International News: Obama Announces Plan to Boost Power… in Sub-Saharan Africa

President Barack Obama, putting his mark on U.S. aid to Africa, announced a plan to boost access to electric power in the sub-Sahara and said America stands to benefit if the continent reaches its full potential.

Obama unveiled the $7 billion initiative dubbed Power Africa at the University of Cape Town in a speech that his aides billed as the centerpiece of his three-country tour through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania to promote trade and investment on the rapidly growing continent. With Nelson Mandela’s fragile health weighing heavily throughout the trip, Obama has invoked the anti-apartheid icon’s legacy to draw the connection between democratic values and economic growth.

Obama’s goal is to double access to electricity across six countries that the White House has singled out for promoting good governance — Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

“I’m calling for America to up our game when it comes to Africa,” Obama said. “There’s no question Africa’s on the move, but it’s not moving fast enough for the child still languishing in poverty in forgotten townships.”

Obama spoke in the same hall where slain Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave his “Ripple of Hope” speech in 1966, shortly after Mandela was imprisoned.

The U.S. president’s speech included a tribute to Mandela – – a personal hero who he said inspired his political activism to ultimately become America’s first black president. During the day, Obama and his family visited landmarks in Mandela’s life and the anti-apartheid struggle.

Robben Island

The Obama family toured the apartheid-era prison at Robben Island, finishing in a courtyard near Mandela’s former prison cell. Obama walked silently to sign a guest book with a note paying homage to the courage of Mandela and other prisoners.

He then visited a community center that provides HIV education and treatment run, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s foundation. Standing together, Tutu counted publicly on Obama to bring peace to the Mideast and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying as a son of Africa his successes belonged to the African people and so did his failures.

Obama said one of the lessons Mandela taught was that progress happens “where governments exist to serve their people and not the other way around” — a line that earned the loudest applause of the speech to about 1,100 people.

He said that, while Africa is rising, progress is “fragile,” vulnerable to “the rot of corruption” and “the undertow of conflict.”

Corruption

“These things have to change and they have to change not just because such corruption is immoral,” Obama said, saying countries with open governments that follow the rule of law “draw more investment than those that don’t.”

Recognizing Africa’s rapid growth — as well as domestic budget constraints — Obama said the U.S. is moving beyond the kind of direct financial assistance its provided in the past. Instead, he said he wanted to promote a new model that focuses on Africa’s “capacity to solve problems.”

The power initiative follows the public-private partnership model and builds on his administration’s efforts to enhance food security, fight malaria and attempt to eradicate the spread of HIV/AIDs for Africa’s next generation, he said.

Electric Power

Power Africa’s $7 billion in government assistance will complement $9 billion in private funds to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than two-thirds of the population is without electricity, according to the White House.

During the first, five-year phase, the project’s goal is to add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electric generation capacity and to expand electricity access to at least 20 million new households and commercial entities, according to the White House.

General Electric Co. (GE) is among the companies that have contributed to the $9 billion in private-sector funding for the program’s first phase. It has committed to help bring 5,000 megawatts of new energy to Tanzania and Ghana.

Increasing access to power will “plug Africa into the grid of the global economy,” Obama said.

Officials declined to put a price tag on the total effort and didn’t specify how much of the $7 billion in government resources Congress would need to appropriate for the initial phase. The sum isn’t all straight assistance and includes money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Export-Import Bank and other agencies, they said.

Energy Poverty

“The program is welcome support to the continent where energy access and energy poverty remain significant concerns,” said Taryn Wilkins, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Cape Town. “Key to the success of the implementation of the program is the support of local governments and policy regulation. To date this has been fragmented and inconsistent and resulted in slower development of energy infrastructure programs.”

Tomorrow, Obama will travel to Tanzania for the last stop of his tour. In the country’s fast-growing metropolis of Dar es Salaam, he’ll convene a roundtable of company executives and promote investments in electrification projects.

Today’s announcement comes amid criticism that Obama’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, giving China an opportunity to tap the region’s resources.

Bush Legacy

Bush, who took U.S. spending on Africa to new levels, made a six-country visit in 2008 and a three-country stop in 2011 after he left the White House. His Africa legacy includes PEPFAR, a $15 billion commitment to prevent and treat AIDS infections, credited with saving or extending millions of lives.

Clinton signed the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade agreement with countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Obama a year ago he issued a policy directive on sub-Saharan Africa calling for expanded economic growth and pressing for stronger democratic institutions.

Obama may meet his Republican predecessor while in Dar es Salaam. Bush will be there at the same time for a summit to empower Africa’s first ladies, sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute. First lady Michelle Obama will join Laura Bush at the event. “There may be something,” Rhodes told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One today.

American companies see a growing economic opportunity in Africa. U.S. merchandise exports to the 49-country region were $21 billion in 2011, up 23 percent from 2010, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa were worth $74 billion in 2011, up 14 percent from 2010. Most of that, about $60 billion, was crude oil.

Africa has 15 percent of the world’s population yet it accounts for only 3 percent of energy consumption, according to a 2011 report by the African Union and other continental organizations.

Reported by: Caye Global News, Bloomberg

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