How Kenyans in Diaspora Can Exploit Opportunities Back Home
The Kenyan Embassy in the US is for the first time organising a major Diaspora conference next month to explore how Kenyans there can exploit opportunities in their home country and boost their fortunes
Earlier this week, Standard’s writer Ally Jamah sat down with the Kenyan Ambassador to the US Elkanah Odembo for a chat, shortly before he returned to his duty station in Washington DC.
Below are excerpts.
Q: The Kenya Diaspora Conference is coming up on October 8 and 9. Why is it a big deal?
A: The US has the largest proportion of Kenyans living in the Diaspora. Of the estimated three million Kenyans outside the country’s borders, at least half a million are in the US. And that is a conservative figure. We have thousands of undocumented immigrants living in the US.
This Diaspora is an extremely important constituency. Thanks to the Constitution, they can participate in the affairs of their home country through voting in elections and having a dual citizenship.
This conference will help them familiarise themselves with the opportunities in their home country and how they can exploit them. We will be talking about Vision 2030 and what role they can play in it.
I have invited Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga to give the keynote address. Other speakers will be the CEO of Vision 2030, Mugo Kibati, and the chair of the Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution.
In this new republic, if we were to consider the Kenyan Diaspora in the US as the 48th County, then that makes them the most affluent County in terms of per capita. We want them to realise that there are extremely significant changes going on in Kenya and we want them to play their role in that.
We need to start organising and uniting Kenya around a common vision. You know we have been a very fragmented society and Kenyans abroad are no different.
We will tell the Diaspora: hey look! We have a new Constitution that gives an excellent reason to work together for the common good.
Q: You have been registering participants for the conference for the past few weeks. How has the response been so far?
A: Extremely good. We are looking at 400 to 500 people. They will pay for all their expenses, including flights, accommodation and registration.
So far more than 150 people have signed up. We are certain that the seats will be full long before the conference opens.
Q: For a long time now, Kenyans in the US have not been very organised to advocate for their issues and interests. How is the situation right now?
A: When I arrived in the US 12 months ago, things were tricky. Whenever I wanted to visit Kenyans in a particular city, I would be given a list of many different rival groups.
I would be left confused, not knowing whom to deal with. I kept asking: is there a Kenyan platform that everybody identifies with?
I would be invited to an event, only to discover that only one ethnic group or clan was involved.
Eventually I said no to all that. We have now embarked on facilitating the creation of an inclusive structure that will bring Kenyans under one platform to push for their issues and engage with us. They are called the Diaspora Advisory Councils (DACs).
They will be the main forum of organising Kenyans in the US to bring together professionals, business people, youth, women and students. Kenyans from different states in the US form them.
The councils have now emerged in Boston, Atlanta, St Louis, Dallas, Minneapolis, among other areas. The best part is that they are open and all-inclusive, presenting the true face of Kenya
I tell you, there are groups in the US which are so organised you would be amazed how much they are able to do and how they influence the US Government to have policies and programmes favouring their home countries.
I need Kenyans in the US to organise and do the same kind of lobbying. Recently news broke that the US Congress wants to cut Sh65 billion aid to Kenya due to the financial difficulties the US is going through right now. We want to avoid such a scenario.
Q: So what have DACs achieved so far since they were formed?
A: We are making progress. For instance, through the DACs, we are identifying Kenyan citizens in the US who can vote during elections. We want them to lead efforts to lobby the US government to increase US engagements in Kenya.
The DACs in Minneapolis recently organised successful Madaraka Day celebrations. Such things have made people who were previously ambivalent to the idea sit up and take notice.
Q: In the past, Kenyans in the US have had little confidence in our Embassy there. Are there any reforms you have instituted to boost efficiency of services and restore trust?
A: Yes, indeed! Unlike before, the embassy has an open door policy for our people in the US. Through the embassy’s website, people can find out the events we are carrying and out and when I am available to meet people. There is a new ground rule: when Kenyans come to the embassy, they must be received well and offered a cup of tea or coffee. I have an arrangement with the Kenya Tea Board to supply me with unlimited tea. We are working to change the attitudes of the Embassy staff to regard Kenyans in a new light. From the Ambassador to the last worker, we regard ourselves as servants to Kenyans who have employed us. So the quality of services has significantly increased. We are also using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to have constructive engagements and feedback from Kenyans in the US. We are more open and available to address their concerns in a positive way.
Q: Lately, a lot of politicians have been going to the US to campaign and raise money. How can this be managed in an orderly way when full campaigns for 2012 kick off?
A: Again, this is where the DACs in various cities come in handy. If a particular politician is coming, they will create a space for them to engage with Kenyans. The role of the Embassy will be to make the candidate available for Kenyan voters.
Q: How do you describe current US-Kenya relations?
A: Frankly speaking, it is lukewarm, while it should be hot considering the constructive diplomatic role we play in keeping the peace in this part of the world. We are playing a very important role for the international community in the region, but I don’t feel that we receive the recognition and support we deserve.