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US-Kenya trade equation needs balancing

By | June 8th 2010

The visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden has been linked to the current debate on the Proposed Constitution, with some even claiming it amounts to an endorsement of the draft law.

Others say Biden’s presence is a chance for Kenya to seek US help in solving a growing problem for the region in the shape of Somalia. In other words, in exchange for Kenya’s solidarity with the US over its "war on terror", the Americans should reciprocate by being more supportive of efforts aimed at ending instability in the neighbouring war-torn country. The truth is somewhere in between.

Yes, the US does want to see a new constitution in place, but is not keen on taking sides in the current campaign for or against the draft, for obvious reasons. And much as America is keen on keeping Kenya as an ally in its "war on terror", it is also wary of China’s growing influence in Africa.

The reason more young people are turning to crime or getting radicalised by wayward clerics and enlisted into terror cells is because they have nothing else to turn to. Jobless and without hope, they are opting for a quick fix.

In any case, Somalia is just one of the countries directly bordering Kenya that is plagued by incessant conflict. Others are Sudan and Ethiopia.

Both the World Bank and the Kenya Government are happy to predict economic growth this year of over four per cent. Those figures are meaningless to millions of jobless Kenyan youth who see no future except in the quick returns guaranteed by crime.

Fatal flaws

US State Department reports paint a grim picture of the Horn of Africa used as points for recruiting youth into militias and terrorist cells. What stands out is that most of those recruited are often from dirt-poor backgrounds.

Kenya is particularly vulnerable due to its long and poorly policed borders with countries beset by conflict and lawlessness.

These include Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, countries where the central governments have little sway in far-flung provinces.

One of the fatal flaws of the eight-year George W Bush presidency and previous US Republican governments was their unwavering belief that they could resolve conflicts solely with overwhelming deployment American military power.

Overwhelming it may be, but as Iraq has shown, while the US military complex can pound opponents into submission, it comes at high cost and does not always achieve the desired results.

If things were different, the billions of dollars already spent by the US Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation to set up listening posts and information and supply networks for its allies, would have certainly turned things round in Somalia by now.

Kenya’s economy must start generating much-needed jobs for the youth, to keep them off the streets. The ready and growing army of unemployed, many with university and college training, and who have lost faith in their government, is the bedrock of Kenya’s soaring crime rate.

This visit by the second most powerful man in the US should thus be seen as a chance to begin engaging America on the need to increase its support through the World Bank and USAid, for example, to sectors of the economy that can create the much needed jobs.

Also opening up its market to more Kenyan goods would be a good starting point. Despite China’s growth, America’s is still the biggest consumer market in the world. It is also the most difficult for Kenyan exporters to penetrate, due to a solid phalanx of regulations that ultimately protect US farmers from foreign competition.

Closing markets

Despite the emergence of telecommunications and retail sectors as drivers of the Kenyan economy, agriculture is still the biggest industry here, with the horticulture sub-sector emerging strongest.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act, signed into law 10 years ago, did much to encourage African countries to open their economies and build free markets.

Unfortunately, while Africa was opening up its markets, the US and several European countries have been closing theirs, especially in the wake of the recent global financial crisis.

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