We must make the Diaspora work for Kenya
We now know that there might be as many as one million Kenyans abroad. And that they are sending a billion dollars back home every year. Our main sources of overseas funds used to be foreign aid and what we got from selling tea, flowers and wildlife; these days we think ‘remittances’.
This column first covered the Diaspora four years ago. I pointed out then the scale of the opportunity that lay before us. A Diaspora that flourishes abroad almost becomes an economy in itself. India’s prodigals across the globe, for example, constitute just 2 per cent of India’s home population – yet they generate the equivalent of a third of the home country’s income. India’s Diaspora has a ‘GNP’ that is twice the size of Malaysia’s!
Kenya’s sons and daughters overseas are also slowly climbing up the ladders of power, influence and opportunity. They are being exposed to leading management practices and technological possibilities. They are gaining the experience and acquiring the skill-sets that their homeland denied them for all these years. They represent not just a pool of funds, but a pool of skills. The opportunity is historic; so should our response be.
The quantum of remittances circulating around the globe is now thought to be twice that of international aid. In many countries today, money sent home by workers is more than foreign direct investment and official foreign aid combined. In other words, these countries are getting access to a unique fund, generated by their own people. Saving them the ignominy of having to queue up with begging bowls at international conferences.
It’s taken some time, but we seem to have woken up to the possibilities. Last week, Finance Minister Amos Kimunya led a high-powered team to an international gathering in the United States: to break bread and build common cause with our prodigals abroad. Importantly, this was not just the usual delegation of panjandrums and bureaucrats happily clocking up allowances; some of our top chief executives also made the trip. About time too.
The business opportunities are immense. Those who can offer the migrants cheap and effective ways of transferring money will be reaping a bonanza. Those who can channel the flows of money into housing stock at home will be stimulating a real boom. Those who can turn those savings into capital – to invest in our crumbling infrastructure, for example – will have built the foundations of our economic future. And those who can bring the best Kenyans out there back home – into meaningful jobs and careers, for a change – will have given the country a much-needed skills injection.
I am delighted, therefore, to see businesspeople involved in this initiative. It will provide the much needed vision, incentives and urgency that may actually lead to something meaningful happening.
India and China saw the opportunity many years ago. They opened up the flows of money, allowing migrants to deposit and withdraw money from special accounts back home without the heavy hand of bureaucracy blocking the path. They gave incentives to their Diaspora to set up venture-capital funds targeting the most urgent needs of the home economy. They offered tax breaks to those engaging in skills transfer.
But they also did something that this government has sat on for many years: the granting of dual nationality. This is such a no-brainer, I do not even know why anyone would wish to debate it. To regard those who left us as sell-outs who somehow betrayed us is to betray our own stupidity. When you create a country that offers no careers, expects top talents to work on salaries that a driver would scorn, does not protect life and property and refuses to invest in knowledge – then don’t be surprised when people leave. The trick now is to get them back.
You do not get them back just by meeting them in conferences. You get them back by allowing them to retain the freedom to live where they want. This is no longer a world in which you can lock people behind artificial borders. People go where opportunity takes them, and we must stimulate the opportunities that bring our own back to us. With a million Kenyans abroad – including most of the offspring of our own leaders – it is reasonable to expect this piece of business to be the first item on the agenda of the new parliament next year.
In the meantime, I’m hoping that most our Diaspora out there are not of the type that think a good contribution to nation-building is to buy their pet politician a Hummer vehicle. We are gradually outgrowing that kind of thinking at home; we had rather hoped you out there would have achieved some enlightenment from the years spent in more advanced nations. We trust you have rather more than patronage and cheap ostentation to send back home. Those things we have no shortage of.