Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A Marine meditates on ways to prevent ethnic violence in the Third World

By Rye Barcott Best Defense guest columnist Ten years ago I teamed-up with two Kenyans named Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Festo and cofounded Carolina for Kibera (CFK) as a non-governmental organization. I was an ROTC Marine Option midshipmen at the time, and our objective was to reduce ethnic violence and spark change from within one ...

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By Rye Barcott
Best Defense guest columnist

Ten years ago I teamed-up with two Kenyans named Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Festo and cofounded Carolina for Kibera (CFK) as a non-governmental organization. I was an ROTC Marine Option midshipmen at the time, and our objective was to reduce ethnic violence and spark change from within one of the world's largest slums -- Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera. Population estimates range from more than 200,000 up to a million people living in abject poverty in an area the size of Central Park. Until recently, the Kenyan government didn't recognize its existence, and thus provided practically no services: electricity, public education, healthcare, and access to safe drinking water and waste disposal.

By Rye Barcott
Best Defense guest columnist

Ten years ago I teamed-up with two Kenyans named Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Festo and cofounded Carolina for Kibera (CFK) as a non-governmental organization. I was an ROTC Marine Option midshipmen at the time, and our objective was to reduce ethnic violence and spark change from within one of the world’s largest slums — Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya.

No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera. Population estimates range from more than 200,000 up to a million people living in abject poverty in an area the size of Central Park. Until recently, the Kenyan government didn’t recognize its existence, and thus provided practically no services: electricity, public education, healthcare, and access to safe drinking water and waste disposal.

CFK began with an inter-ethnic soccer program. In order to play in the league, teams had to be ethnically diverse and participate in “wars on garbage” — physically exhausting community service cleanups that occurred during each soccer tournament. We call our approach “participatory development.” The key is that the organization is owned and led by community leaders, and that dozens of American volunteers participate as partners, not directors. In my book, It Happened on the Way to War, I draw parallels to the challenges and limitations our military faces when forced to grapple with similar work.

The release of the book marks CFK’s 10th Anniversary, and the organization has created an outreach campaign to American high schools and colleges called the Power of 26. Meanwhile, in Kibera, CFK remains committed to long-term investment in young leaders through locally-led, integrated programs. These include a soccer league with more than 5,000 members, a girls’ center, a scholarship program, and a health clinic that treats more than 40,000 patients per year. That health clinic started with a grant to my co-founder Tabitha Festo of merely $26. Hence the “power of 26.”

Our story illustrates the power of small groups of committed citizens to make a significant impact with minimal resources. Preventing violence is cheaper and smarter than responding to it — and yet there is so little investment in prevention. I believe we as a nation can learn from CFK’s approach to helping create role models and break the cycles of poverty and violence in a volatile place. That’s not simply a matter of doing good in the world. I think it is also a matter of national security. 

Rye Barcott served as a human intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. He is a co-founder of Carolina for Kibera, and now works in the sustainability office of Duke Energy in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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