Actor and activist Ben Affleck dazzled a Senate panel Wednesday in his testimony on the struggles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Republicans and Democrats lined up to assure the Argo director that he was not like other celebrity activists who often lack the expertise and commitment to various pet causes. Throughout the hearing, cameras clicked wildly and attendees positioned themselves for smartphone selfies and autographs.
"Your credibility is really remarkable because of the depth of your commitment," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.
"So often we get celebrities and it’s as much about them as it is about the issue," added Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho).
"I assure you it’s partially about him," joked McCain.
Affleck testified about his economic development work in the central African country, which has been plagued by disease, violence, and malnourishment for decades due to ethnic rivalries and a competition for gold, copper, and diamond resources.
Testifying alongside Russell Feingold, the U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region and Congo, and Roger Meece, former U.S. ambassador to Congo, Affleck urged the Obama administration and Congress to play a greater role in the DRC’s future.
"Our work in DRC is not finished," said Affleck. "We cannot risk diminished U.S. leadership at a time when lasting peace and stability are within reach."
The actor urged President Barack Obama to encourage DRC President Joseph Kabila to make needed security reforms and ensure that the country held free and fair elections. He also called on USAID to scale up its development initiatives in eastern Congo and bolster its agricultural sector.
Many of the goals were in line with Affleck’s work as founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, a philanthropic organization that connects donors with Congolese nonprofits rather than channeling money into large international NGOs.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she looked forward to working with Affleck’s organization and added to the choir of lawmakers commending Affleck’s work.
"We’re getting some wicked smart answers," added Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in the patois of Affleck’s hometown of Boston.
Even Africa experts, skeptical of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ability to hold substantive hearings, complimented Affleck’s seriousness of purpose. "His testimony reflected solid knowledge and contained specific recommendations that show familiarity with the crisis and ideas about how to resolve the conflict," Laura Seay, a Congo expert at Colby College, told The Cable. "I particularly appreciated Affleck’s emphasis on the need to provide more support to civil society organizations, which, to her credit, Senator Boxer did engage."
Seay did say, however, that the hearing failed to cover much new ground. "This hearing contained little information that was new or particularly revolutionary," she said. "There is not enough attention on areas like justice sector reform, economic development, and support for civil society that are necessary for DRC to reach a sustainable peace."
In any event, Affleck’s celebrity presence guaranteed a packed committee hearing with triple the press attendance than most hearings on Africa garner. Keenly aware that the public knows him better for The Town and Good Will Hunting, Affleck humbled himself before the committee.
"I am, to state the obvious, not a Congo expert," said the actor. "I am an American working to do my part for a country and a people I believe in and care deeply about."