The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Speaking truth to power in energy for all

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A battery-powered flashlight is rigged to provide electricity to a single lightbulb in a house in the village of Janack in Gambia's Western Region, Monday, May 14, 2007. Photo: Oxfam America/Rebecca Blackwell

A new report launched this week by ODI and Oxfam tries to clarify some of the critical issues and refocus the discussion squarely on the needs of the energy poor.

You can’t fight poverty without energy. The UN convened an important meeting last week to discuss providing universal energy access for all. But, important questions on how best to serve the energy poor remain unanswered. A new report launched this week by ODI and Oxfam tries to clarify some of the critical issues and refocus the discussion squarely on the needs of the poor.

Energy access can be a major contribution to poverty reduction. More and better energy is needed for cooking, heating, lighting, and other services that promote equitable growth and employment.  Over two-thirds of the people living in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. That’s 620 million people -twice the population of the United States – that can’t just “turn the lights on.” And it’s not just homes, more than half of all primary schools in the region lack electricity. That’s a mind-blowing reality for our 21st Century world. And it’s no wonder that energy poverty is high on the development agenda.

But the discussion around how to meet the needs of the energy-poor households is being dominated by a focus on scaling-up centralized, large scale generation capacity.  The latter is more helpful for industrial and commercial needs rather than for households and schools, primary health clinics, and small businesses. These needs are probably better served through decentralized off-grid, clean energy sources.

Energy distribution is important, not just energy generation

The report separates the problem into two parts: the ‘energy access gap’:  the number of people without access to modern energy services and the ‘industrial energy gap’: the huge gap between installed electricity generation capacity in the industrialized and unindustrialized world. The industrial energy gap, and the increase in on-grid generation capacity that this needs gets most of the attention, and often muddies the picture of energy poverty in Africa.

Don’t get us wrong, energy for industrialization is important for economic growth, and can have trickle-down impacts for poverty reduction.  But the history is checkered (or lousy) when it comes to translating this kind of energy development into benefits to the poor, especially in Africa.

Significant challenges exist in on-grid service delivery, transmission and distribution which limit the access – and benefits – to poor people.  Even in communities that gain access to the electricity grid, connection tends to occur regressively where poor households often remain without electricity for years, sometimes decades, as they are unable to afford the connection charges.

Clean technologies can better meet the energy needs of the poor

The infographic from the report below shows that the majority of the incidences of energy poverty, both those lacking in access to clean cooking and access to electricity, are best served by distributed, off-grid sources. On-grid sources serve 20% of the energy poverty needs – yet receive more of the funding.

Incidences of energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and the technologies and investment needed to secure universal access:

energy graph

Some argue that an emphasis on distributed clean energy such as solar panels, wind, small-scale hydro power and biogas digestors, is small-fry and won’t get the job done. They dismiss the impact of single light-bulb. But that’s easy to say from air-conditioned offices.  Basic energy services like lighting can have huge impacts. Evidence shows that incremental shifts can have lasting impacts on poverty through improved livelihoods, such as for example children being able to spend more time after hours on education. It’s an important first rung on the energy ladder, without which, poor people cannot start the climb upwards.

Rebalance the playing field

Prioritization of distributional policies and technologies, over a rush for increased power generation, will be essential if we truly intend to meet the needs of the energy poor. In cold hard numbers the report shows that the playing field is unbalanced. More than 2.5 times additional investment is required for distributed systems over on-grid connections. As well, international donors presently don’t prioritise energy access the way that they should towards the poor.

It just goes to show that in providing energy for all, we should never forget to ask ‘energy for whom?’ and look toward clean, off-grid solutions that better serve the energy needs of poor households.

Connect with Sas Thilakasiri on Twitter @SasThilak

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  1.'John Magrath

    Great report. I’ve just come back from seeing an Oxfam solar programme in Zimbabwe in rural communities that will almost certainly never get onto an electricity grid. Having light alone makes a massive difference to health, education, productivity and self-esteem, (and then there’s solar water pumping, solar refrigeration etc). The key problems though have been how to overcome the barriers to a) starting a ‘solar system’ and b) keeping it going – i.e. initial capital costs (even for lanterns) and ongoing maintenance. Oxfam Zimbabwe look to be well on the way to cracking those problems and the private sector is scenting a big market. What governments could best do might be mainly to step out of the way e.g. reduce import tariffs, + see things take off as they have done in mobile phone markets.


    It’s a great piece of writing! The writer seems to have hit the nail right on the head!! Provide the clean energy to the poor: the world would be a better place!!!

    On-grid systems are built & operated by large corporations whose primary, (or in most cases, the only), objective is to earn a massive profit for their already rich shareholders, at the expense of the poor consumer. So, no doubt, the answer lies in small off-grid, distributed systems.

    Well done, Mr Thilakasiri!

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