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Matt Damon: Fighting Poverty in Africa

Matt Damon: Fighting Poverty in Africa
Matt Damon
George Pimentel/WireImage

09/15/2006 AT 05:45 PM EDT

Matt Damon is on a mission. No, it's not another installment of his hit Bourne Identity films (though the third one is due out next year.) This time, the actor is fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa.

Damon, who took up the cause after spending more than a week visiting Africa in May, hosted a fundraiser in Toronto last week to raise money to fight global poverty.

The event, attended by Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Wyclef Jean and John Legend, raised almost $1.8 million for Canada’s One X One and the U.S.-based Millennium Promise, headed by United Nations adviser Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.

Damon ran a celebrity auction for prizes that included a chance to escort him and Pitt to the premiere of Ocean's Thirteen. Sold! But that's not all Damon is doing. He talks to PEOPLE's Mary Green about the documentary he's working on, his hopes for the future and watching Wyclef sing with the African's Children Choir.

PEOPLE: How did visiting Africa affect you?
Damon: It's not some theory that someone's trying to explain to you. You're looking right at people who are living in extreme poverty, and it's really unnecessary. But what overwhelmed me the most was a sense of hope that I got, because I really felt like a lot of these problems are fixable. There are some really basic things that can be done that will have an unbelievable impact. So it's about educating people about that. Look, I'm learning too. I feel like I just started down this road – down what's going to be a lifelong trek – but it's most important that we all make it together.

Were you happy with your Toronto fundraiser?
I thought it was great. I mean, John Legend, I don't think there's anybody on the planet right now with a better voice. And how about Wyclef? When he got up (to sing with the African's Children Choir) – was that unbelievable! And how about when he turned to the kids and said to the translator, "Tell them to have fun," because they were on their best behavior. They've come from Uganda and they're trying to be polite and he's like, "No, no, no. Tell them to have fun!" And then they started dancing. My wife (Luciana) was crying just watching these kids because they were so happy.

What will it take to implement change in Africa?
This is going to be fixed by people and not by politicians. (Politicians) don't feel like they have an incentive to do anything because these people are in Africa and they don't have a vote here, and until they realize that the people who vote here do care about it, they're not going to do anything. So it's up to us.

Tell us about the documentary you're making, Running the Sahara.
The film (follows) three ultramarathoners running across the Sahara to shed light on the issues there, particularly the lack of water. As part of that, we've started a group called Africa H20. Lack of clean water and sanitation kills nearly 4,500 children a day. Running the Sahara (which the filmmakers plan to debut next year) is, hopefully, incredibly entertaining and brings a lot of awareness to some of the issues that people face in Saharan Africa. At RunningTheSahara.com, you can actually follow the progress of the runners. They start at the end of next month and you can watch them run across the Sahara and see what's happening to them as they're going.

To learn more about the causes Damon has been discussing, go to Millennium Promise or ONE.org.
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