Power Africa? Great Idea, Poor Execution This ambitious power generation program assumed good coordination between the US Government, the private sector and African insititutions

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WASHINGTON – The same Obama administration that produced the messy Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare), and the totally mismanaged Department of Veterans Affairs declared in 2013 that it would try to do something even more complicated in Africa.

Power generation is a great force multiplier

At the beginning it seemed like a good idea. Instead of spreading US development assistance to Africa among too many small impact programs, let’s concentrate our focus on one big initiative that can work as a real “force multiplier”. Indeed, let’s concentrate on electric power generation and distribution, Africa’s true Achilles heel.

Not enough electricity

Great idea. Yes, we know that Sub Saharan Africa is finally on the move. There are impressive rates of growth (up to 7%) in many countries. Still, there is only so much you can do without adequate electric power and related distribution systems. How bad is it? Bad enough: 80% of rural Africa has no electricity!

And so the Obama administration in 2013 launched “Power Africa”, a mega power generation investment plan that would lead to  dramatic improvements in a few targeted African countries. In principle, this is a great idea. And I could not think of a better sector to focus on. Electricity is indispensable.

Bad design

The problem here is poor program design. For Power Africa to work as planned, the Obama administration assumed effective, close coordination among several US Government agencies, including USAID, (foreign aid), The Overseas Private Investment Corporation , (assistance to the private sector investing abroad), The Millennium Challenge Corporation, (another form of foreign assistance) and the US Trade and Development Agency, (another channel for development assistance).

All these Washington-based government agencies would work with the US private sector and pertinent African institutions, (heads of government, line ministries, local jurisdictions, utilities, local companies and more), in order to facilitate and expedite major US investments in power generation in selected countries.

Coordination?

Well, good luck with that. I do not know who had the idea to design a multi-billion, multi-year project, in such a fashion. This is a recipe for failure.

Simply stated: far too many cooks in this kitchen. Who is in charge? Are there real milestones? How do you coordinate any project with so many different actors with different agendas?

I know from direct experience that obtaining any type of real coordination among so many different institutions involving governments, local jurisdictions, donors and the private sector is very difficult even on relatively small, manageable development projects.

Not much will be accomplished

With a program this size it is virtually impossible. And, in fact, it turned out to be impossible. One year after the launching of Power Africa there is very little action on the ground. And I do not expect much more to follow. Sure, in the end “something” will be done. But nothing comparable with the ambitious goals originally envisaged.

We do not hear much about this

The difference between the Power Africa dud and Obamacare is that Obamacare inconvenienced directly millions of American voters. And so we hear a lot about implementation malfunctions and related complaints.

Power Africa is yet another development idea for Africa that is not working as planned. But the Africans do not vote in US elections, and so we do not hear much about this failure.

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