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January 19, 2021
How the Biden Administration should build on Power Africa, and Why
By Katie Auth

Given everything else happening these days, it’s easy to imagine a new administration putting international development policy on the back burner. Fortunately, recent announcements by the Biden team — including nominating Samantha Power as USAID Administrator a week before inauguration and elevating the position to the NSC — indicate that development won’t be an afterthought. Rather, it will be critical to achieving US economic, geo-political, and national security goals.

Unfortunately, the Biden Administration is inheriting a US-Africa portfolio in desperate need of a reboot (see here for a great take by Judd Devermont of CSIS and another by the Atlantic Council’s Aubrey Hruby). Today’s exciting announcement of Dana Banks as the NSC’s Senior Director for Africa kickstarts that process. Building on Power Africa presents a shovel-ready chance to quickly deliver concrete benefits while demonstrating a renewed commitment to African countries as both development and investment partners.

In its first seven years, Power Africa delivered big wins for both the US and its African partners. It helped connect more than 18 million homes and businesses to electricity, brought 11,000 MW of new generation to financial close, and catalyzed billions of dollars in private capital. The initiative’s clear, measurable goals rallied public and private partners around an ambitious objective. It also helped entrepreneurs and companies across the US see Africa — sometimes for the first time — as an attractive investment destination.

But in 2021, the world we face is different. Today, energy is perhaps even more critical to global development than it was when President Obama launched Power Africa — and represents a major opportunity for the Biden Administration to advance several of its most urgent foreign policy priorities. At the Hub, we’re developing a set of detailed recommendations to help Power Africa to more effectively:

  • Power post-COVID economic recovery and job creation. Due largely to COVID-19 economic impacts, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity is projected to increase for the first time in six years. Closing the basic access gap is a priority, but so is job creation. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population — the world’s youngest and fastest growing — is set to double by 2050, expanding the working age population that needs employment. Improving the cost and reliability of electricity would address a major constraint to productivity, employment and economic expansion — and would help economies bounce back faster and more resilient post-pandemic.
  • Build more transparent, competitive energy markets. Most African power sectors are mired in debt, inefficiency, and underperformance — making it impossible to provide high-quality power to a growing customer base. In some markets, it’s almost impossible to invest in new power projects because the system simply can’t absorb them. In others, the electricity sector’s lack of transparency opens the door to corruption. Power Africa can do more to help make power sectors financially viable, competitive, and transparent — creating markets capable of covering their own costs, serving customers, and attracting capital without continued aid.
  • Enhance climate resilience. African countries are already facing harsh climate impacts including extreme weather, drought, and rising temperatures — and will need significantly more energy supply to adapt. Many African countries have established their own ambitious climate goals — but need additional finance for the enabling infrastructure. Power Africa can play a valuable role in building out the diversified energy sectors needed to both adapt to climate change and to end energy poverty.

A 100-day agenda for achieving Power Africa’s full potential. These goals are ambitious but utterly achievable. Here are a few of the recommendations we’re fleshing out:

  1. Reestablishing White House leadership;
  2. Setting new reliability and cost goals;
  3. Committing to scaling grid and storage solutions;
  4. Pledging increased investment and support from DFC;
  5. Securing a Power Africa budget line item.

At the end of the day, electricity is a means — not an end. If the US wants to support Africans in building economies that are prosperous, inclusive, transparent, and both climate resilient and climate-ambitious, a turbocharged Power Africa is critical. Watch this space for more details soon.

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