Power Africa: Deals or development? 5 questions for the US government

Originally published in Devex.

In a rare and welcome display of bipartisan support, the United States Congress just passed the Electrify Africa Act, ensuring the continuation of the Obama administration’s Power Africa initiative to expand access to electricity in Africa. Now that this legislation will become the law of the land, we urge the U.S. government to succeed by asking and answering the key questions we offer below.

But first, some background. Nearly three years ago, President Barack Obama launched Power Africa, which aims to bring together African and donor governments, private companies and international financial institutions to tackle the staggering problem of energy poverty on the African continent. Reports estimate that more than half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to reliable, affordable electricity. Power Africa hopes to help reach millions of them — 60 million households and businesses — through 30,000 megawatts of new, cleaner energy.

How does Power Africa plan to achieve that ambitious goal? We got a snapshot of the plan last week when the initiative launched the Power Africa Roadmap and Power Africa Tracking Tool, or PATT, a new resource that provides information on projects in the pipeline; why these projects (and future ones) were deemed a good fit for the initiative; the total amount of electricity they’re expected to bring online; and what else is needed — both in terms of policy and projects — to cross the finish line by 2030.

However, missing among all the data-driven discussions of megawatts and connections, feasibility and financial closure, are concrete projections on how this increased energy access will help African citizens — particularly the poorest people, who have either little or no access to affordable, reliable electricity.

Power Africa and related initiatives — such as the African Development Bank’s New Deal for Energy in Africa, launched at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — paint a picture of a continent transformed by electrified homes and hospitals and thriving small businesses. These initiatives seek to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 7, which is focused on access to energy.

Implicit in all of these initiatives is the assumption that more energy will improve lives. But without the proper planning, implementation and oversight, we need to ask whether these efforts really foster thoughtful and beneficial development — or simply more business deals?

American Jewish World Service, a Jewish international development and human rights organization, supports local, grassroots advocacy groups in six African countries, many of them working to safeguard their access and control over natural resources in the face of large-scale infrastructure projects and investment schemes. At the same time, they strive to make sure those projects and investments benefit neighboring communities.

AJWS’s 30-year history has taught us that thoughtful and inclusive development does not occur on its own. Rather, this kind of development is the end result of an intentional, intensive, often lengthy process, best achieved through participation, inclusion and respect for the human rights of local people.

Will Power Africa live up to its potential and achieve lasting development outcomes? To find out, the U.S. government should ask itself five questions:

1. Does Power Africa put people living in poverty and their needs front and center?

When considering which projects and policies to support, the U.S. government must, first and foremost, determine if and how they can improve the quality of life for the people it intends to serve, especially people who have been left behind in the past. As fellow development experts Oxfam and the Overseas Development Institute recently explored, more electric power doesn’t guarantee that more people, especially those who need it most, are reached. Power Africa projects should have explicit development goals that prioritize the poor and that will be evaluated based on development outcomes.

2. Is Power Africa sustainable in the long-term?

Some have criticized the amount of time it has taken for Power Africa projects to get up and running. However, sustainable development projects must be well-planned projects and take a long-term approach. To succeed in the long term, Power Africa should make sure that project partners have surveyed community members on their energy needs and preferences, and that the project’s scale and technology reflect this crucial input from local people. Similarly, Power Africa should make sure partners have considered whether more affordable and environmentally friendly approaches exist.

3. Does Power Africa hold itself to the highest standards?

Development projects aim to improve lives and expand opportunities. Yet even with the best of intentions, local people and landscapes may suffer negative consequences from poorly designed or implemented development investments. For example, pastoralists can lose access to grazing land and critical habitats can be disrupted or destroyed. Strong environmental and social standards or safeguards go a long way in minimizing these harms and ensure that people who were wronged have somewhere to go to seek redress. Power Africa should ensure that all of its partners and projects uphold the highest international standards in respecting local people, communities and lands.

4. Does Power Africa approach local communities as true partners?

Local communities understand their needs and local contexts best, which is why Power Africa and its partners must engage and work with communities at all stages: before a project begins and throughout its design and implementation. The architects of projects must get the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people in order for a project to move forward. Failure to consult communities could mean that local populations may not get the maximum (or potentially any) benefit from a project. Furthermore, it could result in conflict that turns community members against the project and each other and delays — or renders impossible — project completion. Power Africa and its partners should explore ways for local communities to have more ownership over the process and the projects.

5. Does Power Africa operate transparently?

Detailed project plans, financial information and development impact studies must be made publically available to see whether the initiative is meeting the needs of its targeted populations; is working effectively with all stakeholders, including local communities; and is achieving its congressionally mandated development directive. The Power Africa Roadmap and PATT offer a good and encouraging start; Power Africa should build on this foundation and make additional information available.

With the Electrify Africa Act headed to President Obama’s desk for his signature, now is the time for the U.S. government and Power Africa partners to roll up their sleeves and tackle these critical questions. The Electrify Africa Act ensures that Power Africa has staying power and also demands results — specifically poverty reduction, economic growthand development.

Power Africa must keep our questions in mind if it is to deliver more than just deals. Indeed, it will succeed only when it delivers inclusive and respectful deals for development.


rockowitz_dahlia-300x300Dahlia Rockowitz is a policy advisor at AJWS’s Washington, D.C. office. In this role she manages the organization’s U.S.-based natural resource rights advocacy, focused on the nexus of human rights, inclusive development and environmental and economic justice. She also served as advocacy coordinator and policy associate.