National News

Ben Affleck on the Eastern Congo Initiative

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-12-08 02:00

Actor and philanthropist, Ben Affleck sat down with David Brancaccio to talk about Affleck's foundation, the Eastern Congo Initiative. The organization is an advocacy and grant-making initiative focused on working with and for the people of eastern Congo. 


Five facts about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the history of conflict in the country:


  • With a population of more than 68 million people, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa, and the 18th most populous country in the world
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the second-largest rainforest in the world – 18% of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforests are in the region.
  • More than 250 ethnic groups reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo and they speak more than 240 languages.
  • Violence, poverty and disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo have claimed the lives of more than 5 million men, women and children.
  • Despite democratic elections and multiple peace agreements, the eastern region is still impacted by conflict – more than 1.3 million people are not able to return to their homes.


Ben Affleck walks among a crowd at a camp outside of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Credit: Barbara Kinney


Ben Affleck on his first visits to eastern Congo, and what made him want to help:


"The people who were living there were not, you know, hiding under tables. They were not cowering before warlords. You could go to a city and people were still going to work, and trying to sell cellphone chips and bananas and these little scooters, and that the human spirit was such that they wanted not only to live, but to thrive and to succeed. In fact, the very same things we believe in fervently here. Sort of the American dream. The Congolese had a very similar dream, and I was moved by that.

"You know I had a sort of ... subconsciously labored under this delusion that's fostered here when we see images of Africans. You know, swollen bellies, laying on their back, flies on their eyes, [saying] "help us," you know, that sort of thing, waiting for a handout. And these were people who in particular in the community-based organizations that I was drawn to who were doing that work for themselves and in an extremely smart and dedicated way."


On how he is trying to help:


"When we looked at aid and traditional aid and aid models and [at] what was successful, we found a really mixed bag. In fact, opponents of aid will point out that $50 billion has been given over the last 70 years, and there hasn't been much progress. Part of what we believed was that that was because, in large measure, it was about western people paying themselves to go over there and sort of wander around and do very short-term projects. So we wanted to do something sustainable that would raise incomes and that would be there long after we were gone. And so what we chose was coffee and cocoa. Both of which [for]  the Congolese were huge businesses and huge agricultural sources of revenue before the war." 


On being just another guy from California who thinks he's got the prescription for fixing problems half a world away:


"One of the flaws that we identified when I first started traveling and doing research was that you have large NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who sort of plant themselves in the region and say, "This is how you're going to do it." And I sort of liken it to as if the Chinese showed up in Iowa and said, "No, no, no this is how you're going to farm." They may have a good technique for farming, but the cultural issues and the dramatic change would be such that it would be counterproductive. So what we do is we identify the community organizations who are already in the communities. Who already have the relationships. Who are already leaders in the communities. Who have experience with what they're doing, and we help foster growth with them. We help support them. We help expand what they can do....

"I am keenly aware of the fact that I am a guy from California. That despite the fact that I've been [to] the region nine times, and have done a lot of research and know a lot of people down there, that doesn't make me an expert. What makes me smart is that I listen to experts, and most of all I listen to the Congolese." 



Close-up of coffee beans from one of the Eastern Congo Initiative's partner cooperatives.

Credit: Michael Christopher Brown



Affleck also has a few suggestions for how to get involved and help. You can also listen to them by clicking on the above audio link:


  • Support and buy products made by the Congolese.
  • Become aware of the issues.
  • Become a constituency and support politicians who support these issues.


You can find more information and ways to help at


Note: Listen to Marketplace Morning Report this week and next for more stories about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Marketplace reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, went to Congo for two weeks, and produced stories about the difficulties the country is facing, corruption, war, and the courageous struggle that individuals have to go through to rebuild their lives.


More diverse police forces are only the first step

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-12-08 02:00

As nationwide protests about police killings continue, the idea of diversifying police forces to better reflect their communities has taken hold. But forces in many big cities have been increasingly diverse for decades, with a mixed record of success in affecting changes in tactics and improving community relationships. 

David Sklansky of Stanford Law School, who has studied demographics changes in U.S. police departments and wrote a paper on the subject, found that the pace of change has varied greatly among departments, but that demographic transformation, where it has occurred, has gone a long way in breaking down entrenched police subcultures of institutional solidarity and insularity. 

"What you see is enormous change, enormous progress but uneven progress and incomplete progress," Sklansky says. "Departments, as they've diversified, have become more dynamic, lively places, where there's much more discussion, and much greater range of opinions voiced." 

The police department in New York, for example, now has the most diverse force in its history. As of 2010, a majority of its patrol officers were reportedly from minority populations. Yet recent protests in New York have drawn attention to complaints about police use of force and aggressive tactics such as 'stop-and-frisk,' which the department has largely discontinued under New York's new mayor Bill de Blasio.

"There's a lot of distrust," says Terrell Jones, a community worker who helps low-income people affected by drug abuse. Jones says he can remember negative experiences with the police in New York dating back to his teenage years in the 1970s. 

"Me being a man of color ... I can remember when I was young, I was beat up by the police for just sitting on my block," Jones says. "And nothing has changed. It has gotten worse." 

Protesters in New York City hold signs referencing the 'Broken Windows' policing strategy, which targets lower-level crimes in urban settings.

Nova Safo/Marketplace

Adding more minority patrol officers to the rank and file doesn't necessarily improve the relationship with a community, says Nelson Lim, Senior Social Scientist with the RAND Corporation's Center on Quality Policing. 

"The scientific literature on minority officers behavior, whether they're substantively different from white officers ... is mixed," says Lim, adding that having a diverse workforce is still important because it makes it easier for police departments to change their tactics. The key ingredient being leadership both from politicians and police managers, says Lim. 

"I cannot overemphasize the leadership," Lim says. "[If] they develop good relationship(s) with minority communities ... you will see the change." 

Congress' long to-do list may make it more productive

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-12-08 02:00

On Capitol Hill, a lame-duck session is underway. There are just a few weeks left until the 113th Congress is over, and the 114th Congress begins and ushers in a Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Before then, lawmakers have to figure out how to fund the government, and they have to deal with both a defense bill and tax breaks that are set to expire.

According to the Pew Research Center, lame-duck sessions “are shouldering more of the legislative workload than they used to.” Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, argues they have become more important in this era of stopgap spending bills. “They provide that final deadline,” she says. “An action-forcing deadline.”

Pew says productivity may increase as a congress winds down. But Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College, says there are consequences to leaving; for example, budgeting to the last minute. “A government can’t plan when it doesn’t know how much money it has to spend,” she notes.

Mark Peterson, a public policy professor at UCLA, says this lame-duck session is going to seem especially productive.

“The congress during the regular session came close to doing nothing," he says. "So, the proportionality of actually getting work done is going to look more impressive in the post-election period.”

That is thanks in part to how much time lawmakers spent on recess this year, campaigning to stay in Congress. 

H&R Block bundles taxes and health insurance

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-12-08 02:00

The tax preparation company H&R Block releases its earnings report on Monday. And this year, the company has broadened its services; it will not only help file your taxes, it’s also offering to help you sign up for health care. This is a direct result of the way that taxes and healthcare have become linked by the Affordable Care Act.

“Presumably low- and middle-income households are where the action is on this issue of health insurance and tax filling,” says Bill Gale, a tax policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

Many of the people signing up for healthcare for the first time are from low- and middle-income households. This is the same segment of the population that makes up the bulk of H&R Block’s customers, whose satisfaction is directly tied to the size of their tax refund. This year, those refunds could be smaller for people who don’t sign up for health insurance.

“You could pay a penalty of $285 for not enrolling,” says Nicole Smith, an economist with the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

For people who don’t sign up for coverage, that penalty gets larger each year. There are subsidies available for people who earn less than four times the poverty rate. All of this means that filing taxes this year will be more complicated than in previous years.

Companies like H&R Block owe much of their existence to the complicated nature of filing taxes. And now with healthcare thrown into the mix, their services have expanded accordingly.


Peaceful Protest Turns Chaotic In California's East Bay

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 01:51

For a second straight night, a police brutality protest that started in Berkeley ended in arrests, this time after moving to Oakland and descending into vandalism and looting.

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Medicine's Subtle Art Gives A Man The Chance To Breathe Again

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 01:08

When Bob Smithson could no longer breathe on his own and surgeons wanted to operate, his doctor decided to take a chance on a different treatment. That decision gave Bob another chance at life.

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New 'New Republic': A 'Vertically Integrated Digital Media Company'

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

The magazine saw an exodus of 50 top contributors in the days after billionaire owner Chris Hughes, formerly of Facebook, announced The New Republic was going to move to New York and transform.

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Landrieu's Loss Flips Lingering Holdout Of Democrats' 'Solid South'

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

In her runoff against Republican Bill Cassidy, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, D.-La., didn't just lose — she was walloped. The win gave the GOP complete dominance of the Deep South in the Senate.

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Justice Department Moves To Further Rein In Racial Profiling

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

New guidelines being unveiled today will broaden rules for the FBI, ATF, DEA and other federal agencies, that will ban — or nearly ban — profiling by race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

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Burnt Remains Of Missing Mexican Student Identified; 42 Still Not Found

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

DNA testing confirmed that bone fragments from Mexico match relatives of Alexander Mora Venancio, one of a group of students from a rural college who officials say were abducted in September.

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Their Senate, Their Rules: GOP May Allow Blocking Of Nominees Again

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

A year after Democratic Senators invoked a "nuclear option" to stop GOP filibusters of confirmation votes, Republicans are debating whether to switch back. Some say they're sick of the fighting.

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Old And Overmedicated: The Real Drug Problem In Nursing Homes

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

Way too many residents of U.S. nursing homes are on antipsychotic drugs, critics say. It's often just for the convenience of the staff, to sedate patients agitated by dementia. That's illegal.

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Oh, Snap! NASA Promises Best Photo Yet Of Faraway Pluto

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

A spacecraft on its way to Pluto has just woken up from hibernation. By next month, scientists expect to have the first good pictures of the dwarf planet. All the others have been, well, crummy.

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Their Senate, Their Rules: GOP May Allow Blocking Of Nominees Again

NPR News - Mon, 2014-12-08 00:57

A year after Democratic Senators invoked a "nuclear option" to stop GOP filibusters of confirmation votes, Republicans are debating whether to switch back. Some say they're sick of the fighting.

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