Obama pledges to help double electricity in sub-Saharan Africa

President Obama is casting the $7 billion initiative as part of a new US strategy to move the region forward with development, not charity dollars. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama gestures during a news conference with South African President Jacob Zuma, not pictured, at the Union Building on Saturday, in Pretoria, South Africa. The president is in South Africa, embarking on the second leg of his three-country African journey.

President Obama is to launch a $7 billion US-funded program to double access to electricity for people in sub-Saharan Africa, the first new big-bucks initiative of his tour of the continent. 

The Power Africa plan is expected to be announced during Mr. Obama’s visit to Cape Town later Sunday. It follows announcements of new US funds for food security and leadership mentoring schemes for young Africans. 

Taken together, these all signal a shift in US policy that would leave the world’s poorest continent less “a dependent” or “a charity case” and more “a partner,” to use buzzwords that the president has repeated during his visit. In these times of austerity and sequestration, this new approach to foreign aid – “the least popular part of the federal budget,” Obama concedes – is also cheaper and makes use of innovative joint public-private cash vehicles.  

This refreshed focus drew on “the lessons of Nelson Mandela’s life,” the president told reporters on Air Force One Friday, evoking the man Obama called “a personal inspiration for me, and an inspiration for the world.” 

Mr. Mandela began his fourth week in the hospital Sunday, struggling to recover from a recurrent lung infection and still in a “critical but stable” condition. 
His family, and South African President Jacob Zuma, say he has improved from the worst days of last week.

Mandela’s ailing health has overshadowed Obama’s visit to South Africa, but the US president has regularly spoken of links between his new thinking on how to assist Africa and the example set by the anti-apartheid icon. 

“If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they’re unified, as opposed to when they’re divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa’s rise will continue,” he said. “That’s one of the central lessons of what Nelson Mandela accomplished not just as president, but in the struggle to overcome apartheid and his years in prison.”

Help Africans help themselves

These are grand words. In reality, the message is simple: With a more hands-off approach, the US wants to help African countries help themselves, under umbrella themes of better food, better businesses, and better governments. 

On the first leg of his trip, in Senegal last week, Obama focused on food security, dwelling on ways that small-scale farmers – “essentially small-business people,” he said – can grow more crops to earn more money. 

There, and again in South Africa, he applauded his hosts’ democratically elected governments and their institutional reform agendas, and praised Mandela for stepping down after just one term. 

In Tanzania Monday, at a round-table for local chief executive officers, he will talk trade, and add details of the new electricity access initiative at a visit to a power station outside Dar es Salaam. 

Trade, not aid

Together, the aim of the “trade, not aid” mantra is a goal familiar to many back home in the United States: making individuals wealthier and businesses more profitable, in societies that respect laws and thus create confidence for new investors. 

It’s Capitalism 101. It opens new markets for American goods, too. 

And – unlike George W. Bush’s immensely popular but immensely expensive HIV/AIDS PEPFAR program – Obama’s aid plans come with a relatively cheap price tag for US taxpayers. 

The president is very aware of the dilemmas he faces in winning approval back home to spend dollars overseas. 

“Our foreign aid budget is around 1 percent of our total federal budget. It’s chronically the least popular part of our federal budget,” Obama told reporters. “We’ve got budget constraints back home, which means that we’ve got to come up with new and creative ways to promote development and deliver aid. Every dollar that we’re putting in, we’re getting a huge amount of private-sector dollars.

“If we’re working smarter, the amount of good that we can bring about over the next decade is tremendous.”

Too focused on trade?

There have been some criticisms that Obama’s approach during his week-long African trip, which ends Wednesday, has been too overtly mercantile. 

Speaking to students in Soweto Saturday, he drew frowns from some in the audience when he said the US would “far rather be selling you iPods and planes” than intervening militarily to stop atrocities in Africa. 

In fact, perhaps the area least touched on has been security. 

This is despite US defense engagement in Africa soaring under Obama, with the new United States Africa Command, drones flying over Somalia, Ethiopia, and Mali, and American military trainers on the ground in Uganda. 

Obama has made clear that the “soft” policies he has been trailing in Senegal and South Africa are, ultimately, designed to lift people out of the kind of poverty and oppression that breeds disenchantment and radicalizes.  

“US-led military engagements in Africa [to combat terrorism] are unsustainable, Obama’s right,” says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“In everything – military, aid spending, lectures on corruption – the US has to realize its best chance of achieving what it wants is just to support and complement Africa’s own efforts. On this trip, Obama seems to have got that.”

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