I made a critique of Todd Moss in passing this week, so I may as well continue the trend (I’ll blame Devex for putting him in my inbox). Yesterday, Moss published a piece, “Three Reasons why Electricity Should be President Obama’s Legacy in Africa”, in the blog of his employer, the Center for Global Development. The opening paragraph alludes to AGOA as being “something great” for Obama to model a signature achievement on. I shared my not so rosy views on AGOA yesterday, so that instantly caught my attention (and cemented my confidence in my perceptions of Moss). And of course Obama’s modest African engagement is striking, so any piece addressing that is of interest.
Having served in the Peace Corps for two years without electricity (in a Sahelian country that imports the vast majority of its power supply) and recently visited Liberia, a country that neither generates nor imports much electricity at all, I certainly agree with Moss’ general point that the lack of access to electricity is a huge issue with health and economic repercussions (I was fortunate to be able to cook with gas during my two years in Peace Corps and avoided noxious fumes from smoke).
However, the piece has a tone that I find highly unappealing. A few reasons why:
- Moss’s first appeal to Obama cites the enormity of the ‘energy poverty gap.’ Sure, there is one. In the Peace Corps I had no electricity, but I also had to walk 3 hours to the nearest road with reliable public transportation; using the Liberia example again, there is no road connecting the capital to its furthest port, Harper. Why not focus on the ‘transport poverty gap’ or a similarly striking issue?
- Moss’s second (sensationalist) appeal argues that energy poverty is deadly (the effect of that nasty “household air pollution” that is a consequence of burning solid fuels). However, most of the people burning solid fuels indoors are in highly urban areas where electricity is present – they just can’t afford to access it. I have no medical evidence to support this, but I’m confident that cooking in the open area (as most rural people do) entails significantly fewer health risks.
- The third point states that the US has the tools and expertise to contribute to energy poverty reduction, and can do it cheaply. I recall remarks by the US ambassador to Liberia specifically stating that US value added is in many sectors besides electricity. Again, going back to my first bullet, the US has much to offer in many sectors, I see no particularly compelling case for electricity (and I’m sure a lot of PEPCO customers in the DMV would strongly agree).
Finally, I find the whole ‘legacy’ angle to be insulting to Obama, someone I admire. If there was anything that excited those of my generation in 2008 about Obama, it was his appreciation of nuances and complexities, an attribute greatly valued after eight years of simplistic reductions by Bush, Rumsfeld, and friends. The Obama that inspired so much passion in 2008 was someone looking to make tangible achievements for their own sake, not a personal legacy. Moss was Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs during the Bush administration, so perhaps that explains something.
Todd Moss is a smart guy – he has more education than I, more experience, and undoubtedly a stronger command of facts than I. All of these are reasons that he should elevate his blog game beyond a promotional tool for a slick advocacy campaign the reeks of Jason Russell and Invisible Children.