Power Africa the Right Choice

President Barack Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative, announced during his six-day tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania in early July, is a major step forward for an administration that has remained relatively inactive in the Sub-Sahara. Though the $7 billion pledge will be spread over three to five years, matching promises from the business community worth another $9 billion dollars could help get the ball rolling. And if the program is effectively integrated into the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) framework, Power Africa’s momentum could be further amplified.

The administration’s pledge may seem small compared to Africa’s need– it would cost $300 billion to bring power to the two-thirds of the continent that still lacks electricity. The pledge – which is intended as the cornerstone of Obama’s legacy to Africa – also appears modest beside the regular contributions of “developing” nations. In 2012, China announced $20 billion in new aid for African infrastructure and agriculture projects, including new loans for power plants and electrical grids, on top of billions already pledged to the continent’s energy sector. And, in May of this year, Brazil pledged to forgive $900 million of African debt, on top of its existing development and trade initiatives. (Whether the initiative can be executed effectively is still another open question: corruption and waste have always posed a challenge to “big infrastructure” projects.)

Scope and feasibility aside, Obama deserves to be congratulated for reaching beyond hackneyed phrases about the importance of trading more with Africa. Such promises sound hollow when so many of America’s competitors, including China, have long since stopped talking and started investing, by the billions.  With Power Africa, Obama has promised to bolster Africa’s competitiveness without any prospect of gain. His efforts could have a profound impact on the daily lives of Africans – but just as importantly, it reinvents America’s long-standing charitable commitment to the continent for a new era. President Bill Clinton chose to promote trade in response to Africa’s rising standing in global markets, enacting the sweeping African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which reduced barriers on African exports and imports. While he renewed and extended AGOA, President George W. Bush chose to put his emphasis on humanitarian initiatives in response to the AIDS epidemic (to this day most US aid to Africa is funneled through Bush-era health initiatives) as well as big-ticket development projects favoring reformist countries through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Similarly, Obama’s choice of electricity, though admittedly smaller in scale, will underwrite Africa’s rise as a manufacturing and consumer power.

And his choice wasn’t easy. The “BRIC” nations’ skyrocketing trade with the continent put pressure on the Obama administration to devote its limited resources to regaining the ground lost to China on the trade front (a path that the administration has partially followed with its new “Trade Africa” initiative). Numerous expensive crises continue to plague Africa, from famine to epidemic; the administration could have chosen a more predictable template and devoted more resources to Obama’s “Feed the Future” or Global Health Initiatives (two underwhelming Obama administration efforts that could use the extra budget help). Add education, democratization, transportation, water, gender issues, family planning, and agriculture to the traditional humanitarian needs, and Obama faced a myriad of options.

Obama’s ultimate choice of “Power” was smart. Energy is a core infrastructure need, and if US efforts succeed inbuilding momentum for flagship projects, the benefits of US partnership willl iterally light up businesses, hospitals, and homes across Africa. More megawatts will equal more economic development, and that will affect every aspect of society, from education and unemployment to health and community development.

And as major power sources come online, Africa will become a better integrated economic space, anchored by functioning regional hubs. The proposed Kenya-Ethiopia interconnection project would help power Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. The Sambangalou Kaleta Hydropower and OMVG Interconnection project in Senegal and Guinea wouldbuild a power pool for much of West Africa. And the famous Inga III and Grand Inga proposals, which hope to harness the boundless energy of the Congo River basin, could spawn continent-wide grid connections. As power lines crisscross national boundaries, creating anetwork of shared assets and cooperation,energy can become a tool for peace.

Finally, Obama’s initiative offers a strong, albeit unspoken, rebuttal of the Chinese model. China has been embraced by African nations, despite its famously abrasive mercantilism, because of Beijing’s willingness to invest quickly and expansively in what matters most to Africans: highways, railroads, skyscrapers, dockyards, and other meaty projects intended to form the backbone of a more modern continent. Historically, the US has alternately been celebrated and condemned for its insistence on treating Africa as a charity case. Power Africa diverges from this history, demonstrating that the US government is willing to invest in projects that that empower Africans to break the cycle of aid dependency that the United States has partnered with the continent in creating.

Critics of the administration may react differently to the “Power Africa” narrative. Electricity generation may seem, after all, like just another way to empower corrupt governance and skirt of some of Africa’s tougher political challenges. (A reckoning of the administration’s tactical and rhetorical evasions of human rights and democracy issues is long overdue.) A true cynic would reply that, given Obama’s profound failure to realize the promises of his 2009 speech in Ghana – that he would prioritize governance and human rights on the content – it would be political folly for his Administration to talk about anything other than Realpolitik concerns. Either way, the President is now on the right track, and doing something to help. 

Sam Fishman is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Image: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave to President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and First Lady Salma Kikwete from Air Force One before leaving Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, July 2, 2013 (Photo: White House/Pete Souza/CC License)