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Give the young hope in Kenya

Last week this column looked at the issue of nationality and patriotism as seen in world sports championships. I suggested we would lose many more of our athletes to richer countries, simply because we are not making this an attractive country for young people to be in.

Do we ever stop to ask ourselves: why is it that so many young Kenyans are willing to become toilet-cleaners, road-sweepers and kitchen assistants in the western world? Many of these youngsters are degree or diploma holders, and should be hopeful of landing junior managerial or clerical positions here in Kenya. Still they want to leave and engage in menial labour. Why?

The answer does not lie solely in inferiority complexes. Some unkindly suggest that Africans find all things western superior, and will trade a life of dignity here for indignity there. That does not even begin to scratch on the surface of the problem. The real issue is this: the Kenyan becoming a clerk in Nairobi finds it difficult to see a way to advance, and fears being trapped in a low-income prison for the rest of his life. The Kenyan sweeping roads in Atlanta, meanwhile, sees this indignity as short-lived, a necessary but temporary hardship until he can leap up to better things.

America, you see, can offer the promise of betterment based on your own hard work. Kenya struggles to do so.

This may appear to be an exaggeration to those of you in Kenya who are examples of personal advancement through dedication and thrift. It seems not to sit easily with the observation that there are still many expatriates from all over the world who yearn to be posted here, and once installed, never want to leave.

Don’t ever forget, even for a moment, that there are two Kenyas. There is the Kenya of lawns and swimming pools, servants and sunshine, malls and holidays. And then there is the Kenya of slums and menial casual labour, of eking out a living from arid tracts, of unaffordable food and services. In the first Kenya, inhabitants earn world-class incomes and live lives of relative ease. In the second, frustration and lack of hope rule the day.

Look at the numbers, people. We may have 40 million people here, but we can only provide ‘proper’ jobs for 2 million of them. The rest of the workforce is condemned to ‘jua kali’ or ‘kibarua’ work, pastoralism or very basic subsistence farming. Even during our recent ‘mini-boom’ (2004-2007) we were unable to grow the proportion of modern jobs in the economy.

The children of the rich and the quite-rich are very happy and comfortable. The children of the rest would leave at the first opportunity. That is the polarised society we have created. And it cannot last.

A government worth its salt would be taking this very seriously indeed. A country where the vast majority of its coming-of-age generation is disillusioned and lacking in hope has no future. What gives young Kenyans hope in America but not in Kenya? Simply the fact that it remains possible in America to rise up through your own efforts, to raise capital, to make your way up the system. In Kenya, your way is blocked by many things: corruption, tribalism, nepotism and a culture of shortcuts.

This very serious problem demands redress. We have to invest a great deal of time and money in improving the vocational skills of our youngsters. We have to give tax breaks to companies to employ more people below a certain age and train them on the job. We have to put up proper covered and serviced market facilities. We have to formalise the informal sector with great urgency, giving it infrastructure, facilities and property rights, and bringing it into the tax net. We have to design and encourage large-scale employment initiatives, private and public.

It is not that we don’t know what to do, or that no one has tried to do it in the past. The problem is that we just don’t do it properly! And the reason for that is simple: corruption. Whenever we have a youth or women’s entrepreneurship fund, questions are raised about where the money really goes. Whenever we try to plough money into opportunities for the young, some fat stomach somewhere trousers it. Whenever we try to build facilities, the project is lost in a cloud of accusations and recriminations.

For how long are we going to do this? Young people are fed up of being ignored. They are fed up of being patronised. They are fed up of being led up the garden path by one noble-sounding initiative after another. If the leaders of this country really care about the future, they must stop comparing motorcades. They must design a small set of high-impact initiatives for the young, and they must ring-fence and protect these from all possible abuse.

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