By Alexsandra McMahan
Staff Writer

When American combat troops return from the Middle East, the words of advice often provided are to the tune of reacclimation, as if you can just “get used to” the United States again after a life changing wartime experience on the front lines. For Richard Gilbert, a retired Marine Corps sniper, these words were not enough. In his view, returning to the U.S. isn’t so much a reacclimating procedure, but instead, a blending of lessons learned both overseas and in his home country. Returning to the U.S., and particularly to San Diego, Gilbert did not only experience happiness and relief. Some welcomed him with coldness, and others with outright anger. “This is my third quarter [at UCSD],” Gilbert mentioned, “and I’ve been called a murderer here, I’ve been told I went to the Middle East and killed babies…” All of those things. It’s really interesting because there are things that are offensive to specific groups that neither one of us even knows are offensive.”

In some ways, Gilbert’s circumstances are not typical – he suffered a traumatic brain injury from his second tour in Iraq, held a very high-pressure and personal position in combat tours as a sniper, and when he returned to the U.S., decided to relocate to a city thousands of miles from where he was raised. However, with the number of brain injuries on the rise and the increased understanding that any position in combat is highly stressful, Gilbert’s story has common threads with those of many other veterans. Although the ways in which these servicemen and women cope with their different experiences vary, Gilbert stands by certain principles as key not only for veterans, but all human beings, to cope with intolerance, stress, and alienation.

Gilbert has extended these ideas of tolerance and open dialogue into a life of action, taking this course to a new level last spring. At San Diego’s Mesa Community College, Gilbert founded Project Unity, a blood drive aimed to bring together Muslim and veteran students. Project Unity became something every individual could take part in as a blood donor or volunteer, and a project that can be brought to other communities with ease.

The need for this project was cemented for Gilbert during some particularly formative experiences at Mesa Community College. Although Gilbert found animosity in many different places when he returned to the U.S., he realized that he encountered it most frequently within communities where veterans and Muslim students had to share space. The most notable example in his mind was during his fall semester at Mesa.

“When I was at Mesa, the Muslim Student Association had a tent, and at the time, I was rocking the aviators, I had my big red ‘Marine Corp retired’ hat on, and I saw a poster that said ‘WAR’ at the top of it. [I thought], ‘That looks very interesting, I should probably read what they have to say about it, because it would be interesting to get their take on it.’ So I approached the tent, and there were four young females there, and as I approached, they literally took three steps back.”

This drastic response stuck in Gilbert’s mind, particularly because he “was pretty surprised that [his] viewpoints on war coincided with their viewpoints a lot.” This experience wouldn’t leave his thoughts, and finally, he brought the discussion to the attention of his Vice President of the Student Veterans Organization at Mesa. Together, they determined something should be done to guide these two groups into a more comfortable relationship.

“I started thinking,” Richard said, “if our opinions are the same and I view people from Iraq, Middle Easterners, and Muslims as my brothers, and they don’t view me that way, then obviously there’s something wrong. We need to do something about that. On top of that, you add the fact that we’re all Americans, which automatically makes us brothers, and the fact that they didn’t even know who I was, they didn’t know my name — all they knew was my outward appearance…They seemed a little uncomfortable around me, and that made me uncomfortable, and I was like, ‘Surely, there’s something we can do to remedy that, to take care of that, to change their perspective of veterans.’” An important first step was Gilbert’s acknowledgment that this discomfort occurs on both sides: “There are also veterans who have a very blindsided viewpoint of Muslims and Middle Easterners, so there’s something we need to do to change their perspectives as well.”

Project Unity, Gilbert makes clear, was not a personal effort to justify his experiences or promote his viewpoints on war. “The overall goal, when I first started,” Gilbert emphasizes, “was just to get people to realize… the founding fathers’ ideology of what America is. That no matter what color you are, what religion you are, no matter what you believe in or who you love, the fact that we are all Americans, we are all brothers, and we are all human beings.” He feels that goal is still true within Project Unity’s efforts today, and contends that it is a project that can help everyone open dialogue and reduce ignorance on key issues at the same time without forcing students to change their beliefs.

“The awesome thing is that Project Unity — it’s not about getting us to see the same point of view. It’s not about me saying, ‘This is what I think and this is what I’m trying to get you to think.’ We’re not trying to change political beliefs, religious beliefs, [or] political points of view within Project Unity, whatsoever. It’s not pro-war, it’s not anti-war, it’s not pro-veterans, it’s not anti-veterans, it’s not pro-muslim or anti-muslim. It’s pro-American, and it’s pro-human.”

Gilbert has continued to learn from his experiences with transferring to UC-San Diego this year and joining a new community. He has not lost sight of Project Unity’s success last year and he would like to bring this experience to UCSD in the future. He has spent the past year establishing ties with the Muslim Student Association, Afghan Student Association, Student Veteran Organization, and the Arab Student Union. Eventually, Gilbert hopes this program could spread nationwide and help serve as a physical space where groups can take the first steps towards opening dialogue on tense issues. During our interview, he asked me, “You know the breast cancer walk that they do every year? All sorts of people come out, pink ribbon is everywhere, it’s all over the country. I would love for Project Unity to be coast-to-coast on every major university [campus]. Because that’s really where dialogue starts.”

Ultimately, Gilbert’s experiences are important because they shaped who he has become and his actions have become a product of that; however, he stresses that what he really wants above all is for others to feel comfortable discussing difficult questions. Without dialogue, open communication, and – sometimes – saying the wrong thing, Gilbert believes it is difficult to ever reach a level of comfort about yourself and your beliefs. It is after communication, Gilbert stresses that people can move past understanding and towards concrete action. This, he says, is where change will happen to make the world a better place.

“There’s so many things that we see and it’s like, ‘Oh that’s awful, that’s horrible, how can we change it?’ and there’s so many things that are so far out of our reach that we feel insignificant about, and we think, ‘Okay, that’s some bad shit that happened, but I can’t change it.’ I find myself saying, ‘Well, that’s not really an acceptable answer for me.’…[How] I look at it, if I can get you… to see things from a different perspective, if I get you to respect everybody’s points of view — not that you don’t, but — if I get you to do that, who are you going to talk to tomorrow? Who are you going to affect tomorrow? And then who are they gonna affect?”

Gilbert admits this isn’t easy. As a veteran, he has sometimes struggled with the viewpoints of others on war, duty, and respect for individual life, but he has always overcome these differences to form authentic personal and business relationships. It is possible, he argues, and we, as individuals, can all have a part in educating ourselves and learning from those around us. Sometimes the hardest part is getting started, but here, Richard Gilbert – as always – has a few things to say. His advice?

“Don’t be afraid. I feel like…our country is so busy being politically correct that we are now afraid to approach people. We are now afraid to open dialogue, we are afraid to say ‘oh, well, this is what I think.’ We’re afraid that what we think is offensive, and it might be, but what we think is offensive because we don’t know any better. We’re not going to know any better unless we open this dialogue and we educate ourselves.”

As a university, UC San Diego often promotes its work to create dialogue and safe speaking spaces. Richard Gilbert’s efforts are amongst the most honest and dedicated actions, I have seen to truly encourage individuals to reach a more open understanding of the lives and struggles that affect others. Project Unity serves as an example of what opening dialogue really can do: bring together groups, foster understanding, and ultimately save lives.

To find out more about Project Unity and how to participate, please visit the facebook page or contact the team. Additional information about Project Unity is available here.

Photos courtesy of Richard Gilbert.


By Alexsandra McMahan
Staff Writer

It was the fall quarter of 1995 and Scott Webb needed a few extra units to graduate from the University of California, San Diego. Most of us find some sort of answer, but not everyone expects that answer to determine the path of their future. In Webb’s case, he filled his spare units with French and his future with a career in West Africa. Webb began as a Muir College student and now works as a program officer for International Relief and Development (IRD), one of the largest USAID implementers.

It all began when Webb was a senior at UCSD and needed one more class to graduate.

“I took French at UCSD and it was awesome, actually. I needed an extra few units my last semester, and it was offered. I actually registered for German and then I heard some French and thought it sounded really nice. It ended up actually impacting where I went in Peace Corps… it’s the whole reason I ended up in West Africa.”

Webb’s time at UCSD was short but undoubtedly influenced his decision to join the Peace Corps – something most would consider the pivotal moment in his life.

“I went to Muir College, and graduated in ’95; my major was political science with a minor in sociology. I only went to UCSD for two years after transferring from community college and I kind of had to jump right in. It took me a couple semesters, but I landed on poli-sci. At that time, they didn’t really have an International Relations major. I ended up studying mostly foreign policy and policy development and things like that. While I was at UCSD, I was wandering around the Price Center one day, and they were having a career fair – there was a Peace Corps table there. It always had appeal to me: I saw the commercial when I was a little kid and that had always interested me. And I’ve always been surrounded by international people, my dad’s a scientist and he always had lots of colleagues from all over the world working with him.
So the Peace Corps recruiter said, “Hey, what’s your major?”
I said, “Oh, Political Science with a minor in Sociology.”
And he was like, “Oh, we could use you!”
I said, “Really?” and I was hooked.

UC San Diego is reputable for its scientific degrees and steady stream of pre-med graduates, but not necessarily for political science majors with minors in sociology. For Webb, it was very memorable to actually have a recruiter want him. He shelved the memory for a few years after graduation as he began working an office job – one he quickly learned to hate. “Sitting on my butt not doing much, I could see my next 20 years ahead of me and my colleagues,” Webb said, “and I just thought…there’s more that I can do.”

Webb decided to visit the Monterrey Institute and inquire about applying. They suggested because of his grades he “do something a little more remarkable, like join the Peace Corps.” Although Webb was now married, this idea floated around in his head for a few days until he asked his wife Andrea whether she had ever thought about joining the Peace Corps. Her response? A resounding yes. That was it: for the next two years, Scott and Andrea served as Peace Corps volunteers in rural agro-pastoralist communities and assistants to Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa. Because of Webb’s French study at UCSD, he and his wife were placed in Niger, and he has remained involved in West Africa for the past 10 years. Webb claims his initial work with the Peace Corps was a “huge introduction” into development as Niger is “always in the bottom five of the UN Human Development Index” and like Ethiopia unfortunately seems to “serve as a poster child for famine.” “It was really a big eye opener,” Webb admitted during our interview, and the experience has influenced his current work for International Relief and Development.

After the Peace Corps, it was a “bit of a ride,” but Scott made it his goal “to get back into international development.” After a stint as a Peace Corps recruiter and some time at the Monterrey Institute, Webb began working for IRD as an International Recruitment Officer in March 2008 and is currently a Program Officer for IRD’s Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems Unit.

Webb’s decade in aid work has taught him a lot about what works and what does not.

“The aid world is always more complex than it seems from here in the US. In the NGO world, there’s a great blog called “Stuff ExPat Aid Workers Like.” It’s a really cool blog that goes into this whole world of people that go abroad for decades. They make their career and they live overseas. Secretary of State James Baker, from the George H. W. Bush administration, wrote a book and he was saying there was a thing called ‘clientitis’. It’s an international relations term where, in that context, Foreign Service Officers can become enamored and supportive of whatever the host government says. I think to a large extent, many aid workers can sort of fall into that. But systemically, I think that the aid world really is a learning industry and is more in touch at the grass roots level than most Americans.”

Specifically, Webb believes that more NGOs are learning to not repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. As things move forward in his work with IRD, Webb predicts an aid machine that has learned from past mistakes but continues to utilize successful programs to create micro level development projects.

“You know, something I’ve really seen is people putting a huge emphasis on not recreating the same problems of the past. The Title 2 food programming is moving toward local procurement [of goods]… I think there are healthy evolutions, and the Obama Administration with Rajiv Shah as the head of US Agency for International Development (USAID), [has] put some people in there that I think are really interested in bringing it to the 21st century, where we’re really learning from all of the mistakes that have happened in the past. You know, billions and billions of dollars have been spent in international aid. And really, pretty much from the early 1960s until the early 1990s, it was totally ineffective because it was all involved in cold war rivalries, just plugging tons of money into communist/non-communist nations. We’ve learned a lot since then, and I think, in the coming years, you’re going to see lean, targeted, inclusive projects. When I say inclusive, not just the NGO going someplace and having total control over something, but [instead] an NGO partnering to facilitate linking the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable people to things like product or commodity value chains and better education systems. That is how things are evolving.”

He envisions the continuation of programs such as Feed the Future and a shift towards projects that partner with the private sector. Because we live in a global capitalist structure, Webb argues that successful aid projects in the future will be dependent upon the ability of aid organizations to work with the private sector firms that control the world’s capital.

“The big thing in my world right now is Feed the Future…. Feed the Future is actually the future. It’s the way that food aid projects and agriculture assistance projects are going, so that’s what we’re really concentrating on in my department. What those projects really entail, like I was saying, [are] partnerships with the private system. At the core, we have a capitalist global system. Nothing will be sustainable unless people are making enough money to provide for their families and strength their communities. To a large extent, I see NGOs building the capacity of small-holder farmers, so that those farmers are able to gain credit from private investors. Then, NGOs and private sector partners connect the people producing something with whoever’s going to process it, whoever’s going to ship it, whomever adds value and ultimately, to the consumers. So, Feed the Future projects are really going to be a tightly bound group of NGOs and private sector groups… There are lots of businesses, corporate interests, that are going to ship and process the food…. What we’ve done in the past, as far as agricultural aid, is we get people producing for themselves, and you give them improved practices, so they can produce just a little bit more for their family, and maybe they can sell a little bit in their local markets. That increases their income a little bit and their nutrition a little bit, but, you know, it doesn’t advance their country forward, it doesn’t create international income, it doesn’t get them involved in the global system. These developing countries in Africa — they have a massive oversupply of labor. The unemployment rate is really high. So you have big time rural to urban migration and that’s just because there’s no money in farming. But to a large extent, a lot of these places have a comparative advantage to grow something… There’s a lot going on. You’ve got the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which helps encourage investment in African companies and things like that. That’s very tied into Feed the Future, they tout that a lot. Basically, as I can see it at IRD, we have to make partnerships with the private sector where we help strengthen the value chain and guarantee the value of private investments in vulnerable small-holder farmers. That’s a root thing I think is going to happen [with IRD] and other NGOs as well.”

When asked what critics of aid to Africa, such as economist Dambisa Moyo were missing, Webb contended that it is not so much what they are missing but instead what they should focus on in the future.

“You have to look at aid in the context of how it’s evolved in the last 50 years. Like I said, the first 40 years of aid you can pretty much write off as Cold War. There’s been a lot of very, very well-intentioned work that has been done over the years and there’s been a lot of really smart people that have gotten PhD’s studying what has been done, but a lot of it has just been very directive. The same way that the ‘Washington Consensus’ – from the 60s to the 70s, with the IMF and the World Bank dictating policies to countries that the OECD countries would never follow – that’s rubbed people the wrong way. One thing I was thinking about when you brought this up was that Moyo’s book came out a couple of years ago. It predates the Arab Spring, and I think the Arab Spring offers a really good example of people in their countries helping themselves outside of the modern development system. Unfortunately, in many ways, it just has had to be violent because these are dictators that are keeping people down, but also, from that angle – dictators keeping people down – many of these African countries have just terrible inequality. You’ve got people that are just at the very bottom of the poverty ladder. Jeffrey Sachs has some really good work that he’s done on this…I highly recommend his books. But I think, at a core, what I care about is helping the most vulnerable people. Most of the countries, at least in the places I like to work like West Africa and in particular the Horn of Africa, you know the most vulnerable people are very disadvantaged. They’re often members of a culture or ethnicity that is somehow disdained by the ruling elite, and they don’t have a chance, really. The system is not fair, in many many ways, from the local person’s standpoint. If governments want to help themselves, and if Africans want to help themselves, it’s hard when the system is not fair. And I would go further, too – the governments of these countries, even when they are well intentioned and doing well, like Ghana… they’re doing pretty well, relatively speaking, but they also had advantages previously…The global system is just flawed. When you look at the WTO and the global trading regime, its stacked against these poor countries. Aid or no aid, it’s not a fair system. I see what I do as being able to work for a very large NGO that can have a huge impact in places where there are the most vulnerable people. I’m not there to work with the elite and have stuff trickle down. I’m there to work with the poorest of the poor.”

Webb admitted IRD had received contention within the aid community because of their massive growth during the Iraq War, but stood by the solid work IRD had done for the Iraqi people.

“Conceptually, working at IRD and it being a huge NGO, we’ve had projects [where] other NGOs have thought that IRD was too close to the military, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had two very large projects in Iraq; we had a program called CSP (Community Stabilization Program) that was about three and a half years and ended up being about $465 million dollars. At the time, it was the largest contract ever given to an American non-profit NGO. It started out as a smaller project, but as the Iraq War wore on, we took on more cities and it became a really huge project. I think a lot of good work was done. The goal of the project was at its core, to stabilize communities. IRD sees their development continuum as “emergency relief” where there’s been a shock to the system, like a disaster or a war… when that happens, you provide relief, like shelter and water and food and clothing that the people have absolutely no chance of getting on their own because the system has been totally disrupted. Then you’ve got stabilization, where you have to inject activity into the economy and into these communities that the government or other organizations in the local non-profit sector can’t provide for themselves. Then you’ve got development, which is really long-term stuff, along the lines of the food projects I mentioned before. In Iraq, we had the Community Stabilization Program where we had offices in about 15 cities. I actually got to work on this for about a year as a backstop, one of several backstops because it was such a huge project. I got to go to Baghdad at the end of ‘09 for about two weeks, which was really a very interesting experience. The colleagues I was working with were there all the time – I felt like I had to go, that it would be disingenuous to not go. It was a very interesting, huge project. We sent staff to different cities to set up an office where they would do income generation activities, youth development, community building… at its core, it was basically to flood a place with vocational training and youth development to keep young men busy, so that they would not take up arms and there would be less attacks and less insurgency.

Webb described the positive effects from these efforts.

“IRD published the final report… and you know, they were able to establish a link. I wouldn’t say it’s iron clad because there’s always exogenous factors that can affect whether conflict in a place is going to go down or not. But a lot of Iraqis had really good experiences. We have lots of really passionate Iraqi staff now that worked with us for a long time. When I visited them in the field, it was really one of the most inspirational trips of my life. To work with the Iraqi staff… I mean, here we are, Americans, staying in a compound where you can’t even leave it, and every time we left the compound, we had to be in an armored car, with a bulletproof vest, and 20 security guys worrying about getting me from point A to point B. And you know, our Iraqi staff, they call that commuting. I actually felt embarrassed because I thought, “these guys, this is their home. they’re just going to walk out of the compound, and out of the walls, just get home. Why am I so special?” It was very inspiring to talk to them. They were experienced professionals.”

After ten years as an aid worker and volunteering for the Peace Corps, Webb has had many opportunities to lose sight of his inspiration to work in the NGO field. Webb addressed what aid workers ultimately do to stay motivated and engaged.

“I always think of my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, living with rural agro-pastoralists, and the choices they had available to them – I just try to think of that all the time. I look at these people that I’m working with, and my main thing is that I really want to listen to the local people. All the solutions are there, all I’m doing is facilitating access to resources. That’s how I see my job. Helping vulnerable people access resources that they wouldn’t have had available to them otherwise because, like I was saying before, the system is unfair, their government doesn’t have the means to do it, or something horrible happened like a disaster. That’s how I keep inspiration. I want to help the most vulnerable people.”

If you are interested in learning more about Scott Webb’s work and following the progress of IRD’s projects, check out their website, follow Scott’s personal blog, or look up IRD and Webb on Twitter.

Image by Scott Webb, used with permission from the interviewee