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Grand Illusions for African Energy in Davos

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The ongoing World Economic Forum -- the annual gathering of global decision-makers and business leaders -- is the place to discuss big ideas for economic development.

Some African participants are using the forum to promote the gigantic Grand Inga hydropower dam, proposed for the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The South African water minister told a reporter in Davos that "the sooner we do something about [building Grand Inga], the better." The mantra that this project will "light up Africa" was repeated. No mention was made of the huge risks this dam poses, especially for the people of Congo.

DR Congo is one of the world's riskiest places to invest. To build the world's biggest dam here and expect it to light the entire continent is like building the world's biggest nuclear plant in the land of the Taliban -- or the world's biggest medical marijuana farm in Mexico's borderlands.

The great tagline notwithstanding, Grand Inga doesn't have much of a chance of "lighting up Africa," much less lighting up Congo.

The biggest obstacle to the project succeeding in a way that benefits ordinary Africans is corruption. Decades of plundering state coffers and natural resources in DR Congo have institutionalized corruption. Public officials systematically misuse their offices for private gain. In the mining sector alone, at least $200 million of annual taxes go uncollected due to illicit negotiations and corrupt oversight.

And despite the huge power supplies that Inga could generate, most Africans still live too far from national grids to take advantage of a big, centralized project in a faraway country. Building necessary distribution systems to make use of the dam's electricity would be cost-prohibitive to say the least. If built, the dam will power big mines and industries, not small businesses, homes and hospitals.

DR Congo's state power utility, SNEL, is at this writing on the verge of bankruptcy. The utility has long been marked by corruption and unaccountability. In 2008, two of SNEL's top directors were interrogated after the disappearance of $6.5 million earmarked for Inga 2 rehabilitation. The scandal triggered a parliamentary inquiry into SNEL's management and finances. SNEL's revenues reportedly plunged by 30% thereafter.

In a country of 66 million people, currently, less than 6% of DRC's population uses electricity from the grid.

"The challenge for African policy makers who participate in the World Economic Forum is to work out strategies of translating the forum's initiatives into policies that benefit the ordinary people," writes Sam Makinda.

The US$80 billion Grand Inga would buy a lot of clean cook stoves, micro-hydro turbines, small solar panels, drip-irrigation systems, clean LED lanterns, malaria nets and the like. These are the kinds of investments that would help ordinary Africans.

Ritzy Davos might not be the best place to encourage this kind of "small is beautiful" thinking. Maybe future talks on "lighting up Africa" should be held in Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum. Or in a typical village, 20 kilometers and a century away from being connected to the electricity grid. Or in a rural hospital, where doctors deliver babies in the dark.

Bring your own solar panel and clean cook stove.

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