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Why Kenya opts for K-Street PR to clean up its battered image abroad 0

Two years ago, the Kenya government raised eyebrows at home when it hired Chlopak Leonard Schechter and Associates (CLS), a top lobbying firm in Washington DC that also represents Google and Intuit.

The controversy was centred on two issues: First, the cost, which at $1.7 million looked pricey for a poor country; and second, why the country was paying to fix its image in Washington DC.

Last week, there were some murmurs when Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the US, opposed to the renewal of the contract, which some insiders say could be valued at $2 million after factoring in inflation and the weakening shilling. According to Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Information, the contract was awarded after wide consultations within government and the National Security Advisory Committee.

So, as Kenya renews this contract, the key question now is whether by hiring a K Street lobbyist, the country has managed to spruce up its image in the eyes of politicians, policymakers and influential editorial boards in the American media. K Street in Washington DC is the epicentre of lobby groups and think tanks in the US capital, many of them representing foreign governments.

According to the semi-annual disclosures required under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which requires that agents representing the interests of foreign powers be properly identified to the American public, Kenya was the eighth among the top 10 African spenders on lobbyists in America in the period 2009 and 2010. South Africa was by far the largest with a budget of $18 million during that period, followed by Angola at $7 million, Libya at $4.1 million, Egypt at $3.5 million, Equatorial Guinea at $2.4 million, Nigeria at $1.8 million and Ethiopia at $1.2 million. Uganda and Tanzania spent $503,000 and $225,000 respectively.

Country on the brink

It is noteworthy that these questions appear on the week that Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace published the seventh Failed States Index. This is an influential barometer of how the elite in America’s foreign policy circles and media view the world and in this case Kenya and East Africa.

One year before Kenya hired CLS, it was ranked as the country that was 26th most likely to collapse in 2008 with a score of 93.4. Kenya had just transformed in the eyes of the world from a vibrant emerging democracy into a state heading to a civil war.

This week, FP ranked Kenya at position 16 with a score of 98.7 — which shows progress, but at a slower pace compared with other countries. At this position, Kenya was in the bad company of Somalia (the worst off), Chad, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ivory Coast and Iraq.

In East Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda were in the good company of emerging democracies such as Ghana and South Africa at positions 65 and 34 respectively. Uganda and Burundi at position 17 and 21 respectively were basically, in the same rough neighbourhood.

At the time CLS was hired, Kenya desperately needed an image makeover in the aftermath of the 2008 post-election violence, which was later followed by the global financial crisis. The political violence in Kenya had shaken America’s faith in one of its most important allies in Africa, and the global crisis threatened to close the taps of foreign aid from Kenya’s biggest giver and most vocal critic.

It baffles many African observers just how condescending the relationship between Nairobi and Washington is when they see American presidents lecture Kenyan presidents on how to govern their subjects, but the foreign aid numbers explain how symbiotic this relationship has become, first during George Bush’s presidency and now under Obama.

American largesse

According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, Kenya is set to receive $3 billion in foreign aid between 2008 and 2011. Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, and South Africa came closest, getting between $2.3 billion and $2.6 billion. Tanzania and Uganda got $1.8 billion and $1.7 billion respectively. Rwanda got $802 million and Burundi $141 million.

Data from 2008 shows that Kenya was the seventh largest recipient of foreign aid at $600 million in that year, behind Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Israel.

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By Christine Mungai The East African

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi