The American Benefits of “Power Africa”

President Obama’s new initiative “Power Africa” plans to “double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa” (Fact Sheet…). With the United States as a financial initiator, President Obama hopes that private investors will follow his lead in donating to this project so that electrical power will be provided to all of sub-Saharan Africa. On the surface, this initiative seems like it will have a tremendous positive impact on the continent of Africa. However, upon further investigation, the true intent of this initiative comes into question. As countries in Africa are plagued by malnutrition, disease, and war, is electrical power really the most functional way to provide aid? If not, who is really benefiting from this $7 billion dollar project? President Obama seems more focused on the political relationship between Africa and America, American interest in African natural resources, and profit for American electrical companies than on the true needs of the African people. The focus of this project must be shifted back to the residents of Africa or the ethnocentric nature of this project will cause it to end in failure

According to Gayle Smith, Obama’s senior director for development and democracy, “more than two-thirds of people living in sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity, including 85 percent of those living in rural areas” (Jeltsen). It would be foolish to say that providing electricity to these areas would not be beneficial to Africa. In Erika Johnsen’s analysis of the Power Africa initiative, she explains “it is impossible to match the level of economic productivity and living standards of the developed world when a huge chunk of your already meager cost of living goes toward energy” (Johnsen).  However, this project must be executed with the right focus and attitude to really help the citizens of Africa.

Currently, the set-up of “Power Africa” seems to mainly benefit the American people. African countries have become of major interests to developed nations with their promise of undiscovered natural resources. As President Obama forces Africans into dependency on American money and electrical companies, America gains a political alliance with many of these countries. While this may be crucial for American foreign policy, this idea seems like an almost backwards way to provide Africa with electrical energy. Instead of helping Africa to self-sufficiency, this project is prolonging their foreign dependence.

In the book War Games, Linda Polman explains how ulterior motives have lead to great corruption in providing aid. Polman cites the War on Terror as an example in which political influence has lead to the corruption of aid. In Afghanistan, aid workers of neutral organizations are viewed in the same respect as the United States military. Therefore, many aid workers go into hiding and are afraid to walk to streets in fear of being killed. Polman explains “if such military and political intentions lie behind the giving of aid, then surely it’s not far from unreasonable if aid is received with equally military and political intentions in mind” (Polman). Africans will not be blind to the political intent of this aid. Do warring countries in sub-Saharan Africa want American support? Will they see this aid as a threat to their own existence? Aid workers may find themselves in a similar situation to Afghanistan, hiding to preserve their own lives. This will greatly reduce the scope of electrical aid the project is able to provide, and many Africans will suffer as a result. However, from an American perspective, this project is still functional. It will still provide the political security President Obama is searching for regardless of how far-reaching the electrical power extends.

Interest in African natural resources also seems to be an important factor to the Power Africa initiative. The press release issued by the White House explains “although many countries have legal and regulatory structures in place governing the use of natural resources, these are often inadequate.  They fail to comply with international standards of good governance, or do not provide for the transparent and responsible financial management of these resources” (Fact Sheet…). Therefore, President Obama believes he should step in and monitor these natural resources, and will undoubtedly keep American interests in mind in the process. Johnsen argues that much of the money invested in this project will never be used to light the homes of rural Africa, but will instead be used “on the romanticized renewable ventures that are having trouble taking hold even in the economically developed United States and Europe without skyrocketing energy prices” (Johnsen).  Is America truly more qualified to monitor these resources? By whose standards? With control over these natural resources, will President Obama deny their use in Africa for American profit?  This kind of ethnocentric attitude will undeniably result in corruption of this aid project. In the book In the Eyes of Others, contributor Antonio Donini warns that all aid workers carry this kind of “political baggage” that greatly impacts the recipients of aid. Donini explains that the superior attitude displayed by western aid workers does not go unnoticed by the victims, as “many will wonder about the patronizing attitude of the outsiders who were here one day and gone the next” (Donini). Although America may think it knows what is best for Africa, many African residents may have a different opinion when their own natural resources are no longer in their control.

 

A large protest group rallies on the streets as they march to the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Arfica, in protest of US President Barack Obama's visit to South Africa on June 28, 2013. UPI/Charlie Shoemaker

Citizens of South Africa protest Presidents Obama’s visit to their county.

Finally, profit for American companies seems to be an undeniable result of this project. Johnsen reports “General Electric will be perhaps the biggest beneficiary of that $7 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds that Obama says will underwrite Power Africa.” (Johnsen). Furthermore, federal financial support will “reduce G.E. financial risks in Africa and will help it compete better against Chinese companies, which have been falling over themselves to invest in Africa” (Johnsen). These kind of financial motives are obviously not in the interest of African residents. Teju Cole warns against this kind of self-motivated aid in his article “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”. Although the American public may see nothing wrong with finically helping our own country while providing a service to Africa, Cole states that there humanitarian aid is more than “ ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them” (Cole). Have sub-Saharan Africans been consulted on receiving electricity? Has anyone even asked if they want it? Have they been told about American control of their resources? Has anyone explained the long-term American political goals of this project? Sadly, the answer is no.

President Obama has focused the functionality of “Power Africa” on American gains. All major benefits of this project are in the interests of the American public. This project not only is advantage for American politics, but will also help President Obama when public support with this act of “charity”. However, this project does not have to function properly in Africa for America to see these benefits. It does not matter if every sub-Saharan African receives electricity, America will still gain political alliances, have control over natural resources, and allow its own companies to profit. This project has been set up to fail from the beginning. Who is keeping the United States accountable for their promise of Universal electricity to sub-Saharan Africa? Who is monitoring the use of aid money for this project? No one. And therefore, the people of Africa will suffer.

President Obama presents himself as an active global citizen, but then funds aid projects with ulterior political motives. To be a true global citizen, we must learn to separate aid projects from politics. Disguising political advancements as acts of charity is deceitful and unfair to the recipients of aid. Instead, we must keep the interests of aid recipients at the forefront of the project. This includes asking aid recipients about what they truly need and keeping them informed about the project. As Polman points out, “governments and private donors give money based on newspaper headlines, not the extent of urgency and human suffering” (Polman). Aid workers must also be kept accountable for their actions. Aid money needs to be monitored to ensure it is only being used for the sake of the aid project. If “Power Africa” is set up to meet these guidelines, I have no doubt about its success in Africa. However, if the project keeps the same political tactics, I will be sorry for the residents of sub-Saharan African who will suffer as a result.

Below is a graphic summarizing Africa’s energy use and natural resources:

graphic

Sources:

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 June 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/2/>.

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Ed. Caroline Abu-Sada. Doctors Without Borders, 2012. Print.

“FACT SHEET: Power Africa.” The White House. Web. 03 July 2013. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/30/fact-sheet-power-africa>.

Jeltsen, Melissa. “Obama To Announce New Power Initiative For Africa.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 30 June 2013. Web. 03 July 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/30/obama-africa_n_3524836.html>.

Johnsen, Erika. “Obama’s “Power Africa” Plan: What Happens When Good Intentions Meet Political-economic Reality?” HotAir.com. Web. 03 July 2013. <http://hotair.com/archives/2013/07/02/obamas-power-africa-plan-what-happens-when-good-intentions-meet-political-economic-reality/>.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

Pictures:

Protest: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/06/30/Obama-announces-Africa-electricity-initiative/UPI-18321372602554/

Graphic: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1101/african-energy/flat.html

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.