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Michael Gerson: Obama's bright idea

Modified: July 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm •  Published: July 3, 2013
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It is also tragically unnecessary. Nigeria's rolling blackouts take place in a country with large natural gas reserves. During the past five years, there have been more than 60 major finds of potential fuel supplies on the African continent.

The administration's Power Africa initiative is designed to encourage electricity access for 20 million households in six focus countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania). It is strong on technical assistance to governments, immediate deliverables and cooperation with the private sector. General Electric and other major companies have made serious commitments to bring thousands of megawatts online. The program is weaker in its current, limited scale. To ensure universal power access by 2030 would require about $18 billion in yearly energy investments. The administration's effort involves $7 billion over five years. It will eventually be necessary to employ the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) more aggressively to drive, finance and insure the next phase of large-scale energy projects. (OPIC actually makes money on such deals, returning funds to the Treasury each year.)

A recently introduced bill in Congress — The Electrify Africa Act — seeks to do just that. Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., set a power generation goal twice as large as the administration's. They also demonstrate the bipartisan appeal of market-oriented development policy. There is every reason for Republicans to support efforts that encourage economic independence, strengthen trading partners and compete with Chinese influence in a vital region.

Encouraging energy production also appeals to the way that Africans increasingly view themselves — not as the objects of compassion but as the generators of wealth. In 1961, Kenya had about the same GDP as South Korea. After a long detour, many African nations now hope to take the economic path of East Asia or Brazil. That journey can only be undertaken in the light.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP