Exclusive: All Aboard Ben Affleck’s African Express Gravy Train

Shameless "star" gives "Poverty Pimping" a bad name.

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Everyone knows Hollywood legend Ben Affleck loves Africa and Africans because he talks about his passion for them all the time. Just two weeks ago, in between rapping on The Ellen DeGeneres Show about being one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” for the past 17 years, Affleck talked up his Washington, D.C.-based Eastern Congo Initiative while Shutterfly pledged to donate $20,000 to his charity.

Meanwhile, Affleck “started off 2019 with some philanthropic work in Africa,” the Boston Herald reported. “The Cambridge-raised star just revealed that he’s been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, expressing words of hope for the country.” Affleck said in a tweet, the story noted.

Affleck had traveled to the country — it’s not clear who paid, the wealthy star or his charity — to call attention to the election and the humanitarian tragedy taking place there. Predictably, the global media largely ignored the election, which was marred by fraud, violence and allegations of cheating by all parties, just as it generally ignores the larger Congolese crisis.

But just what is the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) and what does it do? Does it actually accomplish anything genuinely good? Or is it just a branding vehicle for Affleck, which allows him to pretend to care about poor people in Africa while keep his fading name in the news?

It’s hard to say since. And as of now, his charity — headquartered in the District of Columbia in a long ago gentrified and now traffic- and scalper-infested area near Washington Nationals baseball stadium — didn’t reply to a request for comment sent via email.

The group has no phone number listed on its website so I took a ride over to the address it provides on its site, 80 M Street SE. At that building a receptionist said she’s never heard of the group and directed me to a ground floor WeWork shared office space heavily populated with juice and latte swilling urbanites.

A young woman there said ECI had relocated down the block to 100 M Street SE, but a receptionist at that building told me she’d never heard of the group. She pointed me to an electronic office directory 50 feet away but it showed no sign of ECI. When I snapped a picture of the monitor the receptionist said I couldn’t take photos of it. “That’s too bad,” I replied politely. “I already did.”

A request for comment sent via email to Caroline Sorensen at the public relations firm Sunshine Sachs, who handles media requests for Affleck, had not been replied to as of press time. If I do hear from ECI or Sorenson, I’ll update this story.

Affleck founded ECI back in 2010, along with heiress and philanthropist Cindy McCain, the wife of dead former senator John McCain, who was alive then. “The organization works with groups of people in eastern Congo, helping them boost the area’s economic and social development,” says its website.

The ECI also partners with Starbucks and makes a specially “curated” coffee main partly from Congolese beans. “Gravitas Blend No.1 is an alchemy of small-lot beans from Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and Eastern Congo,” says the group’s website. “With deep and layered flavors of roasted plum, tamarind and milk chocolate, Gravitas weaves together three different origins, yet allows the flavors of each origin to shine on its own.”

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has promoted the ECI, which has partnered with the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank that is affiliated with both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations.

It’s all been a PR gold mine for Affleck. “My Heart Will Forever Be There with Them,” the actor revealed on social media in 2017, following his tenth visit to Congo, a week-long “listening and learning trip” covered by PEOPLE magazine.

Affleck is also a long-time fan and promoter of Rwandan President and dictator Paul Kagame, said he will run for a third term in office after his second seven-year term expires in 2017, a move opposed by the U.S., a key ally. A few years ago the dictator paid a visit to Affleck’s estate.

But is Affleck’s work sincere or self-promoting? It depends on your interpretation. His various congressional testimonies and newspaper op-eds about Africa “always struck me as highly sensitive to the interests of his patrons: tech people and mining people and the Tutsis,” a source with inside knowledge of Affleck’s charity told me recently. He cited a 2017 New York Times op-ed allegedly penned by Affleck, which touted his charity while noting a recent stroll past a Starbucks at the Los Angeles airport, when a “little tag that read Congo’ caught my eye,” he wrote. “It was Kawa Kabuya, a coffee from Congo in Starbucks’ Reserve collection.”

The source also mentioned ECI’s “Celebrity Visitor Program,” which I learned more about in a foreign lobbying disclosure form filing filed by a “Racepoint Rwanda,” a group that is very close to dictator Kagame and which is run by a man named Larry Weber.  

Racepoint was written about in 2012 by the Globe and Mail. “For a monthly fee of $50,000 plus expenses [it] offered a tantalizing prospect to the Rwandan government,” said the story. “A burnished image, a sophisticated media campaign – and a chance at ‘drowning out’ those pesky opposition voices on the Web.” As the story noted, Racepoint had previously “polished the image of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.”

Affleck’s defenders might say he doesn’t need the money, so why question his charitable intentions? I’d say that he may not need the cash, but he needs attention as his star wanes in Hollywood.

The former leading man hasn’t done anything noteworthy in Tinseltown for years, unless you count “The Leisure Class,” a 2015 HBO film on which he had the title of executive producer or a few Superhero movies, like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

For some reason Affleck hasn’t been able to make a movie about Arica, which he has said is a long-time dream. However, he was behind a little-noted but well-intentioned 2017 documentary, “Bending the Arc,” which premiered at Sundance “to thunderous applause,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The documentary chronicled the plight of a team of young people — Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl — whose charitable medical work “in remote Haiti came to ignite a healthcare movement.”

And what better way for Affleck to stay in the news than for him to repeatedly boast about his charity ECI and his love for poor Africans? Bonus: Affleck doesn’t need to spend much of his own money to look good.

(Laudably, he doesn’t get paid for the 40 hours per week he puts in at the office, according to the group’s latest non-profit tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service. ECI director Pam Omidyar, wife of Pierre Omidyar, the noted philanthropist and the founder of First Look Media, also is not compensated for the 1 hour per week she gives to the cause.)

Affleck’s model of benevolence and good deed-ery has well served other stars, such as Madonna, Sean Penn and George Clooney, not to mention President Donald Trump.

Ben Affleck, you’re a joke and you’re not even funny.

That’s Ben Stiller.

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