Remarks to Kenya Polytechnic University

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Nairobi, Kenya
January 28, 2010

Thank you very much for your kind words, and to Principal Aduol and to all of you for taking the time to be here with me today. It is really a pleasure to be here at the Kenya Polytechnic University. I also want to recognize and thank Ambassador Ranneberger who has been a gracious host here in Kenya.

My name is Maria Otero, and as you have heard, I am the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. I work for Secretary Hillary Clinton and for President Obama—two names that I’m sure you know well.

This is my first trip to Africa as Under Secretary, but not the first time I have been here. In fact, my first trip to Kenya was in 1980, and I have come back many times since then in my previous work with microfinance.

So when we started thinking about planning my first trip to this region as Under Secretary, I knew I wanted to come to Kenya first. And let me tell you why.

As Under Secretary, I oversee a wide variety of foreign policy issues. They are:

  • Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
  • Population, Refugees, and Migration
  • Oceans, Environment, and Science
  • and the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons

Now, those issues may seem very diverse. But they share a common focus on populations and environments that are vulnerable and that need support and protection. And, indeed, here in Kenya, each of these areas is presenting itself in a big way.

Your country, as you well know, is in the midst of a historic process—to reform and enact a new Constitution that will protect the important democratic institutions that have been a pillar of Kenyan society for so long. The Honorable Ambassador underscored the United States’ support of the reform process in his remarks to the Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

Your country is also coping with the ongoing arrival and settlement of refugees from neighboring Somalia and elsewhere. Just yesterday I visited the camps in Dadaab, and I learned more about the challenges of this situation for Kenya.

Your country is addressing the terrible problem of modern slavery—especially among young girls who are tricked into domestic servitude, far away from their families and in need of a safe refuge.

And your country is also addressing environmental problems that threaten Kenya’s future sustainability. Just this morning I met with Kenya’s native daughter and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Wangaari Mathai, who has spent her career teaching the world about the importance of planting trees wherever we go and wherever we live and work.

So you see, there were many reasons for me to come to Kenya as Under Secretary of State, to address all of these areas. I have had the pleasure of meeting with many people both in nonprofit organizations and in government, including President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga this morning. But my trip would not be complete without coming here today—speaking with you, the future business people, scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders of Kenya.

The truth is, you in this room are crucial to everything that the country of Kenya seeks to achieve. Your country has long been known for the vibrance and strength of its civil society. And as university students, as young men and women who are seeking careers in business, science, and research, you are the drivers of Kenya’s future progress.

I was pleased to learn that the United States supported a National Youth Forum last November, to empower young people in this country in the constitutional reform process.

So today, I want to reiterate, on behalf of President Obama and Secretary Clinton the message that you all in this room, as informed citizens, are important actors of change in this country. And I want to encourage you to embrace your role in Kenya’s development as a strong and peaceful nation. Take every opportunity to understand and engage in political debate.

I know this is not easy. Many of you, and your families, may still be recovering from the trauma of the post-election violence. But, the good thing is that there are many people in this country who are working hard to make sure that the Constitutional reform is successful and that your next elections are stable and transparent.

And the second piece of good news is that, in today’s world, you can now participate easier than ever before as active citizens of this great country.

Now what do I mean by that? Well, let me stop for a moment and share with you a fact that I found somewhat surprising about the United States.

In America, the average young person spends eight hours a day with technology and media. The internet, cell phones, television – I mean, think about that. Eight hours a day. That’s more time than they spend in school, that’s more time than they spend with their families. It’s often more time than they spend asleep.

Now, raise your hand if you use a mobile phone everyday. [wait for hands]

And raise your hand if you’d be willing to use your mobile phone to participate in your government’s activities. [wait for hands]

Okay, so given the number of people in this room who already use mobile technology, why don’t we use that platform to enable you to engage more actively in governmental processes, access better information about programs, or even rate ministries on their responsiveness and efficiency.

You could also report corruption, or alternatively, help spread the word about a really great candidate for Parliament. The hardware required to make such an idea work—your cell phone—is already in the hands of more than 15 million Kenyans. And the software involved would be relatively inexpensive to develop and deploy.

Just last week Secretary Clinton delivered an important speech about this--the significance of technology, and the freedom of expression, in our 21st century world. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, tools like the internet and mobile phones are creating opportunities where none existed before. 

As Secretary Clinton said last week, we are seeing the impact of technology on development and security right here in Kenya, where farmers have seen their income grow by as much as 30 percent since they started using mobile banking technology, like MPESA. And during the post election violence, I know that people were using your mobile phones to help locate areas of conflict around the country.

That is what we call innovation, and as I stand with you today, here at Kenya Polytechnic, I know that you all understand the importance of such innovation as we address so many of our 21st century challenges.

We want to put these innovative tools in your hands—to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, and to encourage sustainable economic development that uplifts all people. These are issues which merit the consideration of all people in Kenya, and especially young people who represent the future of this great country.

So, what we want to do, and what we are working on in the United States, is looking at ways to create access and tools for engagement, so that civil society can become even stronger. We need to explore more ways to leverage the power of technology, and to use it to strengthen our societies.

One way we are doing this is through an effort called the NetFreedom Task Force, which I have the pleasure of co-chairing. As part of our commitment to support responsible private sector engagement on information freedom, the State Department will convene firms that provide network services for talks about internet freedom, because in today’s world the freedom of expression must be secured through the internet as much as in traditional sources of information and media.

So, I’ll just close by saying that you here in the room are the agents of change that we seek. And I know that many of you are already thinking about these important challenges, and the tools to address them. So now I would welcome your questions or stories of your own engagement in Kenyan society and politics.

Thank you!