Hollywood Actor and Director Ben Affleck was in Washington this week, pushing for greater US engagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has founded an organization called "The Eastern Congo Initiative." Affleck says the DRC is at a critical juncture in its transition from war to peace. He says although the country has achieved some milestones, violence in its eastern provinces continues to undermine progress and threatens to throw the country back into chaos.
Ben Affleck is known for roles in big Hollywood movies, but the actor and director came to Washington to champion a cause far away, but near to his heart. He founded a group called, "The Eastern Congo Initiative."
In a report released this week, Affleck outlined points to help Washington and others engage more in that part of Africa. He says time is running out.
"We have this window of opportunity that's very important in terms of here with the U.S. government and in terms of what's happening in the next year before the elections. Congo is on this tipping point," said Affleck. "It could easily fall back into chaos or move forward into recovery. That gives me and others a sense of real urgency."
Affleck calls the eight-year conflict in the DRC one of the deadliest since World War II. He says progress is being made towards security and stability. But the DRC is still plagued by weak state institutions, extreme poverty and violence in the eastern provinces.
During her visit last year to the Congo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said more must be done to protect civilians.
According to Johnnie Carson, Secretary of State for African Affairs, the trend is unsettling.
"Over the last three years, we have seen a continuing rise in the number of rapes of women in the Eastern Congo. This last year it was 17,000," noted Carson.
About 2 million people are still displaced and another 200,000 are refugees in neighboring countries. Affleck's ECI and eight other groups are working to change people's daily lives.
"We are advocating systemic change particularly in terms of government institutions like the FDRC [the Congolese army] that is in need of reform, but it's not all about the government of Congo," Affleck told VOA. "It's about getting donors together in an intelligent way and for the United States to spend their money wisely and to understand this is a moment of urgency."
Carson says the U.S. spent about $900 million on assistance for Congo last year. But some experts say the amount that will be allocated to Congo's 2011 elections won't be enough.
"Even in the context of a 900 million dollar program, the U.S. intends to provide roughly $5 million for elections in the Congo," said Tony Gambino, a former USAID Mission Director to the Congo. "It is estimated that the international community needs to provide $300 million. A reasonable contribution from the U.S. would be more like $50 million."
But U.S. Senator John Kerry said even with a small amount, the U.S. can achieve results.
"We are putting $106 billion into Afghanistan a year. More than $1 trillion went into Iraq," said Kerry. "Frankly, it would do America so much good to be able to say to the world that it's not just the war on terror or other kinds of things we care about."
He says the US needs to show that humanitarian causes are a priority.
Mariama Diallo's Complete Interview with Ben Affleck