Kenya-US relations really do matter

Some level of American intervention in our internal affairs matters.

In Summary
  • President Bush’s PEPFAR made the widespread availability of ARVs possible.
  • It was the American ‘student airlift’ programme supported by President Kennedy that made possible, within a few years, the creation of a professional class to replace the departing British

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.