Let's Develop a Better-Structured Dialogue with the Diaspora
This week, President Kibaki bid farewell to Kenyans living in America. At an overflowing hall in downtown New York, an unusually relaxed and jovial Kibaki chided his audience to return home and share in the unfolding story of opportunity and hope.
Amidst the generous applause and general feel-good atmosphere of the occasion, one could discern a transition in dialogue between old Kenya and its vibrant diaspora. The diaspora statement preceding him was clear on many issues. But safe passage back home was not one of them.
As the last of independence politicians rounding off an epoch, Kibaki was talking to a medley of Kenyans and Kenyan-Americans, and beyond them to an expansive Kenyan community abroad whose challenges and expectations have long moved on from the return home debate.
As Kenyans abroad have grown in numbers and economic muscle, they continue to grow appetites for new frontiers of self-realisation.
Dialogue with any group of them shows an ever growing assuredness, and an ever bolder adventure in how they can impact events back home beyond the traditional perimeters of engagement.
The phase of rudi nyumbani, that rallying call from the independence era, when patriotism was shown by relocating to Kenya to put a hand on the deck for national growth, is fast receding.
President Kibaki represents a generation to whom this has been the dominant plank in their diaspora dialogue. To return is patriotic duty. To encourage returnees is the work of a statesman.
True, many Kenyans abroad are time-bound “contract migrants” who have targeted return after growing a base back home from the security of abroad. You will meet the perpetual returnees; aging optimists who have been “about to relocate” for decades and still promise to do so one day.
There are many who, like the reluctant swimmer testing the waters with a quickly retracted foot into the pool, have made a series of aborted returns. Finding the space but failing to establish a social niche to settle back home.
But broadly, our audiences abroad are onto a new narrative. Hard work, thrift and enterprise have raised them resources that could be hard to grow at home.
Technology allows them to offer services to their country without needing permanent domicile there. A decade of active money transfer and investment activity has shown that they can build the nation without standing in its borders.
Changed times and technology have breached the return-or-stay debate. They are growing a return-and-stay paradigm. They want a rules shift where they stay abroad but the virtual return which they have demonstrated through remittances is extended to other areas of national life.
The push for diaspora voting may be the immediate and most unifying call today. But it is by no means the last plank in this growing demand for virtual space at home. A push for representation in government mentioned at a recent discussion in Boston is a clear indicator of what we must expect in the future.
Many times the setting has never been sufficient to genuine engagement. Visiting politicians put on their best manners to assure their hosts of respect and appreciation. A growing over-statement of the importance of the diaspora is met with kind sideway stares by visiting officials.
Increasing declarations by some that their remittances are running government services back home have received ever so mild a rebuttal from visitors. This is not how to grow an engagement.
Invitations to annual or seasonal meetings of diaspora caucuses have become the main route of engagement with eminent persons in government and enterprise. Intercepted ministers passing through town, and a dinner by the visiting president, are avenues of dialogue that can no longer serve well a conversation with millions of people spread around continents.
Similarly, hastily arranged town hall meetings for presidential aspirants are producing a cast of professional hosts whose routine and result replicates rather than enriches the stock of dialogue.
More important than the growing enumeration of deliverables Kenyans abroad want from their government should be the discussion on how their energies, resources and influence can be put to the most optimal use. A new modus of dialogue must be invented.
In India, the state dialogues with the diaspora on how to strengthen investment vehicles for emigrants in their countries of domicile. In The Philippines they have a ministry dedicated to the diaspora.
A method has to be found to engage Kenyans abroad in helping grow countrymen and women in more challenging abodes elsewhere. It would be wonderful to see how the most brutalised Kenyans abroad, the house girls subjected to servitude in many Middle East countries, could draw solace and find advice from other sections of the Kenyan community abroad.
A starting point could be a department for the diaspora perhaps at the Treasury with representation at our missions abroad. Then the circus of townhall encounters would remain a modest side show and not the premier event.
By Dr Mukhisa Kituyi. Mukhisa is a director of the Kenya Institute of Governance. email@example.com
This article was originally published on th Daily Nation.
The views expressed on this op-ed/blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of Mwakilishi News Media, or any other individual, organization, or institution. The content on this op-ed/blog is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. The author himself is responsible for the content of the posts on this op-ed/blog, not any other organization or institution which he might be seen to represent. The author is not responsible, nor will he be held liable, for any statements made by others on this op-ed/blog in the op-ed blog comments, nor the laws which they may break in this country or their own, through their comments’ content, implication, and intent. The author reserves the right to delete comments if and when necessary. The author is not responsible for the content or activities of any sites linked from this op-ed/blog. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations and other content on here are original works of the op-ed/blog author and the copyrights for those works belong to the author.