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Kenya: Biden's promises to country nothing to write home about

Published date:
Thursday, 17 June 2010

[Opiniopn] US Vice-President Joe Biden, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promised lots of American investments and development assistance to Kenya during their visits, if only we demonstrate our commitment to reforms by passing the proposed new Constitution.

Though it is well known that American investors make decisions on their own independent assessment of opportunities in a given market, Mr. Biden's of conditional promise of massive US investments may have impressed some people both in the business and political circles.

Harbouring hope and expectations from such promises is understandable. Hope is good for the mind and soul.

There is no argument Kenya needs wide ranging reforms to attune its governance and economic systems, including mind sets of its people, to emerging economic and political possibilities in the region and globally.

Positive reforms will give us a new creative capacity and fresh enthusiasm to move forward and grow our economy.

The fundamental justification and motivation for embracing the reforms and our ability to realise their potential benefits will, however, have to come from our own initiative.

True, Kenya needs assistance and trading partners to enable us realise our development objectives.

However, excitement and expectations based on promises from American government officials ought to be toned down.

On this score, it matters little that Barack Obama, our own son is the President of the United States of America.

When dealing with America, Kenyan people and the government are well advised to heed a French saying that; "You should never compare the promise of a lover and the performance of a husband."

That is not to condemn America, but to be realistic.

Consider this, that as at today the most tangible and legally binding framework for promoting trade and economic collaboration between the US and sub-Saharan Africa is the African Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) enacted in year 2000.

By then, I was the Assistant minister, Trade and Investment Affairs and official leader of the joint government and private sector Kenyan Delegation to the Fourth Agoa forum held in Dakar Senegal, July 18th - 20th, 2005.

Apart from successfully lobbying other African ministers and the American delegation to unanimously endorse Kenya's bid to host the 2007 forum (due to the tense post-referendum political situation we hosted it last year 2009), the Kenyan team also concluded some important bi-lateral negotiations with key officials in the American delegation led by the then secretary for Agriculture Mr. Mike Johanns.

Let us consider a number of the outcomes of the bilateral meetings to test how "seriously" committed the US Government is to Agoa and in particular and to helping Kenya realise growth opportunities under the trade framework.

At the bilateral meeting with leader of American delegation; secretary of agriculture Mike Johanns, the following was discussed.

First, to help achieve compliance with American product quality standards, Kenya requested, and it was agreed, that the US would provide support to enhance the capacity of Kenya Bureau of Standards and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service.

Second, it was agreed the US would support acceleration of Pest Risk Analysis of Kenya's fresh produce intended for export to the USA under Agoa.

Meanwhile, the US would allow access for those categories of produce which are already EU certified.

Kenya pointed out that some of these were already entering the US market via the EU anyway.

Third, Kenya asked the US to commit to capacity of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Moi International Airport to meet US security standards and allow direct flights to the US to promote tourism and fresh produce export trade.

Kenya further asked the US to reconsider its travel advisory policy on Kenya given the adverse impact it had on Kenya's economy, and tourism in particular.

It was noted that Kenya's perceived disposition to insecurity derives from her being considered a close ally of the US by the latter's enemies.

At the bi-lateral meeting with officials of the US Department of Energy, some of the issues raised included: Kenya requested and invited the US to support technical and investment collaboration to develop renewable energy, especially wind, solar and geothermal.

It was agreed the US would consider and respond to Kenya's formal proposal for a joint renewable energy sub-sector development programme.

At the bilateral meeting with Paul Applegarth, the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), Kenyan reassured MCA management that considerable progress in meeting the conditions for accessing the funds had been made citing the enactment of the Public Procurement and Disposal Act, The Public Officers Ethics Act and strengthening of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission.

The CEO of the MCA confirmed Kenya was close to achieving the funding conditionality threshold.

It was agreed Kenya re-submits her revised proposal for consideration as had already been indicated.

National security

Has the US kept their side of the bargain on these issues?

Your guess may be as good as mine.

For example, on the issue of capacity building of JKIA, the US government changed its mind and cancelled the inaugural direct flight by Delta Airlines the eleventh hour, last year, despite the much work done to meet their security specifications.

Actualisation of bilateral agreements obviously depend on both parties. Kenya's diplomatic and technical skills and capacity to follow up and sustain necessary tempo at implementation is therefore crucial.

However, on matters to do with official US government promises, Kenyans are well advised to be cautious and not to count their eggs before they hatch.

Security and political interests of America supersede any other considerations.

Kenya's national development agenda is no exemption.

Mr Syong'oh is a policy analyst and former assistant minister, Trade and Investment Affairs.

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