Criticisms of government policy regarding Kenyans living abroad were loudly affirmed on Saturday by some 300 attendees at a Kenya Diaspora Conference in Washington.
The government fails to take account of the views of the estimated one million Kenyans outside the country, even though they sent home nearly USD2.5 billion in remittances last year, said Muthoni Mpuria, a diaspora representative based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Those remittances amounted to 7.3 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product, Ms Mpuria pointed out, citing a World Bank study as her source.
“Keep in mind that these funds are not for luxuries,” Ms Mpuria told an audience that included officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Rather they are utilised to meet the social needs that the Kenya government has failed to fulfill for too long like adequate education, food, healthcare and other basic necessities.”
Kenyans in the diaspora also want to invest in enterprises in their homeland, but the government has failed to create “an enabling environment,” Ms Mpuria added.
She noted that Kenya ranks far below Rwanda and a few other African nations on a World Bank scorecard on “ease of doing business.”
Ms Mpuria, whose comments were greeted with a standing ovation, also complained of “hostility from our fellow Kenyans at immigration at the airport” when diaspora members return for visits.
“Our belongings are searched arbitrarily, duties are levied without explanation or receipt,” she said. “In most cases, the immigration workers are encouraging bribes in dollars.”
Ms Mpuria and other speakers also voiced frustration over uncertainties concerning voting arrangements for the elections in March.
Kenyans in the US do not yet know whether they will be able to take part or where polling stations will be located, speakers said.
A recent poll of some 1,100 Kenyans in the US found considerable support for efforts to make voting available at locations other than the embassy in Washington, the UN mission in New York and a consulate in Los Angeles.
Raila Odinga was the leading choice for president among those polled, by Nairobi-based Infotrak Research and Consulting.
The firm’s CEO, Angela Ambitho, reported at the conference that 32 percent of respondents supported Mr Odinga, with 10.7 percent backing Uhuru Kenyatta and 10.6 percent saying they would vote for Peter Kenneth.
Linus Gitahi, CEO of the Nation Media Group, proposed a set of eight priorities for the next set of Kenyan leaders in his keynote address to the conference.
Action on job creation topped the list, with initiatives on food security, health care and education also cited by Mr Gitahi as vital to the country’s future.
“Kenya is rising,” Mr Gitahi declared. The country is emerging as a global leader in information technology, he said.
Kenya’s US ambassador, Elkanah Odembo, toldÂ NationÂ that he was pleased by the turnout for the two-day event, even though twice as many Kenyans had taken part in the first diaspora conference last year.
The ambassador attributed the smaller attendance to the USD220 registration fee, compared to USD70 charged last year.
A higher rate was needed, Mr Odembo explained, in order to cover the USD108,000 cost of staging an event that included panels on a number of economic, social and political issues.