24 January 2013

Kenya: The Worthy Wisdom of Our 'Foreigners'


The advent of general elections in Kenya, is always marked by a fierce debate on the influence of foreigners on "Kenya's internal affairs".

And, oddly enough, it is those who tend to rub shoulders most often with foreigners - key government officials, leading media people and NGO barons - who usually have unkind things to say about "interfering foreigners", despite having personal friends from within this group.

All in all, it is a phenomenon worthy of investigation.

Well, first let us consider that not all 'foreigners' are equal. In my experience, top diplomats - the men and women who present their credentials to our president before they take up their duties - tend to be remarkably well informed.

And this is largely because a good part of their work involves interactions with government technocrats from whom they learn a great deal about the country.

Indeed just how important such routine interactions and informal discussions are considered to be, was only recently revealed by the undignified departure of former US Ambassador, Jonathan Scott Gration. In the little that leaked out about why he had to resign, there was mention of his failure to reach out to key figures in government, politics, civil society, and the media.

Anyone, whose job description emphasises reaching out to the very sectors where the most comprehensively informed Kenyans are to be found, is bound to be reasonably well informed.

But I do not think that it is primarily ambassadors that so deeply upset these Kenyan commentators who denounce "interfering foreigners". My impression is that they are more infuriated by a certain kind of do-gooder expatriate whose idea of conversation, is to ask why Kenyans cannot get their act together, and govern their nation with the same efficiency as the countries of Europe or North America. Such people will often be heard declaring, "What Kenya needs is..." as they always have easy answers to all our most intractable problems.

Now of course there is no valid reason why Kenya should not be more prosperous, or better governed or less corrupt. But - if you are interested in getting to root causes - there are often historical reasons why what is easy in one country, will prove to be very difficult in another.

One might ask, for example, if a European expatriate posted to work in the US, would use the same impatient and condescending tone to ask why Americans do not have more effective gun control, despite all the innocent American children who have been massacred by lunatics armed with automatic rifles. After all, such massacres of innocents are relatively rare in Europe, but tragically common in America.

Then, Germany and France both have a sizable Muslim minority which has proved resistant to all attempts to assimilate them, and pose a major political headache to the leaders of these nations.

Would a Kenyan working or studying in either nation be justified in sneering at how assimilation of migrant minority communities has failed in his host nation, when Kenya seems to have effortlessly assimilated both Kenyan Asians and white Kenyans?

As I said, there will always be complex historical and cultural reasons why what is easily tackled in one country will prove to be extraordinarily difficult to resolve in another country.

And the expatriate who freely prescribes easy solutions to his host nation's most distressing problems often achieves nothing more than to reveal the extent of his ignorance.

But those are just ordinary men and women from foreign nations whose careers have somehow landed them in Kenya - and whose views matter only to their friends.

Far worse are some of the so-called "Africa experts" based in leading Western universities and think tanks.

With the exception of the men and women concerned with scientific interventions - medical researchers who work on tropical disease and HIV/Aids; experts in ICT, and in advanced technologies in hydro-engineering, sanitation, etc. - the bulk of these 'Africa experts' have no real expertise at all.

Especially when it comes to the social sciences like economics, political science, sociology, and psychology - subjects in which data and statistics form only a small part of the picture, and what is really needed is profound insights into root causes.

However none of this means that Kenyans should disregard the wisdom of foreigners. Indeed, there is great value in having an objective outsider take a cold hard look at your country.

Next week, I shall illustrate why I say this, using the example of a prominent foreigner whose 'ignorance' I once mocked; and yet I was later compelled to acknowledge that he had actually understood the hidden dynamics of Kenyan politics far better than I ever had.

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