Ben Affleck and Gimme Shelter
Ben Affleck has recently directed a short film on behalf of the UNHCR called “Gimme Shelter” (using the Rolling Stones song of the same title). The film is part of a campaign by the UNHCR to generate 23 million US dollars to support their activities in response to the renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The conflict in the DRC is hands down the deadliest conflict of our times, and it almost defies imagination that a conflict of this magnitude has managed to attract so little attention and response over the past ten years – it is truly a stealth conflict of epic proportions. With violence rising again in the DRC, and the beleaguered city of Goma again on the verge of being overrun, now is as good a time as any for an attempt to raise some attention to its plight. While the mechanisms of humanitarian aid gathering and delivery often give rise to ‘carnivals of charity’ that seem to come and go depending on the whims of goodwill (based on what is the ‘fashionable’ crisis at the time, rather than what the actual humanitarian needs are), and although celebrity interventions can be controversial, this campaign should be applauded.
Roughly 95 percent of the 5.4 million people who have died because of conflict in the DRC have died not because of the bullets and the bombs, but because of preventable disease and starvation. Even if we cannot stop the fighting itself, we can at least do something to help the victims of the fighting. The figures above tell us that we have failed miserably in this regard – people died for lack of food, clean water, medicine and/or shelter that could have been made available. This is often the critical difference between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – the proportion of such nonviolent deaths never reaches such a high level in the case of chosen or fashionable conflicts. There cannot be a starker example than that in the DRC of the results of apathy.
Celebrities have the potential to use their fame to draw attention (and donations) to humanitarian crises and thereby boost the response. The jury is still out, however, on whether celebrities can go beyond boosting attention to crises (that are already on the radar), and can actually succeed in drawing attention to crises that are not yet on the radar. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for example, have chosen to focus much of their efforts on the conflict in Darfur, despite the fact that both have been to the DRC, and are aware that the scale of the problem in the DRC is far worse than that in Darfur. The website for the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict (co-founded by Angelina Jolie), for example, tells us that there 5,290,000 out-of-school children in the DRC, but the organization has chosen to focus its attention on Darfur (2,405,000 out-of-school children in Sudan), Iraq (540,000 out-of-school children), Haiti (572,000 out-of-school children) and New Orleans (victims of Hurricane Katrina).
This is not to take away from the work that these celebrities are doing or the positive effects of this work, and working to boost attention where attention already exists may well help the chances of success of this kind of advocacy (perhaps thereby making it the shrewd choice). But the real challenge lies in a case such as the crisis in the DRC, where, despite its unparalleled scale, attention is sorely lacking from every direction. Ben Affleck has chosen to focus his attention on this conflict, and has conducted a number of exploratory visits (before the latest round of renewed violence). Mr. Affleck’s choice should be applauded – it is a brave one, and there will surely be major challenges ahead in generating attention. Complexity has a way of quickly putting a damper on enthusiasm, however large the problem, and facing this obstacle will be a key challenge (Darfur’s rise to prominence has a lot to do with it being framed with an ostensibly simple storyline of genocide by ‘Arabs’ against ‘blacks’). The DRC is far from being an ‘easy sell’.
The film Gimme Shelter focuses not on the politics, but on the humanitarian issues. This is a fair choice. It is not the job of the UNHCR to stop the conflict and remove the underlying root causes. They are there to help relieve the suffering caused. In any case, it is the complexity of the political background to the conflict (no the conflict is not ‘chaotic’, it is complex) that has been responsible for generating so much apathy to date.
The campaign hopes to raise 23 million US dollars. Let’s hope they raise ten times that amount.