The Power Africa Initiative is a five-year program that President Obama launched in 2013. The program aims to create 60 million new electrical connections and generate 30,000 megawatts. It would bring electricity to millions of people in rural areas in Africa and double the current amount of electricity generated by the continent. The program has been criticized for being off to a slow start. However, U.S. officials have responded by saying that the program is not an aid program; it requires the cooperation of African governments and energy investors, with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. In fact, the U.S. government says the project is on course and has expanded it. Critics further say that, while the project may be on course, it is approaching the issue of electricity in Africa wrong. Electricity projects can take up to ten years from implementation to completion. Solar power, they argue, would be much more effective as it would only take a fraction of the time. The approach to finding energy investors may be beneficial in the long run, however, because it shows that Africa is a place worth investing in. Ultimately, the success of the program can only truly be judged when it is completed and the results are available.
Associated with the Power Africa Initiative is the Electrify Africa Act. It was proposed in October 2015 and was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president in February 2016. The bill encourages African access to reliable power sources and aims to bring electricity to 50 million people by 2020. Signing the bill means that access to power in Africa is now officially a part of the United States’ foreign policy towards sub-Saharan Africa.
Like electricity, economic prosperity is important to Africans and Americans alike. To this end, President Obama announced the Trade Africa Initiative in 2013. This initiative encourages economic growth in Africa by strengthening economic ties within Africa as well as globally. Initially, Trade Africa worked within the East African Community (EAC), where it helped expand the East African Trade Hub, which generated $2 billion in exports in 2014. Exports from the region to the U.S. has increased by 24% since 2013, and the amount of time needed to transport goods in Africa has decreased by up to 30%. In 2015, EAC officials signed an agreement that would implement World Trade Organization’s standards by making trade within the continent easier, improving food safety as well as plant and animal health, and by meeting global trade standards. The Trade Africa Initiative has been successful in the EAC, and is in the process of working with trade partners in other parts of the continent.
Of course, you can pass all kinds of initiatives to improve electricity and the economy, but it will never reach its full potential if the people it’s meant to benefit are not empowered. President Obama’s first program in Africa was the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which he launched in 2010. The program, which focuses on African youth, encourages young people to take part in improving Africa’s future and provides them with a network of other young people throughout the continent. YALI provides them with leadership programs and opportunities in Africa, as well as discourse on Africa and its goals for its future.
The program, while largely ignored in western media, appears to be very important to Obama, as he has personally invested a lot of time into it and hosted a summit for it almost every year since its creation. In 2010, he hosted the President’s Forum with Young African Leaders, which brought 115 young Africans from all over the continent to Washington. There, they engaged in a town hall-style meeting with the president about where they wanted to see Africa in the next 50 years. This was followed in 2011 by the First Lady’s Young African Women Leaders Forum, and the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders in 2012. In 2013, the First Lady, accompanied by her daughters, made a trip to Africa to meet with youth and encourage education as part of the Initiative. Summits from 2014 onward have hosted 500 African youths, all members of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which was recently expanded to include 1000 members total.
While YALI has been mostly ignored by the media, there was some coverage of another of President Obama’s summits: the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. While not a program, this event shared the goals as many of them; to strengthen the United States’ diplomatic and economic ties with Africa for the benefit of all. This event was covered by the media and showed Americans that Africa is not all poverty, death, and disease, but a growing power that needs to be taken seriously on the world stage. It was the first time a president held a summit with African leaders and drew attention to African progress. Because of that, it is very important in the history of U.S.-Africa relations. Indeed, we here at Africa Agenda liked the idea so much that we went on to host Denver-Africa summits of our own in 2014, 2015, and an upcoming one in October 2016.
Many people have criticized Obama’s Africa policy as lacking, comparing and contrasting it to how President George W. Bush approached it. Indeed, Bush’s policy in Africa was widely praised, even by his critics. Bush focused primarily on health-related issues that the continent faces, including passing initiatives that reduced the spread of diseases such as HIV and malaria. During his presidency, the Bush administration donated $5 billion a year to Africa, and even today he is working to combat disease on the continent.
What critics of Obama’s policy don’t seem to realize is that the two presidents had very different approaches to African policy and very different goals. While Bush focused on providing aid and relief to the poor of the continent, Obama is more concerned with empowerment of the African people and giving them the skills and resources they need to be successful and self-sufficient. Obama touched upon this when he talked about U.S. response to Ebola in West Africa. Both approaches address known problems and both are valid, but Obama is the first president to treat Africa as a place with potential, not a place that needs rescuing. It will be interesting to see how his successor will approach the continent.