How celebrity strategic partnerships are disrupting humanitarian space
Can a celebrity be a “disrupter," promoting strategic partnerships to bring new ideas and funding to revitalize the development field—or are celebrities just charismatic ambassadors for big business? Examining the role of the rich and famous in development and humanitarianism, Batman Saves the Congo argues that celebrities do both, and that understanding why and how yields insight into the realities of neoliberal development.
In 2010, entertainer Ben Affleck, known for his superhero performance as Batman, launched the Eastern Congo Initiative to bring a new approach to the region's development. This case study is central to Batman Saves the Congo. Affleck's organization operates with special access, diversified funding, and significant support of elites within political, philanthropic, development, and humanitarian circuits. This sets it apart from other development organizations. With his convening power, Affleck has built partnerships with those inside and outside development, staking bipartisan political ground that is neither charity nor aid but “good business." Such visible and recognizable celebrity humanitarians are occupying the public domain yet not engaging meaningfully with any public, argues Batman Saves the Congo. They are an unruly bunch of new players in development who amplify business solutions.
As elite political participants, celebrities shape development practices through strategic partnerships that are both an innovative way to raise awareness and funding for neglected causes and a troubling trend of unaccountable elite leadership in North–South relations. Batman Saves the Congo helps illuminate the power of celebritized business solutions and the development contexts they create.
Introduction: Batman Saves the Congo
1. Celebrity, Disruption and Neoliberal Development
2. Narrating the Congo: Dangerous Single Stories and the Organizations that Need Them
3. Choosing the Congo: How a Celebrity Builds a Development Organization
4. Marketing the Congo: Products that Sell Development
5. Saving Congolese Coffee: Celebrities and the Business Model for Development
6. Celebrities and the Local Politics of Development: As Seen from Kinshasa
7. Conclusions on Celebrity and Development: Disruption, Advocacy and Commodification
Epilogue: COVID-19 and Making ECI Relevant Again
Appendix A. Methodology and Data Collection
Appendix B. Affleck, ECI, and ECI Partner’s Interactions with Congress, 2011–2017
Appendix C. K&L Gates Lobbying on Behalf of Eastern Congo Initiative
Alexandra Cosima Budabin is senior researcher at the Human Rights Center, University of Dayton, and contract professor in the Programme in Media, Communication, and Culture at the Free University of Bolzano.
Lisa Ann Richey is professor of globalization at Copenhagen Business School. She is coauthor of Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (Minnesota, 2011) and editor of Celebrity Humanitarianism and North–South Relations: Politics, Place, and Power.
"This is an exciting, original, and fascinating book. It’s important not just for what it reveals—the Janus-faced, contradiction-laden nature of celebrity development politics—but for how this work was done. Batman Saves the Congo sets the standard for following high-profile development interventions from the privileged boardrooms where they are conceived to the coffee fields they seek to support. It’s a triumph."—Dan Brockington, author of Celebrity Advocacy and International Development
"This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to current debates on celebrity activism in the humanitarian sector. Using Ben Affleck’s intervention in the Congo, the book offers a razor-sharp analysis of the inner workings of celebrity strategic partnerships as a new entrepreneurial model of aid. More than this, it develops an important criticism of humanitarianism and its entanglement with corporate and entertainment logics that, despite good intentions, work to hide colonial legacies behind the glamour of celebrity stardom."—Lilie Chouliaraki, author of The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism
"Thoroughly researched and often laugh-out-loud funny, Batman Saves the Congo is a critically important look at a growing and under-examined — and frequently absurd — segment of the aid industry. "—Washington Post
"This is a well-written, entertaining study that deserves a wide audience among readers interested in celebrity humanitarianism and the international politics of development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo."—CHOICE
"The book Batman Saves the Congo is deeply researched, utilises a brilliant mix of methods of inquiry, and exposes a complex web of actors engaged in development efforts in the Congo."—Journal of Humanitarian Affairs