supra note 1, at 2.
24 BRYSK, supra note 20, at 57.
25 Rita Abrahamsen, Africa in a Global Political Economy of Symbolic Goods, 39 REV. AFR. POL.
ECON. 140, 141 (2012).
26 A. Trevor Thrall et al., Star Power: Celebrity Advocacy and the Evolution of the Public
Sphere, 13 INT'L. J. PRESS/POL. 362, 363 (2008).
27 BROCKINGTON, supra note 8.
28 KAPOOR, supra note 1, at 109.
29 Lisa Ann Richey & Alexandra Budabin, Celebrities in International Affairs, in OXFORD
HANDBOOKS ONLINE (2016), available at
http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935307.001.0001/oxfordhb-
9780199935307-e-3.
30 See, e.g. Louise M. Rasmussen, Madonna in Malawi: Celebritized Interventions and Local
Politics of Development in the South, in CELEBRITY HUMANITARIANISM AND NORTH-SOUTH
RELATIONS, supra note 1, at 48; Annika Bergman Rosamond, Humanitarian Relief Worker Sean
Penn: A Contextual Story, in CELEBRITY HUMANITARIANISM AND NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS,
supra note 1, at 149.
31 MARGARET E. KECK & KATHRYN SIKKINK, ACTIVISTS BEYOND BORDERS: ADVOCACY
NETWORKS IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICS 27 (1998).
32 Id.
33 R. Charli Carpenter, Setting the Advocacy Agenda: Theorizing Issue Emergence and
Nonemergence in Transnational Advocacy Networks, 51 INTL STUD. Q. 99 (2007).
34 Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism
(2005); The International Struggle for new Human Rights, supra note 5, at 10.
35
35 Charli Carpenter, “LostCauses: Agenda Vetting In Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of
Human Security (2014).
36 Id.at 19.
37 Id.
38 Coley, supra note 5.
39 Id. at 198.
40 Michael Barnett & Thomas G. Weiss, Humanitarianism: A Brief History of the Present, in
HUMANITARIANISM IN QUESTION: POLITICS, POWER, ETHICS 1, 20 (Michael Barnett
& Thomas G. Weiss eds., 2008).
41 See also Richard Ashby Wilson & Richard D. Brown, Introduction, in HUMANITARIANISM
AND SUFFERING: THE MOBILIZATION OF EMPATHY 1, 18-20 (Richard Ashby Wilson & Richard D.
Brown eds., 2009).
42 Deborah A. Stone, Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas, 104 POL. SCI. Q. 281,
283 (1989).
43 Makau Mutua, Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights, 42 HARV.
INT'L L.J. 201 (2001).
44 Francesca Polletta & Beth Gharrity Gardner, Narrative and Social Movements, in THE OXFORD
HANDBOOK OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS 534 (Donatella Della Porta & Mario Diani eds., 2015).
45 Jennifer Ambrose et al., Introduction: Transnational Advocacy in Contention, in ADVOCACY IN
CONFLICT: CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON TRANSNATIONAL ACTIVISM 1, 5 (Alex de Waal ed.,
2015).
46 ROXANNE LYNN DOTY, IMPERIAL ENCOUNTERS: THE POLITICS OF REPRESENTATION IN NORTH-
SOUTH RELATIONS 4 (1996).
47 Carrie Booth Walling, Human Rights Norms, State Sovereignty, and Humanitarian
Intervention, 37 HUM. RTS. Q. 383 (2015).
48 See Maung Zarni with Trisha Taneja, Burma’s Struggle for Democracy: A Critical Appraisal,
Roddy Brett, The Janus Face of International Activism and Guatemala’s Indigenous Peoples,
Mareike Schomerus, Make him Famous’: The Single Conflict Narrative of Kony and Kony2012,
in ADVOCACY IN CONFLICT, supra note 45.
49 KEVIN C. DUNN, IMAGINING THE CONGO: THE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS OF IDENTITY 5
(2003).
36
50 The United Nations is Supporting the Stabilization Plan for Eastern DRC, RELIEFWEB, 10
Nov. 2009, available at http://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/united-nations-
supporting-stabilization-plan-eastern-drc.
51 See AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, Appendix.
52 Tatiana Carayannis, HD Background Paper: The Challenge of Building Sustainable Peace in
the DRC (2009); Theodore Trefon, Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of aid Inefficiency
and Reform Failure (2011); Laura E. Seay, What’s Wrong with Dodd-Frank 1502?: Conflict
Minerals, Civilian Livelihoods, and the Unintended Consequences of Western Advocacy (Ctr. for
Global Dev., Working Paper No. 284 2012).
53 Autesserre, Dangerous Tales, supra note 7, at 204.
54 Laura Seay, Conflict Minerals in Congo: The Consequences of Oversimplification, in
ADVOCACY IN CONFLICT, supra note 45, at 115; Jocelyn T.D. Kelly et al., Resources and
Resourcefulness: Roles, Opportunities and Risks for Women Working at Artisanal Mines in
South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, 62 FUTURES 95 (2014); Rachel Perks & Koen
Vlassenroot, From Discourse to Practice: A Sharper Perspective on the Relationship Between
Minerals and Violence in DR Congo, in THE COMPLEXITY OF RESOURCE GOVERNANCE IN A
CONTEXT OF STATE FRAGILITY: THE CASE OF EASTERN DRC 64 (Jeroen Cuvelier ed., 2010).
55 See Mampilly, supra note 6.
56 Id.
57 See David R. Davis et al., “Makers and Shapers”: Human Rights INGOs and Public Opinion,
34 HUM. RTS. Q. 199 (2012).
58 Annick T.R. Wibben, Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach 2 (2011).
59 Look to the Stars, Ben Affleck: Charity Work, Events and Causes, available at
https://www.looktothestars.org/celebrity/ben-affleck.
60 See, e.g., John Cameron, Can poverty be funny? The Serious use of Humour as a Strategy of
Public Engagement for Global Justice, 36 THIRD WORLD Q 274 (2015); Helen Yanacopulos,
INTERNATIONAL NGO ENGAGEMENT, ADVOCACY, ACTIVISM: THE FACES AND
SPACES OF CHANGE (2015).
61 Dawn Walton, Affleck’s Star Lights Up Calgary Event, GLOBE & MAIL, 16 June 2008,
available at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/afflecks-star-lights-up-calgary-
event/article18452472/.
62 Genevieve Roth, “I’ve Never Seen Women So Brave”: How Ben Affleck is Fighting for Women
in the Congo, GLAMOUR, 11 Apr. 2016, available at http://www.glamour.com/story/ive-never-
seen-women-so-brave-how-ben-affleck-is-fighting-for-women-in-the-congo.
37
63 See Mickey Rapkin, When Ben Affleck Wants to Change the World, He Calls This Woman,
ELLE, 11 Nov. 2013, available at http://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a12614/whitney-
williams-profile/.
64 Confidential Interview With Advocacy Expert (San Francisco, CA, 31 Mar. 2016).
65 Associated Press, Ben Affleck Tours War-Torn Eastern Congo, ACCESS, 20 Nov. 2008,
available at https://www.accesshollywood.com/articles/ben-affleck-tours-war-torn-eastern-
congo-66320/.
66 Roth, supra note 62.
67 Coley, supra note 5.
68 Tirdad Derakhshani, Sideshow: Affleck assists Congolese, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 23 Mar.
2010, at E02.
69 QUICK, supra note 11, at 20-21.
70 Williamsworks, Our Clients: Eastern Congo Initiative, available at
https://web.archive.org/web/20160716142638/http://williamsworks.com/our-clients/eastern-
congo-initiative/.
71 Alexandra Cosima Budabin, Louise Mubanda Rasmussen, & Lisa Ann Richey, Celebrity-led
Development Organizations: The Legitimating Function of Elite Engagement, 38 THIRD WORLD
Q. 1952 (2017).
72 Maria Eriksson Baaz & Maria Stern, Sexual Violence as a Weapon of war?: Perceptions,
Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond 88-89 (2013).
73 Alexis Arieff, Congressional Research Service, Democratic Republic of Congo: Background
and U.S. Policy 17, 19 (2014).
74 Coley, supra note 5; Carpenter et al., supra note 5, at 450.
75 Williamsworks, supra note 70.
76 AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, at 84.
77 See Eastern Congo Initiative, Publications, available at
http://www.easterncongo.org/about/publications.
78 Eastern Congo Initiative, Landscape Analysis of Community-Based Organizations (2011).
38
79 Seay, Conflict Minerals, supra note 53.
80 See ProQuest, Congressional Hearings Digital Collection, Famous (Celebrity) Witnesses,
available at http://proquest.libguides.com/content.php?pid=169415&sid=1426804.
81 The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Securing Peace in the Midst of Tragedy: Hearing
before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, And Human Rights of the Committee on
Foreign Affairs House Of Representatives, 1 (8 March 2011), available at
https://chrissmith.house.gov/uploadedfiles/2011.03.08_the_democratic_republic_of_the_congo_
securing_peace_in_the_midst_of_tragedy.pdf [hereinafter Hearing before the Subcommittee on
Africa]
82 Id.
83 Id. at 95.
84 Id. at 87.
85 Id. at 91.
86 See, e.g., Enough Project, Conflict Minerals, available at
http://www.enoughproject.org/category/topic/conflict-minerals; see also Global Witness,
Conflict Minerals, available at http://www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/conflict/conflict-
minerals.
87 Peter Eichstaedt, Consuming The Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest
Place 141 (2011).
88 Seay, What’s Wrong, supra note 51; Seay, Conflict Minerals, supra note 53.
89 AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, at 133-37.
90 Eastern Congo Initiative, Advocacy, available at
http://www.easterncongo.org/about/advocacy.
91 Eastern Congo Initiative, The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Taking a Stand on Security
Sector Reform 3 (2012).
92 Id. at 8.
93 Spyros Demetriou & Salamah Magnuson, Eastern Congo Initiative, Strengthening United
States Foreign Policy in the Democratic Republic of Congo 40 (2010).
94 Id.
39
95 Ben Affleck, Ben Affleck: How the United States can Help Secure Congo, WASH. POST, 30
Nov. 2010, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
dyn/content/article/2010/11/29/AR2010112904242.html.
96 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, supra note 80, at 53.
97 See, e.g., Enough Project, Raise Hope for Congo, available at
https://enoughproject.org/about/past-campaigns/rhfc; International Campaign to Stop Rape &
Gender Violence in Conflict, available at https://stoprapeinconflict.com/.
98 AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, at 137.
99 ERIKSSON BAAZ & STERN, supra note 71, at 92.
100 AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, at 141.
101 Id. at 142.
102 Eastern Congo Initiative, About DRC, available at http://www.easterncongo.org/about-drc.
103 DEMETRIOU & MAGNUSON, supra note 92, at 21, 40.
104 Id. at 72.
105 Id. at 60.
106 Id. at 60 (emphasis added).
107 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, supra note 80, at 51.
108 Id. at 51.
109 Mutua, supra note 42.
110 See KAY SCHAFFER & SIDONIE SMITH, HUMAN RIGHTS AND NARRATED LIVES: THE ETHICS OF
RECOGNITION (2004).
111 Affleck, supra note 94.
112 Id.
113 Ben Affleck and Cindy McCain, Don’t look away from terror in Congo, POLITICO, 8 Mar.
2011, available at https://www.politico.com/story/2011/03/dont-look-away-from-terror-in-
congo-050833
114 AUTESSERRE, PEACELAND, supra note 7, at 145 (emphasis added).
40
115 See Mutua, supra note 42.
116 Eastern Congo Initiative, Grantmaking, available at
http://www.easterncongo.org/about/grantmaking.
117 Id.
118 Eastern Congo Initiative, Advocacy, supra note 90.
119 DEMETRIOU & MAGNUSON, supra note 92, at 47.
120 USAID Global Health, Call to Action: Ben Affleck and Dr. Felix Kabange Numbi Mukwampa,
YOUTUBE, (11 July 2012), available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dllvT2hQO8.
Transcript available at
https://web.archive.org/web/20121004082314/http://5thbday.usaid.gov/pages/ResponseSub/Even
t.aspx
121 See World Bank, Guidance Note on Bank Multi-Stakeholder Engagement (2009).
122 USAID, supra note 120.
123ARIEFF, supra note 73, at 14-15.
124 BROCKINGTON, supra note 8; RICHEY, supra note 16.
... While touted for their "ordinariness" and ability to appeal to the mass public, Brockington finds that celebrity advocacy is in fact an elite game that "enhances the distributions of power and inequality that it purports to change" (2014,159). Recent work has shown the elite networks that undergird celebrity humanitarians as they gain access, create their own organizations, shape policy, and even lead to hierarchies among celebrities (Budabin, Mubanda Rasmussen, and Richey 2017;Budabin and Richey 2018). ...
... Their presence in high level forums has had mixed results: in her work on the media coverage of celebrity-led campaigns, Njoroge showed how Bono and Bob Geldorf mobilized the Make Poverty History campaign to counter prevailing discourses in the debates on African development, raising Africa's profile in the international arena while posing challenges to "what was once a clear consensus on Africa" (2011, 245). Budabin and Richey (2018) likewise show that celebrities may promote alternate narratives that challenge hegemonic thinking. Still other work has shown that celebrity discourses directed toward the public don't necessarily move past stereotypes about the Global South or give specifics on political engagement (Kogen 2018). ...
... It has been especially useful for tracking simplified solutions, obfuscations, and misrepresentations of development and humanitarianism in Africa, particularly the Congo (Dunn 2003;Autesserre 2014;Seay 2015). In the case of celebrity narratives presented in mainstream news and policy circles, these discursive devices reflect the capital acquired by celebrities (Budabin and Richey 2018). Thus, it is also critical to study where and by whom celebrity narratives circulate; indeed, celebrative narratives that are echoed by state actors and other elite figures become endorsements. ...
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