George W. Bush didn't get a lot of credit for his humanitarian work as president, especially from his political opponents. It is fitting and interesting, then, that President Barack Obama has honored him in Africa this week, saying that Mr. Bush's efforts to rid that continent of AIDS and other infectious diseases was one of his administration's "crowning achievements."
Here's hoping Mr. Obama will focus more of his own efforts on that continent. His visit this week, and the new electric power initiative he announced are good steps in that direction. The farther African nations fall behind a world spinning into the digital information age, the more it will foment violence and disruption, depriving its people the ability to trade its rich resources and develop its human capital.
Much of Africa still lacks the basic infrastructure taken for granted in most of the rest of the world, such as electricity, clean water and paved roadways. Obama's "power Africa" program would use government resources to underwrite investments by large U.S. corporation to build power stations and establish reliable grids in sub-Saharan Africa. It would compete with "The Electrify Africa Act" recently introduced in Congress, which has an even more ambitious goal for market-oriented electrical generation.
Africa is a growing trade partner with the United States. U.S. exports were up 23 percent in 2011, to $21 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. Imports from sub-Saharan Africa, mainly crude oil, stand at about $60 billion. But the potential exists for much more.
Of course, the best efforts of Western nations must struggle against Africa's largest obstacle, which is the corruption and inefficiencies inherent in many, but not all, of its governments. But while those obstacles are too large for any foreign power to fix, the best approach to changing the situation long-term is through education. Simply put, modern education cannot proceed without electricity. Not only are lights necessary for night-time study, but electricity is a requirement for Internet access and other means of tapping into the global information network.
Ironically, many of the ideological forces that supported the president in the aftermath of the Great Recession were eager to attack wealth-generators and large U.S. corporations. And yet, the president's Africa strategy relies on such private U.S. behemoths as General Electric, a key partner that has committed to more than $9 billion in African electrification investments, expected to bring 5,000 megawatts to Tanzania and Ghana at affordable rates. Ghana and Tanzania are two growing nations on the continent with expanding economies and the promise of greater improvements.
Despite the political rhetoric, it is true that large corporations thrive by creating wealth and generating jobs. In the past, they have been reluctant to invest in sub-Saharan Africa because of the risks inherent with unstable governments and primitive conditions. U.S. government backing is critical to alleviating those risks, and the program promises to generate positive returns.
Meanwhile, Congress should be generous in continuing the humanitarian efforts President Bush established. If the lack of electricity is an impediment to education, rampant disease is even more so.