The Importance of Critical Examination

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Recently, President Obama announced his new “Power Africa” initiative.  Its goal is to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, and to have universal access by 2030.  Obama said that the program is intended to “lift people out of poverty” and to “provide a light where currently there is darkness.”  I think that several aspects of this program are admirable, but there are some things that should be examined.

“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.”  (Obama, CNN).  Power Africa is a development aid program that will do more than provide emergency aid, such as food and water, to the continent.  Electricity will help African nations develop and be able to become more involved in the global economy.  Obama said, “…we are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance.” (Obama, Al Jazeera).  This type of development aid will help Africans in cities and villages and on farms and ranches to boost their economies.

Obama has called Power Africa a “partnership” between America and the continent of Africa.  A two-way street of trade and investment between different nations will help build the African and American economies, while establishing a relationship between the two.  I have said before that the aid industry needs to focus more on interacting with people in a way that “validates their dignity, validates a partnership relationship, not the traditional donor-beneficiary weirdness that can happen- instead, a relationship that can promote respect and hope and this optimism that together we can move forward.” (Jessica Jackley, TED Talk).  I think the Power Africa initiative is a way for this kind of relationship to begin to be built.  Promoting dignity and not charity is key.  When Obama was asked if the US had done enough to help Africa, he said, “Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans.” (Obama, BBC).

American companies will partner with the existing power sector in Africa, building on the budding industry.  Developing clean energy sources will help create many new jobs, as well as continue combating global climate change.  This is especially important in African because the continent is suffering from deforestation rates that are twice that of the world average.  One new source of energy will involve a soccer ball that charges up a generator when played with.  “Obama will also see a new invention that places a generator unit inside a football, which can be taken home after a kick around to power up lamps or even mobile electronic devices.”  (Al Jazeera).

With all of these proposed benefits resulting from Power Africa, we must be careful not to be taken in by pretty speeches that seem to provide easy solutions to tough problems.  Poverty is a difficult problem with complex roots, and to say that it can be fixed with the implementation of electricity is naïve.  The Power Africa initiative is a respectable cause, but we must still be critical of it.

We must be careful that this does not become a “white elephant” project.  Linda Polman describes white elephants as “large, costly infrastructural development aid projects that are not economically viable. ‘We like building roads,’ a representative of the European Commission in West Africa [said] in 2006.  ‘That’s quick and easy.   You hire contractors, order up a shipment of asphalt and slice a road through the bush.  Looks good, especially is you paint some nice white lines on it, and you can write in your report that you’ve laid so many kilmetres of highway.  The fact that the country has nothing to drive on a road like that and therefore little use for it isn’t our problem.’” (Polman 196).  If the electricity that Power Africa is providing to Africa is the road, do the African people have the cars to drive on that road?  Do they actually have a need for power yet?  How many African people actually have computers or other objects that require electricity?  Will there be a system in place to educate the people on how to use technology?  Most of America has had access to the Internet for years now, yet many people still do not know how to utilize all of its benefits.  Electricity is not currently a large part of sub-Saharan African culture, so is introducing it this rapidly going to be helpful to the people?  These questions need to be asked, and their answers need to be examined before this project is implemented.

The Power Africa program seems like a simple solution to the root of many of Africa’s problems.  And if it were carried out to a tee, it would probably help many people.  However, I believe that there are too many cultural differences.  Sub-Saharan Africa is not set up to accept a technological revolution at this time.  It must be introduced slowly, rather than just dropping a few thousand miles of cables and helping open several hundred power stations.  The people must be taught how to use these new tools, or else it will be money wasted on projects that will not be used.  The good intentions of the Obama administration, as well as those of humanitarian organizations, must be cross-examined with realistic outcomes.

I think that the most important thing for us as responsible global citizens to do is to ask questions.  Make organizations and administrations responsible for their choices, as they affect millions of people.  Linda Polman urges us to “stop avoiding the questions and start discussing how to do better.”  (Polman 158).  “If we don’t ask these questions for our own benefit, then we should ask them for the sake of the people who’ll see our next crisis caravan move in.” (Polman 164).  Millions, if not billions, of people are affected by the choices of the few.  It is our responsibility to ask the questions that they cannot, to make sure that they are actually being helped and not duped.  The Dalai Lama said, “It is our collective and individual responsibility to protect and nurture the global family, to support its weaker members and to preserve and tend to the environment in which we all live.”  I could not agree more.  We need to ask the questions that hold organizations accountable, to make sure that we are effectively helping others.  Discussions about Power Africa are only the beginning.  It is time to step up to our duty.


Works Cited


“Africa: Obama Promises U.S. $7 Billion Investment in Power Grids.” AllAfrica. AllAfrica, 01 July 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <>.

Doyle, Alister. “Africa’s Deforestation Twice World Rate, Says Atlas.” Reuters. Reuters, 10 June 2008. Web. 03 July 2013. <>.

Hall, Wynton. “Obama Unveils $7 Billion ‘Power Africa’ Electricity Plan.” Breitbart News Network. N.p., 30 June 2013. Web. 03 July 2013. <>.

Karimi, Faith, and Matt Smith. “Obama Pledges $7 Billion to Upgrade Power in Africa.” CNN. CNN, 30 June 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <>.

“Obama Backs ‘new Model’ for Africa in Tanzania Speech.” BBC News. BBC, 01 July 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <>.

“Obama for New Model of Africa Development.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 02 July 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <>.

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

“Responsibility Quotes.” Do One Thing – Quotes for a Better World. The Emily Fund, n.d. Web. 03 July 2013. <>.

The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. Fact Sheet: Power Africa. The White House. N.p., 30 June 2013. Web. 02 July 2013. <>.

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