One of the greatest challenges facing developing nations, including those in Africa, is a lack of affordable, reliable electricity. We take it for granted here in the United States that whenever we flip a switch, the lights turn on, and stay on, until we flip the switch again. The same goes for our factories — when they open, they run until they are shut down for the evening. In many cases, they actually run continuously — around the clock.
These are hallmarks of America’s economic power that we rarely think twice about. Until, of course, something goes wrong. When a major city has even a bump in its power supply, it makes national news. This is the way it should be, but in many African countries, power-supply problems are regular, if not daily, occurrences. According to the World Bank, African manufacturing facilities experience electricity outages 56 days per year. In the United States, our reliability hovers at nearly 100 percent.
As leaders from Africa are gathered in Washington this week, I hope they have many opportunities to address with President Obama issues unique to each of their countries. One key issue for the betterment of Africa as a whole is the need to develop critical electricity resources and the simple changes to U.S. policies that can help bring it about more quickly.
Affordable and consistent electricity opens economic doors to lift small communities and entire nations out of poverty and advances access to basic human services, such as health care and education. U.S. policies implemented over the past several years, though, have prohibited our foreign-assistance programs from being used to develop the same power plants in Africa that we build and rely on here in the United States. This applies even to natural-gas power plants. Instead, these policies force the use of solar power plants and other renewables that are substantially more expensive and less sustainable than nearly every other source of power.
In 2009, language was added to a Senate appropriations bill that instructed the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which helps protect businesses from foreign political risk, to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the projects it supports. This move essentially bars OPIC from supporting traditional energy infrastructure throughout Africa, making it much more difficult for U.S. firms to help bring Africa on the grid quickly and cost-effectively. Last year, Congress passed a provision that gave this aggressive policy a temporary reprieve until Sept 30, but a more realistic, permanent solution should be put into place.
The goal of the United States providing development assistance should always be to help impoverished economies grow to become self-sustaining. In this case, our policies are counterproductive and are working against the goals of these nations, keeping them in the dark longer than they need to be.
However, no nation is going to sit around while its problems languish, waiting for the United States to save the day. Instead, they’re going to look elsewhere for help. The longer we wait to change our harmful policies, the sooner our friends and allies in Africa will turn to China to ink deals to build power plants that actually can deliver the electricity their people and businesses need.
China is aggressively wooing governments around the world and throughout Africa with promises of inexpensive infrastructure and development aid. With each deal China delivers, its influence grows, and when the United States implements development policies that harm the poor who need low-cost power, we play right into China’s hands, leaving these nations few other options.
The United States must quickly reverse its troubling development policies. These policies do not help expedite economic growth; they stall it.
While the African leaders are in town this week, I encourage them to raise this issue with Mr. Obama. They need to encourage him to stop playing to his activist donor base by imposing unrealistic and restrictive climate policies that stall development and opportunity for all. It will only be the voice of these African leaders who can convince the president that this message is right.
James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, is ranking member of Senate Armed Services Committee.