E.g., 06/30/2023
E.g., 06/30/2023
Kenya: What Role for Diaspora in Development?

Kenya: What Role for Diaspora in Development?

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Migration from Kenya has often been linked with the pursuit of higher education abroad, and the return of such skills and experience to the so-called business of "building the nation." So pervasive is this notion in the Kenyan psyche, that in his inaugural speech, Kenya's new president, Mwai Kibaki, appealed to all Kenyans "who have been hounded out of our shores by repressive policies of our predecessors to come back home and join us in nation-building. Kenya needs the genius of its citizens wherever they are. It is time for healing, and we need every hand on deck."

Calls such as President Kibaki's to Kenyans abroad have been a popular refrain by politicians for the last 30 years. However, these calls paint only a partial picture of a more complex migration reality for Kenya. Today, Kenya is a bona fide participant in international migration as a source and final destination country for migrants. Kenya also serves as a crucial transit location where refugees from conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Burundi have been processed for resettlement in Europe, Australia, and North America.

Historical Perspective

In the last century, the population of Kenya – originally made up of native Africans of Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic origins – has been diversified further by the arrival of Europeans (mostly British colonial settlers) and Indian laborers who helped construct the railway lines before settling in the country and emerging as the predominant minority population in the country's economic life. Earlier interactions of native African coastal communities along the Indian Ocean with traders from India, Arabia, Europe, and the Far East resulted in the rise of the Swahili culture along the coast – a vibrant mixture represented in the language, cuisine, architecture, and religions there today.

In recent decades, Kenya's political stability and relatively advanced infrastructure have attracted many international organizations and businesses to base their operations in the country. The country's geographical location astride the equator, its temperate tropical climate, beautiful landscapes, and abundant wildlife also attract many seasonal tourists, with some choosing to settle down. In the Coast Province, for example, small resort communities of Italians, Germans, French, and other nationalities began to emerge throughout the 1990s, taking advantage of the weak Kenyan economy to cash in on prime real estate investments.

While the number of expatriates and Western migrants in Kenya today is hard to estimate, the number of cultural and educational institutions catering to their needs is a strong indicator of their presence. Around the capital, Nairobi, and elsewhere in the country, special institutions such as the German School, the Swedish School, the French School, the International School of Kenya and a handful of British and American preparatory schools offer different international curricula for the children of expatriates, foreign migrants, and Kenyan families that can afford it. The British Council, Goethe Institute, French Cultural Center, and Italian Cultural Center offer language courses, art exhibits, performances, and other activities for their nationals as well as Kenyans in Nairobi and at branches around the country.

With the end of World War II, a wave of anti-colonialism swept across Africa, including Kenya. In the period preceding Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963, a small number of Kenyans were able to travel abroad, often to the UK, in search of further education and training that were not readily available at home. Many of these early pioneers returned to Kenya and emerged as the elites in the struggle for independence, and as leaders in crucial government and private sector management positions immediately after the British handed over power.

During his presidency from 1963 to 1978, Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, initiated the rhetoric of education as the path to development, a belief that took hold in the country and remains virtually unchallenged today. President Kenyatta had taken courses in Moscow and studied anthropology at the London School of Economics before joining Kenya's independence movement. In order to fulfill the country's urgent need for qualified native professionals and other technocrats in diverse fields, young Kenyans were sent abroad for higher education, many of them on government-financed scholarships with guaranteed government jobs upon the completion of their studies and return to the country.

Internationally, this period coincided with the coalescence of East-West Cold War rivalry. While the traditionally preferred destination for Kenyan scholars had been Britain due to strong colonial ties, similarities in educational systems, and the automatic high recognition value of British qualifications in Kenya, other countries soon emerged as alternative destinations for Kenyan students. Principal among these were the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which were very keen to woo the best Kenyan minds with the hope of shaping the ideologies and allegiances of the country's leadership.

United States exchange programs such as the Fulbright, as well as the famed Kennedy student airlifts of the 1960s, were successful in bringing a cadre of Kenyans for training in the United States. The Soviet Union, too, made arrangements to have Kenyans trained in fields such as medicine, agriculture, engineering, and economics in East Germany, Cuba, Russia, and even the Ukraine. By the 1970s, India was also emerging as a favored destination for Kenyans eager to earn university credentials abroad, but unable to independently fund the higher expenses associated with the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the UK. The diversification of Kenyans' work and study destinations has continued ever since, although the United States and Canada received the largest numbers of Kenyans. The UK has not maintained its attractiveness for Kenyan students and workers because of stricter rules against employment of foreign students, while the U.S. in particular is very desirable because many Kenyans believe they can support themselves there by working.

Figure 1
Source: Migration Information Source, Global Data Center.

The 1980s and 1990s: Migration in the Moi Era

The emphasis on education as the route to national development and upward social mobility was not only evident in Kenyans' insatiable thirst for higher education opportunities abroad during the Kenyatta era. Colonialism had transformed Kenya's economy from a primary base of subsistence agriculture to commercial agricultural production, some modern industrial manufacturing, and other cash-driven economic activities. In the new cash economy, education, even at the most basic level, became a major determinant of upward social and economic mobility. Formal education and literacy provided access to coveted salaried white and sometimes blue-collar employment opportunities in the public and private sectors.

President Daniel Arap Moi followed in the policy footsteps of Kenyatta, beginning with a consolidation of free universal primary education. Under President Moi, educational opportunities at all levels increased dramatically, but could not match the needs of the country's fast-growing population. The cutthroat competition for the few places at Kenya's six public and seven private universities left many young Kenyans in the 1980s and 1990s with no option but to pursue educational opportunities abroad.

Apart from the shortage of educational and other infrastructure to handle the demands of the growing population, another distinctive factor behind outward migration from Kenya since the mid-1980s has been the stagnation of the economy. Vital sectors such as tourism took a serious beating due to government mismanagement. Others, such as textiles and manufacturing, collapsed completely, unsupported by inefficient government policies and bogged down by widespread corruption, tribalism, and nepotism. The Kenyan story of these two decades quickly became one of unemployment and underemployment.

With no plan for sustainable economic growth in hand, the government quickly became unable to recruit or retain enough teachers, police officers, or doctors. Morale among the underpaid (and often times unpaid) civil servants and other professionals employed by the government fell drastically. Qualified graduates of the universities and secondary schools found themselves idle and frustrated, or took up menial jobs in small-scale trading and other informal sector activities. High taxes to maintain the overblown public sector suffocated the already feeble private sector. A majority of Kenyans saw their standard of living deteriorate steadily beginning in the mid-1980s through the 1990s as painful structural adjustment programs and other donor-mandated economic austerity measures were implemented half-heartedly. Public spending on health and education at all levels suffered the severest budget cuts, and many civil servants were laid off without their termination benefits being delivered as promised.

After an unsuccessful military coup in 1982, President Moi ruthlessly consolidated his power. For more than 10 years, there was a strongly coordinated elimination of crucial political freedoms and a transfer of power from all branches of government to the executive branch. The constitution was amended under Moi's rule, turning Kenya into a de jure single-party state, and paving the way for the political, economic, and judicial persecution of many perceived enemies of the state. Many intellectuals not closely tied to the then ruling party KANU and Moi's ethnic Kalenjin community were forced into exile to such places as Norway, Sweden, Britain, Canada, and the United States.

Figure 2
Source: Migration Information Source, Global Data Center.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Kenyans were engaged predominantly in circular migration in search of higher education and advanced training abroad, which was then later applied to nation-building through employment in Kenya. Some of the graduates from this period include President Kibaki, who, like Kenyatta before him, attended the London School of Economics. Several cabinet members and top officials in the current Kenyan government also studied in Europe, North America and even Asia.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this trend shifted to a one-way mass exodus to the political, physical, and economic stability of foreign lands. A report by the Institute for International Education and the U.S. State Department shows that among African countries sending students to the U.S. in the 2001-2002 school year, Kenya led with 7,097 students, followed by Nigeria (3,820), Ghana (2,672), Egypt (2,409), and South Africa (2,232). Faced with great uncertainty at home, many Kenyan families that could afford the initial financial costs began to view the sending of one or more of their members abroad on a long-term or permanent basis as an investment or a form of economic insurance.

The economic hopelessness of the late 1980s and 1990s, as well as violent politically motivated ethnic conflicts around the 1992 and 1997 general elections, catalyzed the massive departure of doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, and other highly skilled professionals to western Europe and countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Australia, Canada, and the United States. For instance, the number of Kenyan citizens in Germany was only 576 in 1980, but had doubled to 1,222 by 1990 and ballooned to more than 5,200 by the end of 2001.

Many Kenyans also began pursuing opportunities in low-skilled positions as bus drivers, domestic servants, cruise ship attendants, and security guards in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. Kenyan high school and elementary school teachers were recruited throughout the 1990s to fulfill shortages in places such as the Comoros Islands, Seychelles, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo. The Kenyan government has not yet established standards to ensure the adequate training and protection of these workers before their departures and during their stints abroad or at sea.

Kenyans studying or working abroad could be relied upon to send vital remittances to their relatives; some of which went into helping maintain previous standards of living as the economy declined further, and some into small business ventures or other development activities. Although there are no reliable figures about the size of migrant remittances to Kenya, their role in sustaining the foreign exchange-strapped Kenyan economy is believed to have been significant throughout the 1990s, when most bilateral and multilateral donors withheld aid to protest the slow pace of economic and political reforms by the Moi government.

Protecting and Blaming Refugees

Due to the political stability that the country has enjoyed since its independence, Kenya has provided a safe haven to hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping from violent conflicts in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. The country has also served as a transit point for the resettlement of these refugees in other countries or for voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin once the conflicts have subsided or been resolved. According to the United States Committee on Refugees, Kenya hosted 420,000 refugees at the height of the Somalia crisis in 1992. This figure fell fairly steadily to about 230,000 at the end of 2002.

Figure 3
Source: World Refugee Survey, U.S. Committee on Refugees, 1992 to 2002

Although Kenya is a signatory to the international agreements on refugee protection, the country has no established national legal framework to handle refugee issues, including the management of their resettlement and integration in the country. Instead, the government has let the United Nations High Commission for Refugees be at the forefront of managing the bulk of refugee affairs in the country. With no programs for their permanent resettlement and integration in Kenya, a majority of refugees in the country are confined to camps in geographically remote semi-arid areas such as Dadaab and Kakuma. Refugees in urban areas such as Nairobi and Mombasa have more options than those in the camps, but their lack of recognized legal status has left them subject to frequent harassment by Kenyan police. They are also often the targets of native resentment and political scapegoating in connection with the rise in urban crime and the proliferation of firearms trafficked across the country's borders. Tensions between local communities and refugees living in camps have occasionally turned violent, with fatalities on both sides.

The threat of international terrorism has also recently impacted Kenyan attitudes and policies towards refugees with Muslim backgrounds. The bombing attacks by suspected Al Qaeda operatives on the U.S. embassy in 1998 and on an Israeli hotel and plane in 2002 have spurred increased scrutiny by Kenyan police of refugees from Somalia and visitors from the Middle East. Since September 11, 2001, increased security checks have led to long delays in the departure of thousands of Somali Bantu refugees previously approved for permanent resettlement in the United States. Like these refugees, many ordinary Kenyans seeking visas to study, vacation, or conduct business in the U.S., the UK, and other countries have also faced additional requirements and longer waiting times.

The Kenyan government is active in regional peace initiatives, seeking political resolutions for the ongoing conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi. The success of such initiatives will help to allow more of the refugees a chance to return to their home countries. On the domestic front, however, repeated promises by Kenyan government leaders to enact comprehensive legislation on refugee rights have not been fulfilled. The latest proposals from Kenya's minister of home affairs include a plan to allow skilled refugees the right to live and work anywhere in the country.

Nation-building from Abroad?

Despite a significant anti-corruption campaign and the steps towards greater democracy that Kenya has taken in the past decade, it is still unlikely that the country's economy will grow fast enough to absorb the hundreds of thousands of highly educated and unemployed/underemployed Kenyans. Migration outwards in search of opportunities by Kenyans of all ages today and in the near future seems to be one possible outlet for some of the country's population and unemployment pressures.

The new government led by President Kibaki promised to create 500,000 new jobs per year. In more than six months since coming to power, not even 10 percent of these promised jobs have been delivered, and it seems unlikely that this promise will be fulfilled in the next few years. The current state of the economy and high unemployment mean that an immediate return of Kenyans abroad is unlikely. It may actually be that many more talented, qualified, and unemployed Kenyans willing to migrate will continue to seek opportunities abroad, and contribute to nation-building through direct financial remittances or other forms of brain gain.

So far, it is obvious that the new government under President Kibaki is committed to ensuring that the repressive political policies that hounded many Kenyans away from the country will not be repeated. However, the economic weakness of the country will take a while to remedy, a process that can be helped by the quick eradication of corruption and the institutionalization of clear legal protections that will sustain a robust climate for increased foreign direct investment and contributions by Kenyans in the diaspora. Within the global economic context, and with all the advantages of modern communications and travel technologies, the Kenyan diaspora has a crucial contribution to make to nation-building.

Their contributions may not, however, need to be made with all hands literally on deck, as a new generation of internationally educated Kenyan entrepreneurs comfortable with negotiating the global business stage is already appearing. These include Ayatsi Makitiani, the young MIT graduate who founded Africa Online in the mid-1990s, and Segeni Ng'ethe, a graduate of Georgetown University who runs Mamamikes.com, an online store that allows clients anywhere in the world to send flowers on Valentines Day, a cake on Mother's Day, a crate of Tusker beer for Father's Day and even a live goat for Christmas to relatives and friends in Kenya and Uganda.

The challenges facing Kenya are not unique. Countries like China, India, and South Africa have developed different approaches for tapping into the expertise and other resources of their diasporas to meet their development goals and achieve global competitiveness. These countries are leading the way in turning the despair of brain drain into brain exchange and brain gain in different ways. Hopefully, a robust private-public framework that can facilitate productive linkages between Kenyan academics, researchers, artists, and investors at home and in the diaspora will emerge to consolidate the political and economic changes taking place in Kenya, as has been the case elsewhere.


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