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The book is structured in seven chapters that each dive deeper into the politics of celebrity strategic partnerships utilizing the case of Ben Affleck and the Eastern Congo Initiative. 

© 2021 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

CHAPTER 1 “Celebrity, Disruption, and Neoliberal Development”

The first chapter presents the main concepts that anchor this book. We introduce and underscore the configuration celebrity strategic partnerships as neoliberal artifacts. We review the history of celebrities as political actors who have long been deployed as ambassadors for states and international institutions but now are headlining NGOs and corporate campaigns for causes, bringing about shifts in communication practices. We situate our case study of Affleck and ECI’s disruption as it reflects trends around deepening ties between corporate actors and traditional players in development and corporate social responsibility (CSR). We argue that the neoliberalization of development depends not only on strategic partnerships but also on market-based solutions that rely on the public, and thus on celebrity figures, to “sell” ideas of “helping” to both mass and elite audiences. We briefly introduce Eastern Congo as the fragile site where Affleck brought his neoliberal intervention, through unaccountable practices that are based on and further entrench elite politics in development.

CHAPTER 2 “Narrating the Congo: Dangerous Single Stories and the Organizations That Need Them”

The second chapter lays the background for external engagement in the Congo by celebrity humanitarians and advocacy organizations. We draw on narrative analysis as a means for capturing the ways in which ideas about how to “save” and “solve” the Congo are circulated. We give a historical overview of recent interventions in the Congo involving both humanitarian relief and advocacy as transnational practices that emerged from the cycle of crises in the late 1990s. We argue that this terrain in the Congo has been slowly overtaken by (new) elite actors in political, cultural, and economic spheres in ways that produce and reproduce hegemonic narratives. This process has had mixed results, leading to increasing attention and funds to a neglected conflict but also refracting the country through narrow lenses. We explore the political economy of this terrain as resources—including celebrity humanitarians—were distributed across a handful of NGOs that came to dominate thinking about the Congo while Congolese organizations struggled to promote alternative narratives.

CHAPTER 3 “Choosing the Congo: How a Celebrity Builds a Development Organization”

This chapter situates Affleck and his organization within elite networks in development. We introduce Ben Affleck and trace his creation of a development NGO as a multimandate organization that was originally focused on poverty and conflict in Eastern Congo. We show how, with the help of an elite cadre of consultants, politicians, and development experts, Affleck styled himself as a different type of celebrity humanitarian and the Eastern Congo Initiative as a disruptive organization. What celebrities typically do in development is advocacy and fundraising, but Affleck is also engaged in implementing and promoting development initiatives that contend with dominant narratives about the Congo as well as prevailing approaches. We argue that Affleck’s ability to distinguish himself and his organization by his choice of the Congo, an approach grounded in advocacy and grant-making and the fast assembly of financial and political capital, reflects the elite nature of development, where Affleck was confirmed with relative ease as a legitimate player. Despite the presence of a celebrity founder, ECI’s approach and secure funding precluded the need to mobilize public support.

CHAPTER 4 “Marketing the Congo: Products That Sell Development”

The fourth chapter examines celebrity representations of market-based solutions as ECI partnered with TOMS shoes and Theo Chocolate in an ongoing cultivation of business partners that marked a shift in their approach. We argue that celebrity convening power was instrumental in marshaling the financial capital of corporate partners as well as designating a newfound need for consumer publics. We demonstrate how Affleck and ECI came to rely on the “transformative” potential of celebrity strategic partnerships as a more workable and scalable solution to development after it became clear that the security sector was not amenable to swift policy changes. We then explore how Affleck brought these market-based solutions before Congress to promote the idea that “giving” farmers access to the international market to advance social and economic development is “neither charity nor aid, . . . [just] good business."

Figure 1.1 Affleck and meeting with MONU
Figure I.1 Ben Affleck and Bill Gates Te

Affleck meets with members of the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC during a visit to the Congo in 2008. UN photo by Marie Frechon.

Ben Affleck and Bill Gates testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. Photo by Ralph Alswang.

CHAPTER 5 “Saving Congolese Coffee: Celebrities and the Business Model for Development”

In this chapter we lay out the political economy of the Kahawa Bora Ya Kivu (KBYK) project to promote coffee as a “change agent” Compared to the projects we analyzed in chapter 4, the coffee project involves more partners, higher media visibility, larger stakes, greater reach, and more political advocacy to support economic investment. From work including original qualitative research done with coffee farmers’ cooperatives in Eastern Congo, we argue that the expansion to strategic partnerships with both public- and privatesector partners is dependent on the convening power of a celebrity humanitarian, who, drawing on political capital, is able to promote the partnership to both mainstream and elite political circles. Affleck acts as an expert technical link and a humanitarian affective link to the Global South in appearances on news shows and at elite gatherings in places such as Aspen, before the U.S. Congress, and at the Clinton Global Initiative, together with corporate partners. Meanwhile, ECI staff have appeared on Tedx with the slogan of “driving aid out of business.” This additional focus on political and financial elites exposes the stakes of the coffee project, which promotes a narrative in which the business model is a political solution rather than a way to increase public participation.

CHAPTER 6 “Celebrities and the Local Politics of Development: As Seen from Kinshasa”

Chapter 6 offers a uniquely grounded perspective of Affleck and ECI’s activities in the Congo. Based on field interviews and participant observation, this research explores how development and humanitarian actors see the donor landscape and interventions by the U.S. government, humanitarian agencies, and celebrity humanitarians. This chapter argues that celebrity engagement in development has both opportunities and costs, involving funding and expenditures, authority, and accountability that are more related to Northern than to Southern spheres. Celebrity humanitarians and the strategic partnerships they convene remain important for promoting the work of traditional actors in development who remain under duress from funding cuts and lack of public support.

Figure 7.1 ECI Blog post with Affleck an

Photo of Affleck and Williams featured as a part of a ECI blog post on COVID-19 from April 2020. Screen grab by Lisa Ann Richey.

CHAPTER 7 “Conclusions on Celebrity and Development: Disruption, Advocacy, and Commodification”

The last chapter reflects on the previous analysis considering how Affleck and ECI’s strategic partnership signals increasing privatization of development with both prospects and pitfalls. We argue that postdemocratic politics are solidifying Northern and elite power through the investment of celebrity capital in ways that may or may not benefit local recipients in Africa. Celebrity strategic partnerships are an innovative means to raise awareness and funding for otherwise neglected causes such as peacebuilding in Eastern Congo; they also draw elite and public attention to the work of development and humanitarian agencies. Despite these benefits, celebrity strategic partnerships signal a troubling trend in an environment of unaccountable elite leadership in North–South relations. Celebrity humanitarians like Affleck are occupying the public domain yet not engaging meaningfully with any public—they are an unruly bunch of new actors and alliances in development who amplify business solutions by amassing political and financial capital for their partnerships. Understanding how “the dark superhero” Batman saves “the dark continent” in Eastern Congo helps us to explain the power of celebrity strategic partnerships and the development contexts of rule by the benevolent elites they create.

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