Electrifying Africa now up to Chairman Menendez

Electricity expansion is the next big thing in U.S.-Africa relations. Boosting energy access is good for American business, good for American foreign policy, and transformative for millions of poor people—all at no cost to U.S taxpayers. This is an easy policy win. But the Senate has to move quickly. Specifically, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) needs to act. 

Step one was taken by President Obama when he announced Power Africa last June. This White House initiative aims to catalyze the power sector in six African countries and bring electricity to 20 million families for the very first time.

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Then, on May 8, the House passed H.R.2548, the Electrify Africa Act of 2014. Led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), this supportive legislation attracted broad bipartisan support and 117 co-sponsors. It helped too that the Congressional Budget Office scored the bill as saving $86 million. Next up is a companion bill from the Senate. 

Why should Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)—or the American public—even care about this issue?

Africa is moving toward the front-burner of U.S. foreign policy. Terrorism, international criminal syndicates, and cross-border disease are major 21st century national security issues. We cannot fight these threats effectively without close partnerships with capable African allies. It’s no coincidence that the six countries covered by Power Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia) are also close U.S. allies.

Americans are also belatedly awakening to tremendous new opportunities in Africa. The continent is now home to six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is projected to grow at nearly 6 percent next year. And it’s not just oil and mining. Nigeria, now the largest economy in Africa, is expanding at 6-8 percent each year even as its petroleum sector is stagnating.  

Power is the critical sector. Surveys consistently point to the cost and reliability of infrastructure as the leading barrier to further African business growth. Nigeria, for example, has only about 4 gigawatts of electricity generation today while real demand is closer to 50 gigawatts. Nigeria, like most African countries, has thus put power at the heart of its growth strategy.

This combination of rapid economic growth and explosive demand for energy means Africa is becoming a big-time destination for investors from China, Korea, India, Europe, and elsewhere. The question I keep hearing is: So, where are the Americans?

The United States has world-class power developers, the best energy technology, and decades of experience in bringing steady affordable electricity to consumers and industry. However, getting these giant deals done usually requires some public policy support, and that’s why Power Africa and the Electrify Africa Act are important.

Electricity access would hugely benefit ordinary citizens too. The vast majority of Africans live today without any electricity at all. Most rely on wood or other biomass for cooking, light, and heating. Further, those who do have access to power use less than an average American refrigerator. The arrival of electricity to a neighborhood is simply transformative, boosting health, education, and job creation. We’ve seen that impact in our own history, and now we can help do the same in Africa.

Strategically, Power Africa is exactly the kind of next-generation foreign policy partnership that America needs. Development is the third leg of U.S. foreign policy (alongside diplomacy and defense), but our development aid model is already obsolete. Neither American taxpayers nor our allies abroad want traditional aid to last forever.

Development policy of the future will leverage public policy to unleash private capital and innovation.  Real partnerships, built on mutual interests to foster trade and investment, are how the U.S. can remain influential and relevant in emerging and frontier markets. 

Senate action is urgent because legislation can push Power Africa to meets its goals and ensure the effort lives beyond 2016. Ideally, a Senate bill will move out of committee soon and onto a floor vote, with time for conference, and then a presidential signature before the first week of August.

Timing matters because on August 5, forty-seven leaders arrive in Washington, DC, for the first-ever U.S.-Africa Heads of State Summit.  A new U.S. law supporting rapid electrification on the continent would be a strong signal of American leadership and a sign that we are ready to reposition U.S. engagement toward a modern and mutually beneficial model. What do you say, Chairman Menendez?

Moss is chief operating officer and senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Global Development. He is a former deputy assistant secretary of State.