Chris Blattman

Just in case you were starting to think I hated celebrity meddling

“We’ve all seen advocates who have a lot to say, but when I really drill down with them, I don’t have any kind of clear sense of where their opinions are coming from,” he said. “I wanted to have the integrity of doing that and I also wanted to make a tangible difference on the ground.”

That is Ben Affleck, who gives his money directly to local groups in the Congo.

I thank Texas in Africa for the quote, who has good things to say about his charity.

Since I am an academic and so nothing can be simple or happy, I now bring you caveats.

Caveat number 1. Giving to local groups is no panacea. My gut tells me the money to be made from appealing to international dollars crowds out an awful lot of local collective action and demand for good government. I’m not sure I’d do it any differently, but I hate ignoring the unintended consequences.

Caveat number 2. This is no method of giving for us mere mortals who have small sums to offer. I’ve seen too many small givers who want to have a direct effect and see it in action. Hey, if you live in the country, have close friends there, or visit regularly, great. Otherwise, give up the illusion and try to give to someplace responsible. Your $500 does not by you the gratification of seeing hard results.

Affleck’s approach is a good one for real donors, though.But here’s where it all goes terribly, terribly wrong:

1. A UN agency or other bloated organization disburses the funds to deserving local NGOs. Unfortunately it takes them three weeks to procure a pencil, let alone the months to transfer cash grants for programs, and so NGOs go broke in between contracts and, when they do have these elusive contracts, spend half their time keeping recipts in triplicate.

2. Slightly less bureaucratic international NGOs dole out the money on behalf of the donor or UN. They are more nimble, but somehow 80% of the funds end up in Land Cruisers and management costs for the middleman.

So is Ben Affleck Congo’s best international donor? Egad.

I suspect commenters will enlighten me with much trash talk about all the above.

13 Responses

  1. While I’m a big fan of Texas in Africa, yourself Chris, and I have no major objections about the work of ECI, there are a few points worth making.

    1 – ECI is small, and seems to have an awful lot of visits from people from the US (based on my own personal observations – just the ones I’ve happened to see visiting). Ben Affleck is welcome to spend his money however he likes, but let’s not pretend that ECI is perfect in every way. There are plenty of (whisper it) International NGOs that work with local organisations, and the full spectrum of levels of bureaucracy as well – it’s very easy to pick out the worst examples and say that every organisation is like them. While ECI may technically not be an international NGO, it employs international staff and there are plenty of international NGOs that work in similar ways.

    2 – seriously Chris & TIA, you want to conflate NGO and UN bureaucracy and call it all crazy? You want to get into that whole argument about why judging organisations solely by their administration costs is not really a sensible way of doing things? I’d expect a bit better from you, honestly. There are waste and corruption issues obviously, skewed incentives pose significant challenges in NGO work. But you can’t possibly believe that you avoid these problems by giving money directly to local organisations? You don’t think that if that was the panacea, someone would have worked it out by now?

    In the field you’d be pushed to find anyone objective who would not agree that there is a ton of waste, especially (but not exclusively) within the UN, there’s a ton of corruption especially (but not exclusively) within the local NGOs. There are many things that local NGOs can do that international NGOs and the UN can’t, but there are also many areas where levels of skill, experience and fundraising capacity mean international NGOs can do things that local NGOs can’t. The UN’s added value, admittedly, comes only from the fact that it is the UN.

    I’m not sure you’d accept such generalisations in your academic work, so I don’t see why you should pick the easy targets like that. It’s not like we pick dubious academic research and say that all you professors/researchers are in the pay of various corporations’ publicity departments, stupid, publicity-seeking or worse There are plenty of people in the sector who devote an enormous amount of time and energy to improving it, and it’s not easy work, nor easy work convincing the public that good work can be done in this kind of complicated context.

    Anyway rant over, keep up the great blog Chris!

  2. While Ben Affleck certainly makes more money than any of us will ever see in our lifetime, I appreciate him taking the time to research and directly donate to a cause he is obviously interested in. Today’s society runs off of pop culture fueled by the antics of selfish celebrities. Most celebrities seem to think that having a hit song in the top 10 on iTunes or starring in an Oscar nominated film makes them a source of infinite knowledge about the world. Even worse, they think that because they are famous the average person actually cares what they think. I admire Affleck’s decision to keep his political beliefs quiet and donate to a local group. Hopefully this decision will encourage him to continue to donate to causes that are truly worthy of his paycheck.

  3. I love hearing about celebrities that get involved and do more than being a “spokesman” for humanitarian organizations. Apart from the funds they personally donate, the awareness they generate among their fans can lead to donations however small. And celebrities like Affleck at least generate aid that (as far as I can see) is actually helpful as opposed to aid that goes towards buying new cars for international NGO managers. The very first comment (if valid) is proof enough that Affleck’s efforts are somewhat effective.

  4. ECI is supporting local organizations directly, and they have an evaluation team in the field right now working on their methodology for determining who does/does not get assistance. It’s worth noting that the groups they’re already working with are well-established and capable of managing budgets.

    I’m a fan of the ECI model because they are channeling aid directly to locals, circumventing the insane NGO/UN processes and waste, and doing it in a responsible, evidence-based way. It’s also not just Affleck’s money; there are a bunch of donors involved, and anybody can contribute.

  5. Good points here… good of Afleck to do something useful and also understandable that he wants the kudos of branding his own thing.

    For the rest of us there are those gold-star, on-the-ground projects like School of St Jude ( in Tanzania that provides world-class education to 1,500 bright kids from the poorest homes. Huge impact at the local and country level. Run by locals.

  6. Chris:
    You make good points about the unintended consequences that often result from distributing funds in Africa but, unfortunately, they don’t appear to apply to ECI.

    On the website, the four charities that ECI lists as partners are all local, community based organizations and – as far as I can tell – they are being supported directly, not through “UN Agencies” or “INGOs” (Of course we would need to see their 990s to be sure that they aren’t funding these organizations through such intermediaries). This is generally considered the “best practice” by many philanthropic organizations working in Africa and is a strategy that is constantly espoused at meetings of the Africa Grantmakers Affinity Group – an organization which brings together philanthropists who workr in Africa to share strategies. As Jennifer puts it above ” he’s championing funding mechanisms that cut through the layers of bureaucracy that each take their share of money before it reaches local leaders and activists.”

    The one thing, however, that is unfortunate about ECI is that, despite Affleck’s celebrity status, the four grants he made last year were for $50,000 dollars each – a total of $200,000. While this is not an insubstantial sum, there are numerous philanthropic organizations that are already making many more grants directly to small, local CBOs, and who have been “on-the-ground” for many more years. The real tragedy here is not that Affleck is irresponsibly funding these organizations, it’s that he is effectively reinventing the wheel – doing the same thing that many other donor organizations are already doing but on a smaller scale. Of course, we can all commend Affleck for raising awareness about the situation in Eastern Congo and championing responsible philanthropic strategies, but the fact of the matter is that his money could be better spent by donating to philanthropic organizations that are probably already funding the very same CBOs as ECI. This is the point where one should criticize Affleck as he is, in some regards, just promoting himself by creating an organization like ECI, when he could have had the same impact by giving a few million dollars to American Jewish World Service or any number of other philanthropic organizations already working in the region.

  7. Regarding Caveat #1: Indeed, local organizations are not all made alike. But effective small grantmaking mechanisms to support nascent grassroots groups can build on, rather than destroy, local initiatives. To see examples of organizations and foundations that are doing this well, and how they do it, see:

    Regarding Caveat #2: There are a number of organizations that are crafting alternatives to business as usual in the aid and philanthropic sectors in order to reach more local organizations and connect them with individuals with small amounts to give. See for a successful example of this.

    The myth of “no capacity” and “no accountability” perpetuated about local organizations in the aid discourse is too often pejorative and disparaging, and does not do justice to the web of on-the-ground efforts that are well-run and making real long-term impact. has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

    I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international donors. While these local non-profits may lack the accountability mechanisms and sophisticated procedures that would make them more recognizable or esteemed in the aid sector, they have important competencies that distinguish them from other civil society actors and make them a vital missing link to sustainable changes at the community level, such as their resourcefulness, responsiveness, flexibility, and engagement with local government officials.

    Is Ben Affleck the best international donor in Congo? From my perspective, if he’s championing funding mechanisms that cut through the layers of bureaucracy that each take their share of the money before it reaches reaches local leaders and activists at the community level, he just might be. (Not to be too happy or simple about it, of course.)

  8. On the positive side, while a substantial share of Americans are apoplectic that the government might consider raising their taxes or meddling in their Medicare, celebrities like Affleck remind us that we live on a planet, and some people have it much worse than us. Celebrity aid reinforces our solidarity with human beings of different race and culture than us.

    It might not be a good way to give money, but it is a good way for a celebrity to behave. Conditional on being Ben Affleck, this just might be the best possible behavior.

  9. With regards to your first caveat, might there be a way (in some cases) to disguise an international donation as local contribution in order to boost or encourage local efforts? In other words, what if at least part of the funds were funneled through a local or anonymous channel…though even as I write this, I can see even more problems with unintended consequences, distrust, and suspicions given the patron-client world–e.g. “Who around here has been hiding that amount of wealth without us knowing?”

  10. Da violência aos votos: guerra e participação política no Uganda
    Qual é o legado político dos conflitos violentos? Apresento evidências de uma ligação entre violência no passado e aumento do compromisso político entre ex-combatentes – um trabalho do Prof Christopher Blattman da Universidade de Yale, aqui. Seu blogue aqui. Para traduzir, aqui.
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  11. Slightly less bureaucratic international NGOs dole out the money on behalf of the donor or UN. They are more nimble, but somehow 80% of the funds end up in Land Cruisers and management costs for the middleman.

    That’s a nice allegation. But do you actually have any evidence that the typical INGO has in country overheads of 80%?

  12. In a different context David Dobbs says:
    “If we can handle only 150 substantive relationships, how can we increase and strengthen local connections of the sort Dunbar speaks of here while still maintaining the extra-local connections many of us need to work in an extralocal information economy?”
    One possibility is to work both with local groups and international groups which may be interested in the local group and at the same time showing the possibility of international connections , mobility and migration to the local groups. I know that it is very vague but that is the sort of thing I have been trying for five years with an informal unregistered local group (with the small amounts that I can afford).

  13. I have to be vague about this, so I won’t blame you for probably not taking it seriously at all, but a close friend of mine is Rwandan, born in the Congo, is extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and has worked very high up in the governments of both countries. He has meet Affleck several times and has had only very good things to say about him and the way he works.

    Anecdotes aside, I’m confused all this. You appear to be taking one quote from Ben Affleck and then pointing out the huge general problems of many international donors and NGOs, as if to suggest that Affleck’s work is clearly done in the same manner simply because it contains the words “local groups.” Which it actually doesn’t, at least in the part you reprint here. Quite the spurious correlation, no?

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