Energy is Central to Development

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Energy, it seems, is the Cinderella of development policy. Listen to governments, aid agencies and the big foundations, and the priorities have been malaria, maternal mortality, vaccinations, HIV – health has hoovered up attention and aid dollars in the last decade. Education has come a close second. Now attention is slowly moving to include agriculture and food security, but the rhetoric is not being matched by the funding. However, on the issue that affects all of these, energy, there is a gap. When did a UK secretary of state for development, a prime minister or a president get up to make a speech on development and put energy at the top of the agenda?

One gets the sense that this will change. That in a decade’s time – or even sooner – energy will be central to the debate on effective aid. At the moment, discussion around energy for the poorest in the world has something of the tone of those who talked about food security five years ago: deep knowledge about a hugely complex subject but also strong disagreements about the right approach to take, and no easy messages to grab public attention. What pushed food security to the top of the aid agenda was the price spike of 2008 and the knock-on consequences in food riots. Rising fuel prices could have a comparably destabilising impact, and that might be the point at which affordable renewable energy gets taken seriously as the crucial ingredient of sustainable development.

It’s not hard to see how energy is central to every other development outcome. Energy use off the grid is disproportionately expensive and the poorest around the world spend a significant portion of their income on fuel in the form of batteries or kerosene. In rural areas, the use of firewood and charcoal is devastating the land, leading to flooding and soil erosion.

Energy has multiple development knock-on effects. Can kids do their homework? All depends on their homes having light. What is one of the leading causes of death for women and children? Chest diseases from inhaling smoke from cooking on open fires inside homes. What is one of the major constraints on small businesses? A secure, affordable energy supply. And so the list goes on.

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