The Kenyan diaspora annually contributes hundreds of billions of shillings to national development, but the political economy fails to give voice to this critical engine that underpins Kenya’s growth and at the same time facilitates social welfare. I experienced firsthand the FOMO (fear of missing out) citizens in the diaspora experience during the election period. I was left wondering, is the diaspora only relevant for market liquidity and campaign donations?
The alienation got worse leading up to the elections and on the material day. It felt like I was that family friend who pitches in for school fees and medical bills yet is never invited to a cup of tea when children have graduated, or patients are out of hospital. Similarly, feeling taken for granted are millions of Kenyans living outside of the country either temporarily or permanently as dual citizens.
Diaspora remittances amounted to Ksh 400 billion (roughly 4 percent of the economy) in 2021, according to the Central Bank of Kenya. In terms of number of citizens and GDP impact, Kenyan diaspora would be the largest county in population size, and fourth largest county in economic value, based on Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. While the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) did a commendable job embracing radical transparency through open government – giving us all more data than we can handle – we continue to fall short in ensuring the rights of all constituents are preserved.
Better use of technology
I contacted the Kenya Embassy in Washington, D.C. only to be scolded for not knowing that IEBC had already been to the United States to register Kenyans (many months prior). This was a surprise to me. Who are these fortunate Kenyans who IEBC registered? Kenyans in the U.S. are the largest voting block outside of our borders. With forth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies including blockchain that enable immutable record keeping, I would expect IEBC to work with embassies to facilitate an ongoing process of out-of-country voter registration.
Designing and implementing external voting systems requires considerable resources and technical capacities, but it is not impossible. There are models we can look at. The American government enabled out-of-country voting more than 150 years ago and today have one of the most accessible ways for citizens to participate. Moreover, our country has one of the most expensive electoral processes, if we can enhance efficiency the savings can be applied to promote voter access and inclusion.
Political candidates don’t offer diasporas much relief either. I was contacted by a friend when a top candidate was scheduled to visit Washington, D.C. but as the day drew near, the details were as clear as wimbi porridge. Another friend in Atlanta lamented that politicians only remember us when raising campaign funds. I think this is a gross oversight especially when I study how developing economies like India and Ghana have highly intentional and coordinated diaspora engagement strategies.
Organizations like Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) have begun to make strides under their commendable economic diplomacy initiative. Such bodies are key partners with Government for the establishment of networks for diaspora engagement, including trade relations. Moreover, such platforms are key in the formation of market ecosystems that facilitate knowledge spillovers that ultimately will enhance Kenya’s innovation and competitiveness.
This year’s election may be a beacon for Africa. How the IEBC, our candidates and the media performed was truly inspiring and a pointer to the potential of our great nation. The next election is even more promising. Let’s put in place migration and market-based engagement policies to ensure that diasporas are not engaged once every 54 months.
The author is a sustainable finance and responsible investment policy advisor and a Fellow of the Kenya Institute of Bankers