Why Energy Access Is The Most Powerful Solution To Poverty

There is no panacea for alleviating poverty, but providing access to energy appears to be the next best thing.

As a Fundraising Officer much of what I say to potential donors is in the future tense. We will secure X, this will enable Y, which will benefit Z. Though my words are based on previous findings and accurate projections, donors are, understandably, often sceptical.

The bold claims that we make in our applications and during our presentations seem too good to be true. How can a single intervention improve not only the health of the people it is for, but also their education, their nutrition, their income, the gender inequality in the area, and also combat climate change? Those unaware of the reality would dismiss our claims as falsehoods, but they are not.

Through emotive language and powerful imagery a charity or business can bypass the head and target the heart of a donor. Tragic stories and urgent appeals give emotional value to the message and the heart strings are tugged as the purse strings are loosened. And whilst worthwhile causes are always deserving of funding, more and more these days we are seeing donations given to the charities with the greatest impact and not the greatest aims.

It is here, on the issue of impact, that Renewable World holds great pride. Not only are our aims ambitious, but they are also realistic. The list of benefits that I mentioned earlier are all very likely to occur (not certain, nothing is ever certain) following our projects successful implementation. I was aware of the role energy access had on improving people’s lives, but until this week I was not aware of just how great a role that was.

On Monday morning an academic study arrived in my inbox, courtesy of our Global Programme’s Manager. It was titledEnergy for Sustainable and Equitable Development and was written by Daniel M Kammen, Peter Alstone, and Dimitry Gershenson. The 31-page document not only reminded me of the vital work that we do, but also highlighted just how crucial energy access is to the fight against poverty.

As is typical of academic papers, the language was reserved and unemotional, and yet despite this the message was as hard-hitting as ever. Perhaps it was precisely because the message had been stripped of the emotion, the case studies removed and the hyperbole gone, that it had such an effect. Its message was that there is enough evidence “to provide a strong argument that electricity access is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for improving human development.”[1]

You might think that this is a fairly mundane statement to make, but what it is essentially saying is that if you want to improve a person’s life, you need to provide them with energy. Working for a charity that enables energy access through renewable energy this was music to my ears. It not only reaffirmed my belief that we are doing great work, but it also highlighted the fact that our chosen method of poverty alleviation – the provision of energy – is one of, if not the most effective.

The paper continued, and my eyes were drawn to some of the most conclusive graphical data that I have ever seen. (see below). Along the X-axis was “Electricity Consumption (kWh/person-year)” or “Electricity Access (%)”, and along the Y-axis was a range of indicators used globally to measure human development and well-being. The correlation is obvious. In every graph as the electricity consumption increases, or as access to electricity increases, a person’s life improves.

Image source: KAMMEN, D.M, ALSTONE, P, and GERSHENSON, D. (2014) Energy For Sustainable And Equitable Development. Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. p.4


What is just as insightful and as important as the graphs on the top row, are the two graphs on the bottom. The incredibly steep curve shown on the left, and then magnified on the right, shows how even the smallest amount of electricity can drastically improve someone’s life.

Using the line of best fit that is given to us we can see that a nation using 50 kWh of electricity a year per person would have a Human Development Index (HDI) rating of roughly 0.25. If this electricity consumption were to double to 100 kWh a year per person then we would see a rise in their HDI rating up to about 0.3. For comparison, this is roughly the same HDI rating as Niger (0.337), Democratic Republic of Congo (0.338), and Central African Republic (0.341).

If then we were able to get that electricity consumption to 500 kWh a year per person, which is less than 10% of the UK’s, the HDI rating would jump to near 0.5 (Nigeria 0.504, Cameroon 0.504, and Rwanda 0.506). And if that energy consumption were to double to 1,000 kWh a year per person, still not 20% of the UK’s, the HDI would be approaching 0.6 and the country would graduate from the list of low human development and instead find itself amongst the likes of India (0.586), Morocco (0.617), and Honduras (0.617).

The steep curve on the graph shows that human development increases rapidly as energy consumption does. The greater the access to energy, the more a person will consume, and the more a person consumes, the better their life will be.

Gone are the days whereby charities provided handouts to those in need. We learnt that handouts were not only demeaning, but unnecessary and unhelpful. What is required by those living a life of hardship is simply access to the means by which they can overcome it. Energy access is one such method.

If you give a man a fish he can eat for a day, but if you provide a man with energy he can charge solar lamps to fish at night, use freezers to chill and preserve his catch, and he can access market information online to ensure that he gets the best price.

[1] KAMMEN, D.M, ALSTONE, P, and GERSHENSON, D. (2014) Energy For Sustainable And Equitable Development.Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility. p.5


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This article was originally published on the Renewable World blog on 17/07/15


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