The American government has set aside Sh3.6 billion for its youth empowerment programme in Kenya, according to US ambassador Michael Ranneberger.
The announcement, made in a wide-ranging speech to the American Chamber of Commerce on January 25, indicates the Obama administration is not stepping back from its youth outreach efforts in the country, despite criticism from some politicians.
Mr Ranneberger told the audience that empowering the youth to take part in the political process would stop their exploitation by politicians and enhance Kenya’s economic prospects.
“President Obama has a strong interest in developing the leadership skills of young people and last year held his first Young Africa Leaders Forum. He has charged young people to be agents of change and to ‘stand up for democracy and transparent government.’ Our $45 million (Sh3.6 billion) ‘Yes Youth Can’ programme will empower hundreds of thousands of youth to participate in the development of their country and expand their peaceful participation in the democratic process.”
The youth outreach programme has attracted criticism from politicians including President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Environment minister John Michuki, who have labelled it an attempt at regime change.
But Mr Ranneberger rejected these concerns, saying the initiative aims to promote “peaceful reform” and provide the youth with opportunities to access capital for economic development.
The US ambassador said Kenya must tackle corruption if it is to achieve double-digit economic growth, a theme that was a key subject of cables recently released by anti-secrecy campaigners WikiLeaks.
“The hard reality is that sustained double-digit growth rates are needed for Kenya to meet its goal of becoming a middle-income country by the year 2030, especially given the 2.6 per cent population growth rate. GDP growth is projected to reach around 5.8 per cent this year. The impact of the global financial crisis, high fuel prices, and drought contributed to slow recovery following the post-election crisis, but corruption is one of the major factors impeding a faster rise in GDP. The slow rise in foreign direct investment is due largely to investors’ concerns about corruption and stability… According to Vision 2030, Kenya seeks to become a middle-income country within 19 years. Without significant reforms, the necessary levels of growth simply will not be achieved. Vision 2030 will remain a chimera without fundamental reform.”
Mr Ranneberger said US foreign assistance funds would be focused on supporting reforms that would help forge a sustainable peace. He said they would aid civil society efforts to carry out civic education, to promote peace and reconciliation, and to foster inter-religious dialogue.
Other funds would be channelled to the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to help combat hate speech and the Interim Independent Electoral Commission to support the holding of “credible and transparent elections”.
The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission is another agency to benefit from these funds.
Mr Ranneberger’s comments indicate that the United States has not altered its foreign policy approach in Kenya following the WikiLeaks revelations.
The release of the cables is reported to have led to a re-appraisal of the way diplomats approach their job in a number of countries and to have seen the recall to Washington of envoys in countries including Libya.
Mr Ranneberger’s comments would appear to indicate that the US is confident that it does not need to change its policies in Kenya where the US retains considerable prestige in part due to Mr Obama’s high popularity levels. A Pew institute poll found Mr Obama enjoys 99 a per cent approval rating in Kenya.
“Although some seek to maintain the status quo, the pervasive sentiment throughout the country for real change is palpable,” said Mr Ranneberger.
“As we remain optimistic about Kenya’s future, let us reflect that change can often occur more quickly than anyone expects. Through the rising voices of Kenyans, the empowerment of youth, and the support of Kenya’s friends, I am convinced that fundamental democratic change will take place peacefully, and sooner than most observers expect.”