Who Does “Power Africa” Really Empower?

The Obama administration has recently announced a 7 billion dollar endeavor to “double access to power in Africa.” President Obama has said that the “Power Africa” movement is necessary because, “Access to electricity 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 a 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.” (Karimi) At a time when the U.S. economy is still struggling however, is there an underlying ulterior motive to promoting such massive investment and involvement in Africa?

President Obama recently visited South Africa, where he announced his new initiative to spread electricity throughout Africa. But are U.S. intentions purely out of humanitarian goodwill or are there other factors at play?

President Obama recently visited South Africa, where he announced his new initiative to spread electricity throughout Africa. But are U.S. intentions purely out of humanitarian goodwill or are there other factors at play?

This sudden U.S. interest in Africa comes just as China has begun to exponentially increase its presence in the country, now replacing the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading power. (Karimi) These recent decisions to become involved more deeply in Africa clearly do not stem from humanitarian goodwill, but are instead two countries’ thinly veiled attempts to mask their fierce competition to establish control over the oil reserves of the continent.

U.S. domestic oil production peaked in 1970, and has steadily decreased ever since, being unable to meet the demands of the population, forcing the country to place a greater emphasis on oil importation. This has created a massive change in an otherwise laissez-faire U.S. foreign policy approach for example, in the oil-rich Middle East (only becoming involved when U.S. interests are threatened – such as supplying weapons to fend off Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s), seen most prominently through the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, in order to establish a military presence that would open the flow of oil into America.

Paul O’Neill, Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush said in 2004 “Already by February 2001, the talk was mostly about logistics. Not the why [to invade Iraq], but the how and how quickly.” (Juhasz)

The plan worked because, as Antonia Juhasz of CNN reported in a 2013 article, “Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, it is largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms.” (Juhasz)

However, opposition to the conflict is currently at its highest since the start of the decade-long conflict that left an estimated 1.2 million people dead as a result of what Teju Cole describes as, “a war of choice”, with 56 percent of Americans saying they oppose the military efforts in Iraq according to a 2013 CNN poll.  (CNN/ORC)

With troop withdrawals estimated to bring the last American soldier home from Iraq and Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. must find a new area of alleged humanitarian interest to exploit, and it is clear they have found the perfect candidate in Africa.

China is also in desperate need of oil, requiring more of it every day in order to keep up with the massive economic boom it has seen in recent years.

On a trip I took this past January to China, our bus driver in Beijing relayed a joke he had heard a Peking University economics professor use to describe the huge increase in infrastructure projects and emerging middle class across the country, he said that China’s national bird “is the construction crane.” Looking at the skyline obscured almost entirely by these tall metal structures, it is easy to understand why a city like Beijing, with a population of twenty million and counting, would need a great deal of oil to sustain that level of growth.

This inability to keep up with their massive economic expansion, coupled with the U.S. claim on Iraq as an oil producer, has forced China to look to other countries as the solution to their energy shortage – namely, Africa.

Pan Rui, an international relations expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, says that, “Iraq changed the (Chinese) government’s thinking. The Middle East is China’s largest source of oil. America is now pursuing a grand strategy, the pursuit of American hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is the number one oil producer, and Iraq is number two [in terms of reserves]. Now, the United States has direct influence in both countries.” (Goodman)

The "Power Africa" movement hopes to spread electricity throughout the continent, but it comes at the same time that China has begun to establish itself in the region. Could political interests be at the forefront of this campaign rather than the best interests of Africa?

The “Power Africa” movement hopes to spread electricity throughout the continent, but it comes at the same time that China has begun to establish itself in the region. Could political interests be at the forefront of this campaign rather than the best interests of Africa?

It is clear that control of oil, as well as a mutual fear that the other superpower will dominate an area of influence as lucrative as Africa, have prompted this increase in humanitarian effort and foreign investment.

The “Power Africa” campaign treads in dangerous territory. Specifically because of the way it intends to supersede community involvement, and simply institute the creation of a viable energy industry on its own.  The White House fact sheet for the “Power Africa” movement says that, “Instead of taking years or even decades to create an enabling environment for energy sector investment, Power Africa takes a transaction-centered approach that provides incentives to host governments, the private sector, and donors.” (Office of the Press Secretary)

If “Power Africa” truly wanted to keep Africa’s best interests in mind, it would work with the community to help a self-sufficient system, rather than establishing one that is solely dependent on foreign aid, keeping all of the power with the donors themselves.

I ask of both the U.S. and Chinese government, why are you only now so deeply interested and concerned for Africa’s well being? Would you still care about expanding electricity throughout Africa if it were not such a politically powerful and hotly contested area? Where were these billion dollar efforts when the Rwandan genocide was killing 800,000 people, but intervention and saving lives served no tangible U.S. interests?

We would do well to remember one of the four fundamental principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross, that they hold essential to an ethical and responsible humanitarian effort, that principle is described as “Independence” or, “Being free from benefactors.” (Polman) The U.S. is very clearly a benefactor from the “Power Africa” movement, but it has yet to be seen whether Africa will benefit or suffer as a result of such heavy-handed foreign involvement.

I urge our government to take a more cooperative approach that focuses on empowering Africa to power itself, rather than promoting our own self-serving interests, under the guise of a humanitarian effort.

 

Works Cited:

Office of the Press Secretary. July 2, 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/30/fact-sheet-power-africa

Juhasz, Antonia. “Why the War in Iraq was Fought for Big Oil” April 15, 2013. July 2, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz

CNN/ORC. “In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?” http://www.pollingreport.com/iraq.htm.

Goodman, Peter. July 13, 2005. July 2, 2013. “Big Shift in China’s Oil Policy” https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/12/AR2005071201546.html

Karimi, Faith. June 30, 2013. July 2, 2013. “Obama Pledges $7 Billion to Upgrade Power in Africa” http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/30/world/africa/south-africa-obama-pledge/

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 2012. June 13, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

Linda Polman. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

 

 

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