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US to bring electricity to 50 million Africans

28 February 2014, 22:20

Washington - US lawmakers broke through a logjam on Thursday on a plan to bring electricity to 50 million Africans, in what Washington hopes will be its next major initiative for the continent.

During a visit to Africa in June, President Barack Obama announced a US drive to improve power for the two thirds of Africans who lack a reliable supply.

But legislation in Congress, which is more concrete and ambitious than Obama's initial statement, had been held up by a dispute on whether to support electrical plants that produce large amounts of carbon blamed for climate change.

The bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sets a goal of installing 20 000 megawatts of power in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020 and reaching at least 50 million people who do not have electricity.

The funding would come from the private sector, using government-backed credit guarantees.

Representative Ed Royce, who chairs the panel, hailed the Electrify Africa Act as a way for the United States to contribute to the continent's development, as lack of power impedes everything from education to health care.

Royce, a Republican who worked on the bill with members of Obama's Democratic Party, said that the plan would also help American companies tap into a growing consumer market and show US engagement in the face of China's rising presence in Africa.

Power plants

The bill still needs approval from the full House of Representatives and Senate, but the committee vote indicated broad support.

However, the legislation came under fire from Representative Mo Brooks, a conservative Republican from Alabama who said that the United States was not financially sound enough to be "building power plants and power lines in Africa".

"I very much appreciate the altruistic motivations that I've heard in support of this legislation, but quite frankly, I don't believe America's financial condition is such that it supports spending money that we don't have on these projects," Brooks said.

Lawmakers from both parties countered that the US-backed financial institutions involved in the initiative - the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, and the Export-Import Bank -- do not spend taxpayer money and in fact create US jobs by boosting economic activity.

Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly denounced Brooks's view as "dangerous" and said of the act: "It's not just 'altruism,' it's enlightened self-interest."

"I don't want to be the person who has to answer the next generation, 'Why is Africa-Chinese trade the dominant trade in that part of the world and we don't even have a slice of it?' And the answer is because somebody, somewhere, 20 years before said we can't afford it," Connolly said.

Climate change battle diverted

Obama had promoted electricity as the next big goal for the United States in Africa after his predecessor, George W. Bush, worked with Democrats to fight diseases including HIV/Aids and former president Bill Clinton helped jumpstart trade.

But the bill had been held up as corporations pushed to ease existing requirements that OPIC steer clear of carbon-intense projects. General Electric said it supported renewable energy but that efforts in Africa also needed other sources, such as gas.

In a compromise, the bill does not address the issue. The fight was partially diverted as Congress took up OPIC funding when drafting the $1.1 trillion spending bill for fiscal year 2014.

Environmentalists argued that major fossil fuel projects have proven to be a failure in much of Africa and that US investment could encourage more innovative clean energy in a continent expected to be hard hit by climate change.

One, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono, pressed for passage of the legislation.

Tom Hart, the group's US executive director, said that the bill "shows the best face of America".



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