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When you hold up the bright and blind spots with regards to Kenyans living abroad, you are likely to see more of the latter than the former.

Yet, there is an unambiguous, state-instituted diaspora policy framework. This would ideally dovetail with the keenness of patriotic Kenyans abroad interested in making a positive change in their motherland.

The problem is that the various interests involved in matters diaspora seem to be on divergent paths.

If state-led intentions coalesced with the interests of Kenyans abroad, the bright side of things would overcome the current pessimism. Then, we could move the needle away from missed opportunities, towards the harnessing of the widely acknowledged diaspora potential.

All this speak to the need to go back to the drawing board. A re-think and the re-engineering of the whole gamut of Kenyan diaspora affairs is necessary, now more than ever.

The challenge is that officials in government entities – especially those responsible for international relations and migration – are inclined to take defensive stances. The enumeration of the challenges hampering the full exploitation of the Kenyan diaspora is often seen as an indictment!

On the other hand, Kenyans living abroad take critical stances and pessimistic attitude forged in years of frustrations over unmet expectations. The diaspora community almost always put the blame for the challenges they encounter at the doorsteps of government.

The resultant chasm between these two polarities is what government officials and Kenyans abroad should seek to bridge. In the South African political parlance, government and diaspora need to “find each other”.

There is no shortage of literature on the lacuna between intentions on the one hand and the constraints on the other. From the diaspora end of things, the view may be that politically appointed ambassadors are ill-fitted to execute diaspora-supportive initiatives. This perspective holds that diplomatic missions are as politically corrupt and morally bankrupt as the political system back home.

From the government end, the view may be that Kenyans abroad are a conceited, unrealistic and insatiable lot. That a large segment of the group specializes in whining from privileged locales away from home. Government officials bristle at the ostensible “special” treatment that diaspora demand without regard for the dire situation their brethren back at home endure. The view from the government may be that there are many national priorities that trump the frivolous diaspora demands.

The consequence is a stalemate!

Filling the gaps between the real and perceived shortcomings on either side of the divide with an eye on the latent diaspora potential requires candour on both sides.  As the adage goes, the first step in resolving an issue is to figure out where “the rain started beating.”

Propitiously, Kenya has a diaspora framework outlined in its foreign policy generally and in the diaspora policy specifically. A structured starting point would be to review the letter and spirit of these ideally sacrosanct documents as a means of bridging the gap between aspirations and realities.

As rule of thumb, policymaking, when followed through, provides a structured framework for reaching rapprochement over knotty issues. The key question for the review process would be: have the specific standpoints, principles and action plans lived to expectation?

Both the current Kenyan foreign and the diaspora policies were promulgated in 2014, a year into the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Diaspora was a flagship program within the bullish national planning initiatives under the Vision 2030.  The policies were celebrated by stakeholders as the country had never promulgated written foreign and diaspora policies.

That diaspora organisations and supra-national organisations were involved goes to demonstrate the wide purchase and acceptance that the policy garnered. For instance, the World Bank contributed US$500,000 for the development of the strategy.

The arrival of these polices tell us that the framers of Kenya’s international affairs were fully seized of the diaspora matters. Nearly seven years later, these policies require a thorough review.  At a fundamental level, there has been a sea change in global, regional and domestic affairs so much so that these policies need to be re-engineered. Gaps in the implementation of the diaspora policy call for the review.

The failures are legion: the diaspora directorate has been financially constrained; the diaspora portal launched by Deputy President William Ruto in late 2014 never took off; the National Diaspora Council of Kenya – formed as part of the new policy – has punched way below its envisaged role; the stakeholder-partnership spirit has fizzled …

The objectives of these policies aimed to “promote and protect the interests of Kenyans abroad and, “enhance partnership with the Kenya Diaspora and descendants”. If you ask most of the Kenyan diaspora, they feel neither protected nor see Kenya Inc. as a partner. In other words, the policies have only had an underwhelming impact.

Diaspora diplomacy is one of the foreign pillars along with peace, economic, environmental and cultural diplomacies. The goals of the policy are to among other things; tap the untapped potential of Kenyans abroad as means of integrating the diaspora into the development agenda. This was meant to be achieved via, among other strategies; provision of consular services, leveraging outstanding Kenyans and making it easier and cost-effective for Kenyans to send monetary remittances to the country.

Most Kenyans living abroad do not however see their government as welcoming to their potential involvement in the countries developmental plans. In fact, many feel rebuffed, alienated and, “on their own”.

The upshot is that there is a huge lacuna between the diaspora diplomacy pillar and the other pillars of peace, economics, environment and culture.

The failure of the policy can be seen in the fact that the exact or near-exact figure of the Kenyan diaspora – not to mention what they are up to – is not known is an indication of poor data collection. Estimates however, indicate that there were about 3 million Kenyans living abroad in 2014. Six years later, this figure must have climbed towards; if not over, 4 million people thus nearly 10 per cent of the population. This is a huge demographic asset!

Government officials may enumerate a retinue of challenges as a means of explaining away the factors that hamper the implementation of the diaspora policies. Key among them would be financial constraints. However, discussions with diaspora organizations could help provide innovative and cost-effective alternatives. For instance, can diaspora organizations be co-opted into working closely with diplomatic missions? Can digital platforms be leveraged a little more in the version of virtual embassies? Can the associations be more robustly involved in the collection of data?

If indeed there is consensus that diaspora mechanisms need an overhaul, then the next step is for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diaspora organisations to find each other around a discussion table.

A review of the diaspora and foreign policies would do well to reconstitute the multi-stakeholder constituencies that not only provided thoughts but led to the involvement of the diaspora in governmental activities. It would do well to incorporate the concept and practice of digital diaspora.

Dr Wekesa is partnership, research and communications coordinator at the African Centre for the Study of the United States based at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. bob.wekesa@wits.ac.za