WASHINGTON — Before his current trip, President Obama's Africa strategy was known for inattention at the highest level. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao made five extensive visits to Africa as head of state. Obama spent 20 hours in sub-Saharan Africa in 2009. The intense affection of a continent seemed unrequited, and foreign policy experts wondered if American emphasis on the region had been consciously downgraded.
This is one of those rare cases, however, in which the reality has often been better than the rhetoric (or lack of it). The Obama administration midwifed the birth of a new country, South Sudan. It has pushed for greater transparency in both American aid and in global extractive industries. It has renewed an emphasis on agricultural productivity through its Feed the Future initiative. In a difficult fiscal environment, it has fought to preserve overall aid budgets (though the recent cuts to PEPFAR, the president's emergency plan for AIDS relief, have been disturbing).
In all this, Obama has lacked a creative, signature initiative of his own. Until his speech in Cape Town, South Africa. Depending on its implementation and future scale, Power Africa — aimed at doubling access to electricity across the continent — could be a major strategic and moral advance.
Africa is an untold (though uneven) economic success story. A combination of greater stability, economic reform, high commodity prices, improved health and a demographic dividend of working-age adults has produced some of the fastest economic growth in the world. Since 2000, trade between the United States and Africa has more than tripled.
But anyone who has traveled to Lagos or Monrovia has seen the main obstacles to the next stage of African development: bad roads, poor sanitation and (especially) unreliable or nonexistent power. Seven in 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity. Manufacturers run costly, dirty diesel generators and often operate at a fraction of capacity. Economists estimate a 2 percent to 5 percent yearly drag on economic output. It is difficult to be productive in the dark.
It is also difficult for children to do their homework at night, or for clinics to store vaccines or blood without reliable refrigeration, or for municipalities to run the pumps necessary for clean water and sanitation. Women and girls have an especially hard time of it: carrying firewood for long distances on their heads or backs, cooking with stoves that produce toxic fumes, giving birth in health facilities without lighting. Energy poverty is not merely economic; it is expressed in deforestation, respiratory illness, and maternal and child mortality.
It is also tragically unnecessary. Nigeria's rolling blackouts take place in a country with large natural gas reserves. During the past five years, there have been more than 60 major finds of potential fuel supplies on the African continent.
The administration's Power Africa initiative is designed to encourage electricity access for 20 million households in six focus countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania). It is strong on technical assistance to governments, immediate deliverables and cooperation with the private sector. General Electric and other major companies have made serious commitments to bring thousands of megawatts online. The program is weaker in its current, limited scale. To ensure universal power access by 2030 would require about $18 billion in yearly energy investments. The administration's effort involves $7 billion over five years. It will eventually be necessary to employ the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) more aggressively to drive, finance and insure the next phase of large-scale energy projects. (OPIC actually makes money on such deals, returning funds to the Treasury each year.)
A recently introduced bill in Congress — The Electrify Africa Act — seeks to do just that. Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., set a power generation goal twice as large as the administration's. They also demonstrate the bipartisan appeal of market-oriented development policy. There is every reason for Republicans to support efforts that encourage economic independence, strengthen trading partners and compete with Chinese influence in a vital region.
Encouraging energy production also appeals to the way that Africans increasingly view themselves — not as the objects of compassion but as the generators of wealth. In 1961, Kenya had about the same GDP as South Korea. After a long detour, many African nations now hope to take the economic path of East Asia or Brazil. That journey can only be undertaken in the light.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.