Weighing in on Obama’s Power Africa program: Pros and cons
July 23, 2013 Editor 0
President Obama’s plan to double power to sub-Saharan Africa has people buzzing about an Africa where energy poverty is a thing of the past.
This month, during his three-country whirlwind tour of Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, Obama unveiled his Power Africa initiative, which will invest $16 billion to tackle Africa’s crippling energy deficit. Seven billion dollars, disbursed over the next five years, will come from existing U.S. development funds and so would not increase government spending, while the other $9 billion will come from private investors like Husk Power Systems and General Electric. Significantly, this public-private collaboration demonstrates a shift from an aid-based strategy of international development toward a private investment approach.
Millions of Africans are trying to get out of the dark: In Senegal, 42 percent of citizens have access to electricity. In South Africa, electricity is available to 75 percent of the populous. But in Tanzania, only 14 percent of the population is on the grid. This lack of energy availability in Africa continues to curtail the continent’s development.
Though Obama’s initiative gives a needed jumpstart to powering Africa, the proposal has some highlights and lowlights:
Power Africa pros
- Attracts investors to Africa’s energy sector by offering incentives to donors, private investors, and host governments.
- Offers technical assistance to local municipalities regarding regulation, market structure and environmental reforms.
- Improves transparency by ensuring that the benefits of oil, gas, and other natural resources are reaped by the people of Africa and that development is conducted in an environmentally and financially responsible manner.
- Reflects a paradigm shift in the U.S. government’s perceptions of Africa from a hopeless continent to a legitimate investment and trade partner.
- Provides 10,000 megawatts of power to a region where 85 percent of its rural inhabitants survive without electricity.
Power Africa cons
- Focuses too heavily on oil and gas development, rather than harnessing Africa’s massive potential for solar and other sustainable forms of energy.
- Relies on the notion that the plan will be implemented perfectly, though infrastructure, maintenance, administrative, and governmental policy issues abound.
- Invests only $16 billion though the White House indicated that about $300 billion is needed to truly eradicate energy poverty in Africa.
- As a stand alone program, Power Africa cannot accomplish the monumental task which it is set out to achieve, and so requires follow-up initiatives.
Further questions arise
A Washington Post article lauded Power Africa as a small step in the right direction, but noted important questions about the initiative that remain unanswered.
- Could expanding energy access in Africa conflict with Obama’s climate goals? Most of the Power Africa projects focus on fossil fuel resources to expand the energy grid, which doesn’t jive with Obama’s recent remarks on climate change and sustainable energy.
- What counts as electricity access? The meaning of electricity access in Africa is far different from what it means in the United States. Does the expectation for access in Africa mean electrifying a lightbulb for three hours a night or is it something more like the American lifestyle?
- How much will it cost? This question is of great concern with recent studies suggesting it would take $160 billion to $215 billion per year to achieve full energy access by 2030. Power Africa provides a drop in the bucket of what is needed.
The intentions of Power Africa are in the right place, but time will tell whether it becomes implemented effectively.
As President Obama noted:
Access to energy is fundamental to opportunity in this age, it’s the light that children study by, the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into real business, it’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs and it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.Liberian woman cooking over charcoal. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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