(The following is a brief essay meant to introduce the reader to James Shikwati, a Kenyan whose singular interview with Der Spiegel, hyperlinked below, is the subject of this Current Comment.)

Nearly a decade ago, I received a handwritten letter from a young teacher in Western Kenya responding to an article of mine that he had just read in a magazine. That letter started a correspondence and then a blossoming friendship with one very remarkable James Shikwati, whose work at the Nairobi-based think tank he later founded, the Inter-Region Economic Network, now reverberates with impact far beyond his native Kenya.

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In response to his first letter, I sent him books and articles and put him in contact with other like-minded people and organizations in the United States and elsewhere. But I remember well the day, perhaps two years after the first of our many and frequent exchanges, when I received an especially important note from James. He informed me that he had been so moved by the ideas of liberty that he had made a momentous and very risky decision: He was going to leave behind his teaching position, move to Nairobi and form East Africa’s first free-market think tank!

IREN now has an international reputation for generating ideas, publications and programs aimed at moving Kenya and the African continent in the direction of free enterprise and limited government. His good work has been an inspiration for similar organizations elsewhere in Africa, such as Thompson Ayodele’s institute in Nigeria. James himself is in demand the world over as an articulate spokesperson for the ideas of liberty and sound policy.

The Mackinac Center’s connections to James and IREN are deep and lasting. He attended one of our many Midland-based leadership conferences, where we provide intensive training to free-market think tank staff and executives. In 2003, James established the Joseph P. Overton Leadership Center within IREN to honor our late and esteemed senior vice president. On a personal level, James honored me with a letter in 2003 on my 50th birthday.

So as you can imagine, I am extremely proud of my association with James. I can’t commend him and his organization highly enough. They are making history in a part of the world that desperately needs to hear what they have to say.

And as you will see in this recent Der Spiegel interview, James deserves a hearing in our own backyard as well! His trenchant comments in this high-profile German periodical are a testament to his remarkable success.

— Lawrence W. Reed
Mackinac Center for Public Policy