By: Hon. Richard Momoima Onyonka is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs
Wednesday, May 02, 2012. Category: Diaspora NewsI recently had the privilege to participate in a meeting organized by members of the Kenyan Diaspora to discuss ways in which they can participate effectively in Kenya’s political and economic agenda. The meeting held at Boston University reminded me once more of this very important asset that we have but to which we mostly pay lip service. This meeting that brought together Kenyans living in the entire North American region was candid, intellectual and very educative. How I wished that many of my colleagues in parliament and government could have been in attendance. There was a lot to learn. The issues raised in these meetings have been elusive to us for many years. The message given this time around is that the government needs to listen and listen carefully. I know that the most touted reason for paying attention to the Diaspora is the economic one. The Central Bank has for instance documented that remittance from North America increased by 18.2 percent from US$ 44.02 million in January 2012 to US$ 52.02 million in February 2012 and that over the same period, remittance inflows from Europe increased by 20 percent from US$ 24.39 million to US$ 29.27 million. I have heard many anecdotes of misuse of the hard-earned money that the Diaspora sends to relatives for investment projects. Research shows that the benefits of remittances to economic development would be limited without deliberate policy measures that channel them to development priorities. I am pleased that the Central Bank of Kenya has set up the infrastructure bond to tap into savings from the Diaspora. It is the first time that we have developed a formal tool to attract Diaspora investment that would obviously boost our currency reserves and address the State budget deficit. I challenge the various investment companies to offer financial packages and information to the Diaspora so that the remittances are put to good use. But there are many more reasons beyond the remittance that I believe we need to do more to court the Kenyan Diaspora. At the Boston meeting, like many other Diaspora events that I have attended in the last four years, I interacted with highly intellectual and successful Kenyans who love their country passionately. The skills they have horned in their adopted homelands are vital for any country’s economy. I was reminded of India and how its citizens dominating Silicon Valley have invigorated technological advancements in their motherland. Studies by the Asian Development Bank show that Indians living abroad started 19 of 20 software companies set up in India. Technology transfer is absolutely important for economic development. There is merit in also considering the positive contribution of the Diaspora to Tourism and Trade. Kenyans living abroad are our best Ambassadors. They can encourage friends, co-workers and families to visit the country. The global networks they have can be beneficial to our trade and tourism. We also cannot under-estimate the role of the Diaspora in political change. We remember the contribution of the various Diaspora organizations in the 1990s in pushing for political reform and multi-party politics. Leaders who had escaped the repressive single party system in Kenya nurtured some of our prominent civil society organizations. It is therefore imperative that as we prepare for elections, we do more to ensure that this important segment of our society has a voice in defining our political destiny. Kenyans abroad have over the years fought hard for dual citizenship and the right to have Overseas Voting enshrined in the Constitution. The decision to have the Diaspora participate in the Presidential vote is a first step in the right direction. But more needs to be done to ensure that they are not disenfranchised. The IEBC must listen to the concerns of the Kenyans abroad in designating polling centers in all regions with critical numbers of Kenyans. Limiting polling to only Embassies and High Commissions especially in vast regions such as North America and Europe is unreasonable. The Commission must also ensure that the process is free and fair by appointing independent persons to oversee the process as well as allow independent observers through out the polling and tallying process. While we relish the almost billion-dollar contribution to the GDP, it is equally crucial that we take measures to address the welfare of Kenyans living abroad. The Kenyans abroad have already established several associations to address their welfare needs. For instance, during my stay in Boston, I attended the launch of the Kenya Worcester welfare Association. This association is a forum where Kenyans living around the Boston and the New England area can come together to look for means of tackling the challenges facing the Kenyan community in this area. I also had a chance to attend a church service conducted by a Kenyan preacher. I was surprised by how much influence the Kenyan church wields in the diaspora. The church has become the anchor for stability in this far land where many Kenyans now reside. It is time to consider a dedicated institution that deals with Diaspora Affairs and link up with these several Diaspora organizations. One may argue that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic missions are already doing this. It is a fair argument, especially as we continue to practice economic diplomacy. However, the Diaspora’s contribution is multifaceted and we are not doing enough. It spans sectors such as technology, finance, culture, tourism, education, health etc. Many governments with a large Diaspora have dedicated ministries dealing with its citizens. This will not only ensure that Diaspora views are incorporated in policy making but also ensure representation in all the key sectors. Hon. Richard Momoima Onyonka is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and MP for Kitutu Chache. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Government of Kenya.