One bright spot in the dark night of our partisan political divide was the House passage of the Electrify Africa Act earlier this month. Though the legislation would not spend any US taxpayer dollars on energy projects, it requires the United States and another other agencies to agree on a strategic framework to greatly increase electrification in Africa.
If the Senate votes to pass the legislation, President Obama says he will sign it. Anti-poverty advocates are hoping Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, will make the legislation a priority for passage this year. Advocates urge passage of the bill through the Senate by early summer to ensure conference and ultimate passage by the end of the 2014 legislative session.
With energy access increasingly recognized as key to national development by organizations such as the ONE Campaign and the Bill Gates-funded Center for Global Development, passage of Electrify Africa would follow through on a renewed moral commitment to Africa made ten years ago. The legislation also strengthens the potential for the Power Africa initiative set forth by Obama to have traction beyond his presidency.
The implications would be profound. There are 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who do not have access to electricity, which means no access to cleaner electric cooking or heating, light to study at night, or electricity to run a business. Nearly half of sub-Sahara’s population won’t have access to power in 2030 without new efforts, according to the ONE Campaign.
Cheap and reliable forms of modern energy undergird every aspect of development, from building cities to powering water purification plants to refrigerating lifesaving vaccines and liberating women and children from manual labor and cooking over wood-fired stoves.
“We often hear from African leaders, citizens, and global development experts that one of the biggest challenges for overcoming extreme poverty is the inability for millions of people to access the basic electricity necessary to power hospitals, schools, factories, farms, and businesses,” said Tom Hart, US Executive Director of ONE, after Electrify Africa passed the House.
Increasingly, development experts view access to electricity not as a charitable endeavor but instead as critical to improving agricultural productivity and urbanization. And urbanization in Africa is already underway: last year was the first year on record for more people to live in cities than in the countryside. In sub-Saharan Africa, twice as many people gained access to electricity in cities than in the countryside in the last decade.
Development advocates argue that the economic activity enabled by modern energy systems improves trade and economic growth for all participants. As the New York Times editorialized last summer, energy investment in Africa "provides a vehicle for leveraging private sector investment and, significantly, anchors the United States firmly in the kind of trade and investment relationship that increasingly will help determine Africa’s future.”
Other countries, too, are looking to Africa as an investment opportunity rather than humanitarian project. China surpasses the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and just recently, Beijing and the African Development Bank unveiled a $2 billion investment vehicle called “Africa Growing Together Fund.” The new fund is said to suggest a “symbolic shift” in the way that China treats its African ties.
When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, in early August for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Much will depend on how Obama, Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies figure out how to adopt a vision of electrification that is robust enough to truly unleash development. Electrify Africa may be one step forward, but it likely won’t be the last.