Electricity Protests in Africa, US Foreign Policy, and a Superb New Essay on Energy Access

February 18, 2015

In Ghana, an exemplar of African democracy and development, electricity is quickly becoming a front-burner political issue. Thousands took to the streets of the capital Accra on Wednesday chanting ‘enough is enough!’ about electricity blackouts. As Bloomberg reports:

The economy is already reeling. Factories are slowing output, homeowners are tossing spoiled food from fridges and retailers are spending more cash to buy diesel for generators. The lack of reliable power supply has curbed investor confidence and the government has cut its growth forecast for this year to 3.9 percent, the lowest since 1994…. Ghana’s largest power producer… doesn’t have enough natural gas to fuel its plants and the water level at the nation’s largest hydropower facility is near the minimum necessary to function.

Electricity shortfalls are also becoming an explosive political issue in Nigeria, South Africa, and many other countries. This trend was on my mind as I read the outstanding new essay “Power to the Poor” by Morgan Bazilian, formerly of the National Renewable Energy Lab and now at the World Bank, in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Morgan eloquently argues: 

Although international donors have many compelling causes to choose from, reducing energy poverty should rank among the top. Energy is a precondition to alleviating many other problems associated with poverty, from poor health to lack of education to unemployment. The issue also reaches beyond the bounds of poverty to foreign policy, since a lack of energy access can foster instability. The good news is that governments, development agencies, and nonprofits have begun to ramp up spending on fighting energy poverty and have unveiled a slew of new initiatives, many of which have produced measurable improvements in the lives of the poor. 

I highly recommend the full essay

One of the new initiatives Morgan highlights is the Obama Administration’s Power Africa, which has been launched on both foreign policy and development grounds and represents the new kind of partnerships needed to end energy poverty. As Benjamin Leo and I stated in an earlier Foreign Affairs piece

With its focus on electricity generation, [Power Africa] is a direct response to what African allies have been saying they want from the United States. By contrast, most of Washington’s efforts in Obama’s first term, such as the repackaging of global health programs and a climate change initiative, were cooked up in the bowels of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington without input from African leaders. It should be no surprise that they quickly fizzled out. But electricity is something everyone agrees on.

The citizens of Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere across the continent have had enough of being (literally!) powerless. Increasingly, they are forcing their governments to listen to what they want. This is hugely positive for development—and potentially transformative for US relations with the region as well.


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