The Kenya Forum | Kenya's Diaspora - how will it benefit our future? - The Kenya Forum

November 28, 2011


Kenya’s Diaspora and how it could be harnessed to build a better future for the country. We consider best policy, the ‘brain drain’, more.

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Kenya’s Diaspora – how will it benefit our future?

Kenya’s Diaspora – how will it benefit our future?

It was an article and an editorial in last week’s Economist that started the Kenya Forum team discussing the importance of and potential contained within the worldwide Kenyan Diaspora. The conclusions we came up with, or rather the questions that we were left with, were not what the Forum team were expecting.

The basis for the article ‘The magic of diasporas – How migrant business networks are reshaping the world’ (The Economist, November 19th – 25th) was that ‘Diaspora networks’ have always been influential and ‘a potent economic force’ but in an age of cheaper and easier travel, they are becoming more so. To this the Kenya Forum would add the changing economic patterns and of course, the rise of the Internet together with cheaper and easier communications.

The Economist pointed out that there are now some 215 million first generation migrants spread across the globe making up approximately 3 per cent of the world’s population. If these migrants were a nation they would be about the fifth largest on Earth, or the equivalent to a country the size of Brazil.

There are apparently more Chinese living outside China than there are French men and women living in France. 22 million Indians have migrated across the planet. There are West Africans in China and Chinese across Africa. The USA has long been a ‘melting pot’ of peoples and since the European Union in large part dismantled its internal borders, thousands of Poles live and work in the UK, Latvians do so in Ireland and the Irish just about everywhere.


It’s difficult to track down accurate figures but there are millions of Kenyans and those of Kenyan descent worldwide. Perhaps 2.5 million in the USA, substantial communities in Germany and the UK, 15,000 or so in Australia, and many thousands spread out across the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Kenya Forum can attest to this. Some 40 per cent of our readership comes from the USA, UK and Germany but there is also a substantial following in Denmark for example, and many regular readers from China to the Czech Republic, South Africa to Canada.

The Kenya Diaspora is without question a significant economic force. Again the figures are difficult to quantify but the Diaspora is worth something in the region of $1 billion to Kenya’s economy annually, both through remittances and as a result economic links Kenyan to Kenyan.


It is this network, The Economist argued, that has an intrinsic power. The ‘Networks of kinship’ makes it easier to do business across borders and ‘speeds the flow of information’. ‘Kinship’ also fosters trust especially in emerging markets where the rule of law is weak, i.e., if the rule of law is weak you feel more secure dealing with your own people on the basis of some shared trust. And in addition to spreading money the Diaspora facilitates the spreading of ideas and knowledge, e.g., a Kenyan sees how a US company operates or markets it goods and perhaps one day replicates the ideas back in Kenya.


A key point of The Economist’s article, however, was that whereas in many parts of the world the fear of the foreigner and migration has increased in recent years, the fear that ‘they’ will use up local services and ‘take’ local jobs, the reality is that migration should be embraced by what the magazine called ‘the old world’.

According to The Economist there is little or no empirical evidence that foreigners in a given country ‘drain the public purse’, or take jobs that locals would otherwise have done. On the contrary The Economist suggests, ‘Migration brings youth to ageing countries, and allows ideas to circulate in millions of mobile minds’.


Nor, says The Economist, are the countries from which the migrants originate in danger of suffering from a “brain drain”.

The prospect of working abroad, they suggest, spurs people on to acquire valuable skills whereafter many do not migrate (thus keeping those skills at home) and those that do often return both skilled and more experienced. One study The Economist referred to, found that unless a country loses more than 20 per cent of its university graduates to migration, the “brain drain’ makes poor countries richer.

So, the article concluded, the ‘old countries’ would benefit from a more relaxed, ‘looser’ immigration policy that would benefit both them and the countries from which the migrants come from.


It was this last point that set the Kenya Forum team debating. We immediately thought of ourselves as a ‘new’ country’ that donates migrants, as it were. But are we?

Kenya as an independent country is not yet 50 years old, so yes we are a new country. We encourage, in part, migration from Kenya (or at least don’t hinder it too much) and we, again in part, discourage immigration to Kenya. If a foreigner wants to work in Kenya they have to prove that there is no one here who could do the job instead (well, that’s the theory anyway).

So we act like a new country but should Kenya be adopting what The Economist prescribes for the ‘old countries’ and economies?

Kenya needs inward investment. We need the skills here, in Kenya, to build the economy, the infrastructure, even our democratic society. We need people to transfer there skills learnt in other countries to our own. We need businessmen and women, doctors, vets, hoteliers, financiers, lawyers (yes even lawyers!), independent journalists, agriculturists, engineers, teachers and more.

Should the ‘new’ Kenya adopt the ‘loose’ immigration policies The Economist advocates for the ‘old world’? Is it, perhaps counter intuitively, time for Kenya to throw off the hang-ups of its colonialist past and welcome more inward migration?


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