Remittances without representation: Kenya’s disenfranchised Diaspora

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Political parties and the IEBC have once again failed to represent the Diaspora who account for what is justifiably Kenya’s largest and most disenfranchised constituency. With an estimated 3 million citizens, the Diaspora accounts for nearly 10% of Kenya’s population. Data from the World Bank showed that remittances exceeded the 210 billion shilling mark in 2011 about 5% of the Gross Domestic Product. These numbers are staggering and impressive but may not be sustained.

In the United States where most of these remittances originate, the Obama Administration has hastened unprecedented immigration reform targeting “Dreamers” who are youth that immigrated with their parents and have no legal immigration status. An executive order providing Dreamers and older immigrants that have fallen out of status a path to citizenship went into effect less than a month ago on March 4. In 2012 Bill Gates successfully rallied a consortium of tech giants such as Microsoft and Google to have visa work restrictions relaxed for international students with STEM degrees (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instituting a 29 month extensions on work visas after graduation and a path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship. The Dream Act which is before Congress is a rare piece of legislation as it has bipartisan support and will undoubtedly pass is some form making more accommodations for Dreamers and international students to invest their careers in the US. European countries and Canada are closely following suit.

Why are these developments important to Kenya? Because remittances are mostly made by older folks in the Diaspora while the youth who account for the majority tend not remit. One has to go back to why and when Kenya’s Diaspora grew to understand these tendencies. In the 1990’s young middle class families left in desperation under a failing economy as economic refugees destined for greener pastures in North America, South Africa, Europe and Australia. Concurrently, with more access to information about educational opportunities overseas after the internet boom in 2000 onwards, droves of students left to study abroad. In the last decade however, this tide decreased as immigration restrictions in these destinations were introduced primarily because of concerns about global terrorism. Proliferation of private universities and a stabilized economy encouraged Kenyans who would otherwise have immigrated to stay. These first generation Kenyan immigrants who are now between 20-35 years do not have the same strong socio-cultural attachments as their parents before them as they have come of age as Americans, Australians, Britons, South Africans or Canadians. A decade and half stay has assimilated them into their host countries. Intermarriage with citizens of host nations is quite common as they come of marriageable age. The newer immigrants who are here as international students hardly earn because of work restrictions on student visas.

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Evidently, there is a budget shortfall waiting to happen in Kenya’s economy within the next decade as the generation who left “for a better life for their children” in the late 1990’s start to retire or emigrate back to Kenya.  Whereas this is unsettling, the good news is that younger Kenyan Diaspora is demonstrably more resourceful as they have better education and earning potential than their parents having obtained advanced education. Assuming conservatively they earn twice as much their parents and account for the remaining 70% of the population then the 210 billion shillings scales up to a potential of 900 billion shillings annually. While the older generations in the Diaspora are limited to organically remitting income mostly through money transfer services such as Western Union and MoneyGram towards primary sustenance of their families for basic needs the youth have shown the propensity to direct resources towards more structured investments in real estate, the stock market and industry. They are also a powerful motivation for multinational corporations to set shop in Kenya evidenced by global corporations such as GE, Syngenta, Dalberg, and IBM whose expanded presence in Kenya can partly be attributed to young Kenyans from the Diaspora. These corporations are constantly headhunting for young Diaspora professionals with many a “Back-to-Africa” programs. Young entrepreneurs from the Kenya Diaspora are job creators having established  many successful tech startups locally. They are distinguishing themselves abroad as engineers, scientists, academics, medical professionals, artists and social activists.

During the Kenya Diaspora Conference of 2012 in Washington DC the youth delegation now formally constituted as the Kenya Youth Diaspora Council (KYDC) preemptively spoke of the urgency of including this generation in the governance of Kenya. Already, the Diaspora was denied their constitutional right to vote by the IEBC despite repeated assurances under the insubstantial pretext that the constitution allows for “progressive realization of the law”. Now, we have been denied our constitutional right to representation. And with that goes our ability to fully engage and contribute to Kenya. Under Article 90 of the constitution, parties are required to nominate members to represent special interest constituents while Article 232 predicates that these appointments must reflect the regional diversity of Kenya. The Diaspora is a critical demographic that must be included in the legislature either through nomination or election. Twenty five other African countries have already institutionalized ballot access and representation for their Diaspora so the idea is neither novel nor insurmountable.

Arguably, some of Kenya’s best brains are in the Diaspora considering that many Kenyan students abroad were top academic performers who were tapped for scholarships by foreign universities. The original idea was to “go abroad, study and come back to develop Kenya”. Unlike in the past, our host countries are providing unprecedented incentives to stay as they recognize and are tapping into this potential. Kenya cannot therefore afford to disenfranchise her Diaspora especially the youth. Kenya needs to reverse this trend of brain drain. Time is of essence.

 

Authors: Nathan Wangusi and  Kerubo Mokaya who are inaugural members of the Kenya Youth Diaspora Council.

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