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Kenya must embrace her prodigal sons and daughters

I want to tell you about a country I know. This country has a population of 20 million people. Its citizens include doctors, scientists, technologists, industrialists, shopkeepers, salespeople, artisans and housewives. The average income of this group is approximately 8,000 US dollars per annum- more than 20 times that of the average Kenyan. This country has a GNP of some 160 billion US dollars, twice the size of Malaysia. Can you name the country?

You probably can’t, because it isn’t a country at all. The ‘country’ in question is what you would get if you grouped together the Indian Diaspora – the multi-faceted, diverse people of Indian origin scattered across the globe. In case you hadn’t noticed, these people aren’t just shopkeepers; they head banks, lead management consulting firms, run medical practices and conduct research in leading universities. And they dominate the information-technology industry wherever they are.

These 20 million people are so successful that they collectively produce an income that is already one-third that of the one billion Indians at home. They constitute one of the most resourceful and determined groups on the planet.

Kenya, too, has its own Diaspora. Over the past 10 years in particular, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, frustrated by limited opportunities at home, have left for ‘greener pastures’ abroad. Their numbers are not authoritatively documented, but they could be estimated to number close to a million people.

They live in the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, and various countries in Europe. Closer to home, they have joined the workforces of South Africa and Botswana. Some are in the upper echelons of professional life; many are part of the toiling working classes of their new countries. Who are they? Our progeny, our siblings, our kith and kin.

They are increasingly upwardly mobile. They are winding their way up the corridors of power, wealth and influence. They are working in economies more complex than ours, and are exposed to leading-edge technology and advanced management practices.

Let us assume that they are some way away from earning the kind of money commanded by the Indian Diaspora (who have been abroad for many decades longer). If we assume that they earn only a third or so (on average) of that group, we are still looking at an annual per capita income of around 3,000 US dollars. If we have a million Kenyans abroad, they together account for some 3 billion dollars, or more than a quarter of Kenya’s own GNP!

Even if we assume that the true numbers abroad may be exaggerated, and that those who are abroad earn far less than the norm in their adopted countries, we still get a conservative base number of one billion dollars, or 9 per cent of our national income. Now, a billion dollars is a lot of money. It is, by way of illustration, 40 per cent of our annual tax revenue.

But is it ours, I hear you ask. Are these people even Kenyan any more? Did they not leave us behind and move on to pastures new? Are they not Americans, Canadians and Norwegians now, and is their income not part of those countries’ earnings? Should we not, in fact, view them with resentment, since they abandoned their homeland and heritage, and followed the scent of money?

That is one view, but it is not a particularly enlightened one. Let us examine its foundations.

Firstly, can resourceful people be blamed for moving to economies that allow their talents to flourish? Consider the doctor who was languishing in a rural Kenyan hospital, working with the most basic equipment and earning ten thousand shillings a month, denied even basic supplies because of a corrupt government. Can you point the finger at him for taking an early opportunity to settle in America’s Midwest, where he now earns forty times that amount and is exposed to all the latest medical developments on a daily basis? People of talent work in an arena bigger than a single country.

Secondly, consider what lies in these emigrants’ hearts. They may be earning good money and living in advanced societies, but has Kenya left their soul? I think not. They spend many hours e-mailing their friends and relatives here, seeking out Kenyan beer to drink, reminiscing with fellow migrants, saving up for that emotional trip home. They hit the Nation’s website with determined regularity, in amazing numbers. They cry for joy when they see Kenyan teams excelling on the world stage. Are these the behaviour patterns of people who have left Kenya behind? Apart from physical location, they are as Kenyan as we are.

A more thoughtful view would not regard the Diaspora as a ‘brain drain’ at all. If the mother tree has scattered its seeds far and wide, that is as it should be. We should be proud of the fact that we have produced people capable of working alongside the best in the world. We should regard the Diaspora as our ambassadors, investors and skilled resources abroad, for that is what they are.

In fact, if we are intelligent about it, we can benefit greatly from our Diaspora. India has recently woken up to this. It is harnessing the emigrants’ business and technical skills, encouraging commercial and educational exchanges, and attracting their financial capital. It is estimated that Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have deposited over 5 billion dollars at the State Bank of India, adding hugely to the country’s investment capital. A simple incentive has enabled this: NRIs are allowed to maintain foreign-currency deposits that are protected by law and can be withdrawn in the same currency. India has its own ‘Silicon Valleys’ in Hyderabad and Bangalore, funded mainly by the efforts of Indian engineers and venture capitalists abroad.

Kenyans abroad already send sizeable remittances home, supporting large rural families with their precious dollars. They can do a great deal more. The change in regime has heralded a great upsurge in optimism about the motherland. Now is the time for the government to strike, and offer suitable incentives, recognition and protection to our prodigals abroad.

A key tool is in the government’s hand. The new draft constitution proposes that dual nationality be allowed to Kenyans. This remarkable opportunity must not be lost. At a stroke we could grant legal recognition to our sons and daughters overseas. They could choose to live and invest directly in Kenya again, without forgoing their precious Green Cards and EU passports. They would not need work permits and visas to reside in what is the land of their deepest roots. Their emotional bond would be given legal sanction. India has recently started granting dual nationality to her people abroad. So must we.

The Diaspora could then make their potentially huge contribution to rebuilding this ravaged country. Some would repatriate money. Others would participate in venture-capital funds focused on Kenya. Still others would contribute know-how and expertise. All would offer their best wishes and support in revitalising this wonderful land. This would be the best sort of ‘foreign’ aid we could hope for: untied, untainted and given from the heart.

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