Opinion: 'Kenya-US relations really do matter'

Opinion: 'Kenya-US relations really do matter'
Thursday, 05 November 2020 ~ WYCLIFFE MUGA

With the shadow of the bitterly contested American presidential elections looming over us, the past few weeks have seen much discussion on the relationship between Kenya and the US.

The average American may not care much who gets to be the president of Kenya – indeed would generally have no idea of it, if there was a presidential election taking place in Kenya.

But most Kenyans are very keen to see if this most unusual of American presidents – Donald Trump – will be reelected; or if he will be, in that phrase beloved of Kenyan media pundits, “tossed into the dustbin of history”.

This interest in American politics may be just a casual matter to many among us. But historians would point out that there have been times when it greatly mattered to Kenya that there should be some level of American intervention in our internal affairs.

For example, in the early 1960s, it was the American “student airlift” programme supported by President John F Kennedy which made possible – within just a few years – the creation of a Kenyan professional class that could replace the departing British civil servants in various fields.

The roughly 800 university graduates produced by this programme may seem insignificant now, when about 30,000 young men and women graduate from Kenyan universities each year. But back then those American-trained technocrats were indispensable for the smooth transition from colonial rule.

More recently and at a time when being afflicted with HIV-Aids was effectively a death sentence within Kenya, it was President George W Bush’s Presidential Emergency Plan for Aids Relief that provided free antiretroviral medications, and quickly reduced our rates of HIV/Aids-related deaths.

The prices of ARVs have since fallen dramatically, but when PEPFAR was first launched in 2003, the purchase of antiretrovirals for all Kenyans who needed them would have taken up the entire Ministry of Health’s annual budget. Only the massive new financial investment that PEPFAR brought in made the widespread availability of these drugs possible.

But not every American intervention in Kenya has been as great a success as those two. Back in 2002 or thereabouts, I received from a contact of mine at the US Embassy a document giving details of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which he assured me was, potentially, very good news for Kenya.

As a great simplification, I would explain that AGOA provided preferential and duty-free access of various goods manufactured in Africa, to the US market.

But more practically, the idea was that this would give African nations a leg up in establishing Export Processing Zones making garments for the American market – a multibillion-dollar manufacturing opportunity that had long been “offshored” to Asian nations. Garments are important in this context because they are still largely manufactured by labour-intensive methods.

In reading more broadly on this AGOA and global garment manufacturing, I was amazed to learn that Bangladesh, for example, had created over 2.5 million jobs, mostly for their vast population of minimally educated workers. These barely educated Bangladeshis who would otherwise have been farm labourers or even beggars in city streets, were trained in assembly line production of garments, and so had a regular income.

So it seemed that if the Kenyan leadership would only bestir itself and create the infrastructure that would make a massive investment in garment production possible, we too would soon have millions of young people with minimal education, gainfully employed in garment factories.

In other words, AGOA held the promise of massive new employment opportunities for underprivileged Kenyans, who had few other options. But it did not quite work out. Kenya has to this day not managed to create more than 100,000 or so EPZ-based jobs. And not because our leaders did not try.

I actually realised the limits of the EPZ clothing factories – and why we could not hope to compete with Bangladesh in this sector – not long after my American friend had pointed me to the opportunities of AGOA.

In the first place, electricity costs in Kenya were simply too high. And second, the Bangladeshi garment workers (many of whom were actually kids of school-going age) work much harder than Kenyans, and for much less pay.


arrow right blue Follow US-Kenya FTA issues at this link


View related news articles

'The opportunities are vast in a potential US-Kenya FTA'

Last year, the U.S. and Kenya announced the launch of free trade negotiations, the first of its kind between the U.S. and a sub-Saharan Africa country. If successful, it would be the most significant trade development in the region since the enactment of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade preference program in 2000. To better understand the key issues surrounding FTA negotiations, the U.S. Chamber’s U.S.-Africa Business...

06 May 2021

Report: A look at the potential benefits and challenges of a US – Kenya trade agreement

The American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Kenya has partnered with the U.S. Africa Business Centre (USAfBC) and Covington to publish a business trade report. The report, titled US-Kenya Trade Negotiations: Implications for the Future of the U.S.-Africa Trade Relationship, examines the challenges and benefits of a potential free trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Kenya. Speaking during the report launch, AmCham Kenya CEO,...

30 April 2021

Kenya: 'Uhuru–Blinken talks a breath of life to US trade deal'

Trade talks between Kenya and the US could resume soon following Tuesday's virtual meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. This is after a five-month break occasioned by change of g-uard in the US as President Joe Biden took over from Donald Trump after last November’s elections. The settling down of the Biden administration put foreign trade negotiations and policies on hold, which included...

29 April 2021

'Hope for Kenya-US trade deal as talks resume'

Kenya and the United States have resumed talks on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) ongoing since last year. Kenya's Trade Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina and US Trade representative Katherine Tai held talks that focussed on the importance of the trade relations between Kenya and Africa as important partners to the US. The bilateral trade talks paused in the wake of American presidential elections last November. A change of guard at the White...

08 April 2021

'Biden Administration dampens Kenya's hopes for bilateral trade deal'

The Biden administration's plans to review foreign trade policy and refocus it on America's economic recovery have thrown long-running free trade negotiations with Kenya into disarray. In a development that casts doubts on the future of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Kenya, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai has informed Kenyan Minister of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise Development Betty Maina of...

05 April 2021

US Chamber drives for Kenya-US trade deal

The United States Chamber of Commerce has urged President Joe Biden to seal a new trade deal with Kenya, which was initiated by his predecessor Donald Trump. The biggest and most influential US business lobby group wants the ongoing negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations concluded fast to pave the way for uptake of business and investment opportunities. “The Chamber supports the negotiation of a high-standard...

02 February 2021

Kenya–US trade talks on hold, awaits Biden's administration

Kenya hopes to resume trade talks with the US after change of guard at the White House with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday.  The country is optimistic of speedy resumption of negotiations, with hopes the Biden administration will warm up to Africa, and Kenya as an investment destination and trade partner. The negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which commenced on July 8, last year,  stalled due to...

21 January 2021

'Uncertainty around Kenya-US Free trade deal'

A cloud of uncertainty has engulfed Kenya’s pursuit of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States due to the impending change of guard at the White House.  Even before he takes office, President-elect Joe Biden has sent strong indications of plans to annul many of President Donald Trump’s policies, cutting across trade, environment and geopolitics - something that has Kenya on edge over the ongoing negotiations for a...

18 January 2021

Kenya exports to US climb to Sh67 billion

Kenyan exports to America under the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) hit Sh67 billion last year, a marginal increase of 3.7 per cent from Sh64 billion recorded in the previous year. According to the latest report from the Office of the US Trade Representative, Kenya emerged the fourth exporter under Agoa, after Nigeria (Sh310 billion), South Africa (Sh200 billion) and Angola (Sh60 billion) in Africa. “Kenya is currently our 96th...

30 December 2020

'From AGOA to FTA - Kenya-US ties growing from strength to strength'

[Opinion] The 56-year-old United States-Kenya relationship flourishes because we trust each other, respect each other and our nations share common values. Both believe in a strong economy through an open, free marketplace allowing entrepreneurs, businesses and the private sector to thrive and create jobs. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) enhanced markets, allowing Kenyan businesses to grow. Agoa will expire in 2025 and, while...

29 October 2020