Actor and director Ben Affleck testified before the U.S. Senate last week, citing Starbucks as an example of how a private company can bring economic development to some of the world's poorest regions.
This is the fourth time Affleck has testified on Capitol Hill discussing U.S. foreign aid in Congo where an organization he founded, the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), is trying to rebuild the country’s coffee industry. This time, Affleck spoke alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has set a goal of helping to end African dependence on food imports within 15 years.
“Thanks for having me follow the greatest and most important philanthropist in the history of the world. I’m sure I’m going to come off great,” Affleck he told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations & Related Programs.
The nearly two-hour hearing began with a brief history of the Congo, one of the leading exporters of coffee in the 1970’s. After decades of armed conflict, coffee production there today is less than 10 percent of what it once was and there have been an estimated 5 million deaths due to violence, disease and starvation. Nearly 3 million people from the region remain displaced today.
“Those statistics tell you nothing about Congo’s future or about the extraordinary and resilient people working every day to rebuild their nation,” said Affleck. “The Congolese people refuse to be defined by their country’s past.
Affleck became actively involved in philanthropy related to the central African country almost a decade ago, after he read The New York Times coverage of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He made several trips to the region to meet with those familiar with economic issues in the country, and later reported on the humanitarian crisis there for ABC News Nightline. Affleck produced documentaries on the crisis before co-founding ECI in 2010.
In 2014, ECI began supporting more than 4,000 coffee farmers to increase the quality and quantity of their production. With help from Starbucks, ECI trained coffee growers to maximize farmers’ profits.
“Starbucks has purchased 40 tons of coffee representing millions of cups of coffee,” said Affleck. “From a relatively modest investment, farmers’ incomes have more than tripled, and farmers can send their children to school, put food on the table and access proper health care.”
The public-private partnership between Starbucks and ECI has “transformed the lives of thousands of families,” Affleck testified. “This isn’t charity or aid in the traditional sense. It’s good business.”
Starbucks is working to make Eastern Congo a reliable source of high quality Arabica coffee, and in the process, linking Congolese farmers to the international marketplace.
“Starbucks and ECI hope that continued development will help raise standards of living and ensure that Congolese communities become permanent, growing participants in the global trading system,” said John Kelly, Starbucks senior vice president of Global Responsibility and Public Policy.
There are plans to work with an additional 10,000 farmers over the next four years to build their coffee business capacity and improve the quality and quantity of their harvest. Find out more about how Starbucks invests in farmers and their communities around the world – sharing agricultural knowledge, research and best practices – in the company’s newly-released 2014 Global Responsibility Report.
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