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US moves ahead on massive Africa power bid

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

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

President Barack Obama, on a visit to Africa in June, announced a US drive to deliver power to 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, has 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 and sent to the full House, 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, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hailed the Electrify Africa Act as a way for the United States to contribute to Africa'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 growing presence in Africa.

The bill enjoyed wide support from both parties but 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.

Royce and other 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.

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Democrat, denounced Brooks' 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.

The bill had been held up as corporations pushed to remove requirements that OPIC steer clear of carbon-intense projects. In a compromise, the bill does not address the issue.

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