"The real purpose of me writing this book, over the course of 9 years, was to fundamentally connect with young doers," said Rye Barcott, authour of, "It Happened on the Way to War." Barcott, a former Marine, who writes about his experiences as an impressionable student in Kenya, and a front-line warrior in Iraq, and the journey in between, went further and said that his was a story about social entrepreneurship and military service, and how the two clashed and converged in his heart and mind. He focused his presentation on two central themes, which he believed would be relevant to development practitioners – what he had learned on the approach to participatory development and the strengths and limitations of the military to engage in capacity building work.
A Story of Personal Growth
Barcott had gone to Kenya as a college student and arrived there with a stereotypical attitude for Westerners, i.e. coming to help the poor benighted natives. But, by choosing to live among the local population in the Kibera township of Nairobi, Kenya, an impoverished slum area, Barcott came to realize a "fundamental truth" – that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. The question that he began to grapple with was how to unlock the potential that he saw in the youth of Kibera. Carolina for Kibera (CFK), the organization that he helped to establish with Kenyan partners, developed in response to this internal struggle.
The road to fruition for CFK was fraught with hardship, admitted Barcott. Once CFK was off the ground, procurement of sponsorship and funding became immensely challenging. After his military experience, though, he found that "veterans, in particular, have a real appreciation for the value of investing small amounts of resources to prevent violence." Veterans, he opined, seem to possess an understanding that investing in violence prevention is more cost effective than allowing it to break out and subsequently trying to control it. Reflecting on his experiences, once CFK got off the ground, with its ensuing failures and setbacks, Barcott mused that, "At the end of the day, it's not the failures that count, but how you react to them." A central maxim of the Marines that Barcott believes prepared him for these trials and tribulations is to "improvise, adapt, and overcome."
While doing reconstruction work in Iraq, Barcott remembered seeing fear in the eyes of families and youth when confronted with a well meaning American Soldier, and compared that to the openness and collaboration with which Kenyans met him. Barcott concluded that capacity building work "is fundamentally rooted in trust and long-term relationships," which is made all the more difficult when one is carrying a weapon and covered in body armour. In order to more effectively carry out these peace-building missions, the U.S. military needs to understand the need to employ the full complement of U.S. developmental resources and work in partnership with local leaders.
Ambassador Odembo spoke of his experience growing up on the streets of Maathari and working in development and community organizing in Kenya. It was important to note that "Kibera is a microcosm of what Kenya can turn out to be if we don't get our act together." At present, Kenya is an amalgam of social, economic, and political challenges. Although the country has made strides, its course toward development continues. In spite of the long journey ahead, the Ambassador was "hopeful," and talked about "Vision 2030" (a government initiative to make Kenya a middle-income country by 2030). The most significant pillar in this framework for the future is sound governance, as exemplified by the new Kenyan constitution, which the Ambassador characterized as "solid," and among the "most robust" in the world. The principles of food, water, and access to health care and education form the cornerstone of the constitution and have been enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Picking up Barcott's theme of integrated development approaches, Eugene Bonventre, veteran of the U.S. military for 25 years and 10 years working in civil-military relations at USAID, said unequivocally that the military "is a doing organization, not a thinking organization." This makes it efficient in terms of fighting wars, but it also means that it does not spend time trying to understand and assess a community's needs. Bonventre juxtaposed this comprehension of the military's task orientation and its relationship to civil society with the notion posited by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates that "the military will never be a Peace Corps with guns." He cited Djibouti, where he formerly worked as a consultant, as an example of a torturous relationship, at the onset, between USAID, the military, and the government that had blossomed into synergy on health and education. However, he cautioned that this model was "not easily replicable" and chimed that civil-military coordination "is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults." Still, the pay off for getting defense, diplomacy, and development right were worthwhile.
Joel Barkan then commented on how Rye Barcott's narrative reflects the power, experience, and thread of participatory development. In his view, however, there was one missing element and that is strong and viable governance. "For participatory development to thrive," he said, "there must be peace, and a framework to enable it to the top." While Kenya has certainly come a long way in putting that together, "the struggle itself is not over yet."
During the Q&A session, the panel was asked about the state of education in Kenya. Ambassador Odembo replied by saying that Kenya spends more on education than any other country on the continent and is making considerable progress. The Ambassador and Barkan equally hailed the use of vocational training as a vehicle to drive job creation and opportunity in developing nations, thereby reducing poverty and the number of slums like Kibera. On the subject of youth and Kenya's way forward, Barcott asserted that "small" and "nimble" development organizations can add the most value by "focusing on small segments of the population; and doing it well; and learning together. Focus on depth, as opposed to breadth." Odembo concluded the discussion remarking that "the work that small NGOs do cannot be underrated... One young man, one young woman at a time – that does make a difference."