Time for the U.S. to Turn on the Lights in Africa

By Daniel McGroarty

Political pundits are scandalized this week by Washington's failure to address the immigration issue along the long southern border before breaking for a five-week Congressional recess and, for President Barack Obama, a Martha's Vineyard respite. Bipartisanship, we're told, is dead. Let the Sunday talk show vitriol flow, and the eulogies begin.

But like Twain's death, reports of bipartisanship's demise are greatly exaggerated. Witness a bill with broad bipartisan support that passed the U.S. House, 297-117, back in May: the Electrify Africa Act. With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit beginning today in Washington, a statement by both U.S. parties to speed the passage of Electrify Africa would be a timely show that bipartisanship is still possible.

How bipartisan is this bill? The statute was drafted by California Congressman Ed Royce -- who rates a perfect 100 on the Conservative Action voting scorecard -- and passed the House with Democrats voting in favor, 191-1. When a bill finds Representative Bobby Rush -- former "defense minister" of the Black Panthers -- voting on the same side as Steve Stockman, self-proclaimed "most conservative congressman in Texas," it's time to take note. Throw in President Obama, whose Power Africa initiative parallels much of the bill, and Bono, whose One Campaign also backs it, and the Senate should fast track Electrify Africa to the president's desk.

In all likelihood, the rare display of bipartisan consensus comes from the sheer calamity it aims to address: a continent of one billion people without electricity. It beggars the imagination in the year 2014, but let's try: Google an image of Africa at night, seen from space. Beneath the shimmering cities of Europe, and a scattering of lights across the northern Sahara, runs a pitch-black streak east from the Atlantic to Khartoum, and south from the Sahara to South Africa. Substitute "pitch-black streak east from San Francisco to Washington" and "south from Toronto to Mexico City." Now, remember how we symbolically turn our lights off for one hour every Earth Day? Flip the switch, and leave it off.

For good.

That mind exercise is as close as we'll come to knowing what it means for a continent to live in the dark.

The United Nations puts the present population of the entire continent at 1,099,755,000. The 99,755,000 rounding-error we typically leave out when speaking of "1 billion Africans" is equal to the entire population of 23 U.S. states west of the Mississippi, including California.

What will Electrify Africa do to bring power to the continent? In the words of Congressman Eliot Engle, Democrat of New York and ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

"[The] long-term strategy will focus not only on providing incentives for the private sector to build more power plants, but also on increasing African government accountability and transparency, improving regulatory environments, and increasing access to electricity in rural and poor communities through small, renewable energy projects."

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Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

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