Three Reasons Why Electricity Should Be President Obama’s Legacy in Africa

February 26, 2013

A month after the inauguration, it’s not too early for the White House to start thinking about legacies. President Obama will surely want some signature development achievement that will outlive his Administration and help, in the public mind, to solidify the connections between Africa and the American people. To be worthy of a US President, and especially one with a family connection to the continent, it has to be something great. Bill Clinton has AGOA. George W. Bush has PEPFAR and the MCC. So far, Barack Obama has made a start on food security, but nothing legacy-worthy yet. Electricity is his chance. Here’s why:

  1. The Energy Poverty gap is huge.  Even in a successful country like Tanzania, just 14% of the population has access to basic electricity. The figures are all less than one on five in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, and Ethiopia (see table below). This should be an outrage.
  2. Energy Poverty is deadly.  The latest estimates show 3.5 million premature deaths per year—more than AIDS and Malaria combined— from household air pollution from solid fuels. Many Americans may take electricity for granted, but it’s unnecessarily a life-and-death issue for too many people who have no options other than burning wood or other biomass.
  3. The United States can do something meaningful to close the Energy Poverty gap without new money. The USG already has the tools, American industry has the expertise, and, crucially, it can be done with no new money. A major new initiative by the Administration to leverage existing policy instruments and use current budget in a smarter way could easily help to bring power to some 20-100 million people. The upcoming negotiations for replenishments to IDA and ADF are also timely opportunities to promote investment in power generation and transmission in Africa.

We will be working closely with our friends at the ONE Campaign to encourage an ambitious new USG initiative to tackle energy poverty. There’s no reason that President Obama’s lasting contribution to US Africa policy can’t be a world where young girls no longer die needlessly from cooking the family dinner.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.