FROM: U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
U.S. Mission to the United Nations: Remarks at the Save the Children Illumination Gala
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
New York, NY
November 20, 2014
Thank you so much, Jennifer, and please know that the other 192 countries have nothing on my five-year old and my two-year old, [Laughter] for the record. And thank you Carolyn and everybody who has spoken up here. Thank you, especially—there’s a lot of fancy people here—but thank you especially, Lily—Lily! Let’s give it up for Lily! [Applause]
Before the year 2004 when the Red Sox—from Boston—[laughter] won the first of three World Series championships this decade [applause] it may have been tempting to believe that Ben Affleck cared about the underdog because of his own personal suffering. [Laughter] But now we know that there must be something else going on.
Back in February, Ben testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the ongoing civil war and atrocities being carried out in Congo. At the outset, he told the Committee, “I am, to state the obvious, not a Congo expert. I am an American working to do my part for a country and a people I believe in and care deeply about.” But then Ben proceeded to lay out an in depth analysis of the evolving situation in a place he has traveled to 14 times in the last decade – touching on complex issues like the disarmament of rebel groups and the specifics around the renewal of the mandate for UN peacekeepers. He wrapped up with a set of extremely targeted policy recommendations and this was the furthest thing from amateur testimony.
For anyone who has ever talked to Ben about the Congo, you know that this is how he rolls. On the one hand, he is utterly humble and self-effacing about his role and his knowledge, on the other he is wholly dedicated to helping a region and a people who have suffered the most horrific violence imaginable.
The way Ben has learned – or as he would say, has “done his homework” on Congo – is by asking questions. Lots and lots of rigorous, drilling down, precise, never let go, never let up, always a follow up, questions. And that’s whether he’s talking to high-level policymakers or local human rights defenders, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, victims of atrocities, or perpetrators, Ben probes for answers. Why has the campaign to disarm that rebel group fallen short? How can we empower and protect girl victims of rape so that they are less afraid to report it. Questions aimed at understanding what is broken, and how to fix it. And Ben is a sponge; he soaks up all the facts and arguments and then turns them around for his advocacy and the service that his organization provides.
Ben has been asking these questions for nearly a decade about a place that far too few ask any questions about – a region where, in some parts, two out of three women and girls have been sexually assaulted; where nearly half of the people in the region know someone who has been a child soldier; in a country where nearly three million people have been internally displaced by violence.
Yet, where many people saw a region that would always be divided by war, just because it had been for so very long, Ben saw a reason for hope for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. His homework taught him that, empowered with the right tools, people in Congo can and are rebuilding their families and communities.
In a world where aid too often comes from the top down, and treats beneficiaries as passive victims who need outside saviors, the organization Ben founded does the opposite. The Eastern Congo Initiative finds partners in communities who can build change from the grassroots up, and gives them the tools that they need to do it. Women lawyers who bring the perpetrators of unspeakable sexual crimes to justice; educators who give former child soldiers an accelerated primary education so that they can catch up with their peers; birth attendants who can consult and can prevent maternal deaths. ECI recognizes that these local actors – teaming up with the actors – make the most effective change agents. And while they are willing to fight alone, they shouldn’t have to.
The impact of the support that ECI provides – and Ben’s effort to convince other governments and organizations to lend similar support – has been profound. It has given people who want to change their country, who want to be better for themselves, for their families, for their kids, the means to do it.
So, as much as Ben may say he’s not an expert, this much is certain: he is making an outsize impact in a region and for a people he believes in, and he is making other people believe, too.
For that reason, it is an honor to present Ben Affleck with the Save the Children’s Global Child Advocate Award. Congratulations, Ben.