Political and Hollywood royalty came together today as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and movie star Ben Affleck spoke at a conference in Washington D.C. focused on helping kids around the world live to see their fifth birthday. This year more than 7 million children, mostly in Africa, will die before reaching that milestone.
Following her own speech, Clinton introduced Affleck, who runs a charity working with women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Now I get to exercise one of the perks of being secretary of state," she said with a big smile. She spoke about seeing the work of Affleck's organization, the Eastern Congo Initiative, first -hand while visiting the Congo in 2009. Clinton also spoke of her personal affection for the actor and his wife, actress Jennifer Garner.
"I've known this young man for a long time and I have watched him start his own family with three beautiful children and a wife that makes it all work," said Clinton to laughter. "I have enjoyed him in person, I have enjoyed him on the screen, but I particularly admire his commitment."
Affleck and Clinton shared a warm hug, after which he returned the praise. "Now that's what they call in Hollywood a tough act to follow," he said jokingly. The crowd laughed as Affleck admitted that he was having trouble reading from the same teleprompter as Secretary Clinton.
"I hope you guys don't notice there's a teleprompter," said Affleck as the audience laughed. "The secretary and I are slightly different heights."
But the topic of Affleck's speech was no laughing matter. The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world. Fifteen percent of the county's children die before their fifth birthday, a statistic the actor made deeply personal.
"I have three children who fall into the vulnerable age range," he told the crowd. "I cannot imagine what it would've been like driving my wife to the hospital pregnant, about to give birth and thinking to myself well there's a 15 percent chance that each of these children won't live to be five years old."
Affleck pointed out that many of these deaths are entirely preventable and not expensive to end.
"Much of the time saving a child's life is as simple as ensuring kids sleep under bed nets to avoid malaria and that they receive nutritional supplements and that they have immediate access to healthcare. This could save millions of lives a year alone and would cost less than $30 a child."
Holding the world accountable was the primary theme of Secretary Clinton's speech as well.
"If we make sure that every child everywhere has the same chance to reach his or her fifth birthday, then we will have added another story to the short list of the greatest thing people have ever done for one another," said Clinton. " We would have set ourselves on a path to a world that is more stable, more prosperous, and more just."
Clinton cited several new programs the United States is supporting that will follow a new road-map to end child mortality in this generation. These programs, like Affleck's organization, will be locally-driven with help from the international community. She also pointed out that there will now be a much more targeted focus on the countries needing the most help. Of all early-childhood deaths, 80% happen in 24 countries. India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the DRC have the highest child death rates.
The "Call to Action" Initiative has found another way to personalize the issue for the ordinary person. Over 1000 global leaders, including Secretary Clinton, have posted pictures of themselves at five years old on the program's Web site. Clinton talked about her own picture, which was displayed during her speech, and what it means.
"I also dug up a photo, but you know it was so long ago I think I'm fine 5? she said jokingly. "Regardless, the picture reminded me of how fortunate I was. I could be looking forward to growing up, to going to school, to making friends all the things we want for our own children" she said. The pictures represent so many stories like hers, of people who grew up to live their dreams and accomplish great things. But they also represent the children around the world, who today do not have that chance.
"This year millions of children will never get to take a similar photo because they won't survive their first five years," said Clinton somberly. "That cannot be the future we want for our children, or anyone's children."