MOUNTAIN LAKES, New Jersey — When The Borgen Project uses advocacy to get Congress to increase the international affairs budget, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gets most of the money. The organization uses its funding to provide food aid and implement programs to bolster infrastructure worldwide. One such USAID development initiative is Power Africa, a program designed to provide millions of people with electric power and fuel economic growth on the continent.
Electricity scarcity is a problem in Africa. As USAID reports, 600 million people, or almost 70 percent of Africans, do not have access to stable sources of electric power. Many people have to resort to wood and diesel-powered generators to cook and heat their homes, and these energy sources are dirty and pose serious health risks. Announced in 2013, the Power Africa plan aims to change this and provide 10,000 megawatts of clean energy to Africa.
Power Africa involves two primary strategies to increase Africa’s electricity capacity. The first is to bolster central power grids and power plants by extracting more oil and natural gas, helping large cities. For rural areas away from the grid, the program’s Beyond the Grid initiative entails providing decentralized solar and wind energy to individual communities that need it.
How does USAID implement Power Africa? The agency has formed partnerships with the governments of six African countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Liberia) along with energy companies like General Electric and international development agencies like the World Bank. Working together, governments and aid agencies can direct the private sector to expand electricity access and resource extraction.
Nevertheless, in the past, this cooperative relationship has helped the private sector more than the general public. When Power Africa was introduced and allocated $7 billion to fund energy expansion, less than 2 percent of the money supported off-grid energy. The rest allowed General Electric and other companies to invest more heavily in oil and gas, which is more profitable but does not benefit communities living away from central power grids. The International Energy Agency estimates that 60 percent of all new energy investment must be directed toward off-grid solutions to provide electricity for the world.
Reforms to Power Africa have recently been introduced. In June, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, introduced an additional $1 billion that would go exclusively to the Beyond the Grid initiative, not to grid expansion. The Electrify Africa Act, a bill that has just passed the House, would also allow USAID to better direct loans and projects to where they are most beneficial, not where they are most profitable. The extra funds will make renewable and decentralized energy available to millions of people.
Under these changes, Power Africa is poised to provide electricity to many communities that need it, and it deserves public support. However, the problems with Power Africa’s implementation serve as a cautionary tale. Advocacy should not end after plans to fight poverty are introduced, but instead, once those plans start, help people in need.