Tackling African Energy Poverty Takes Citizen Power!

Terri Hathaway

Bravo for the spotlight on access to modern energy - the "missing MDG" - at this week’s United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit in New York. A new report released today at the MDG Summit, Ending Energy Poverty, calculates that powering the MDGs by 2015 will take $41 billion a year to bring electricity to 395 million people and access to clean cooking facilities to 1 billion people. That’s an average of $30 per person per year for electricity (395m) and another $30 per person per year for gaining access to modern cooking fuels or improved cookstoves (1b). Most of these investments would find their way to Africa and South Asia, the global energy poverty epicenters.

According to Ending Energy Poverty, the key challenge is shifting cooking from traditional biomass to modern fuels and improved cookstoves. In sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the people, including those with electricity, depend on wood, charcoal and dung to fuel fires to cook their food. Bravo to Hillary Clinton’s $50 million pledge during the MDG Summit for improved cookstoves in Africa. Although the funds are a drop in the energy poverty bucket, it is a call to arms for world leaders to put African women and their kitchens on the global energy agenda.

The UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change report, Energy for a Sustainable Future is also calling for universal energy access by 2030. Calculations outlined in Ending Energy Poverty require $36 billion each year between 2016 and 2030. This would give the world’s remaining 800 million people access to electricity and the remaining 1.7 billion people access to modern cooking fuel. The investment required per person reduces to $15 per year for each of the world’s remaining people without access to electricity (800m) and without access to modern cooking fuels (1.7b). Regardless whether we are talking about achieving the MDGs by 2015 or universal access by 2030, the question is not "Do we have the resources?" but "Are we going to make it a global priority?"

Africa’s Two Energy Crises
Africa's widespread access crisis has long lived in the shadow of the continent's other energy crisis: its fragile electricity sector with limited access. Large power projects have long dominated Africa's traditional energy investments. And the focus continues to be on supply and transmission with a growing budget gap for distribution, the grid's way of addressing energy access. Big, and increasingly regionalized, power projects lack accountability, making them highly vulnerable to vested interests, corruption, and disrepair. Africa’s chronic electricity crisis is very real, but limited in its overlap with the continent’s access crisis.

Increased international attention to the energy access crisis is vital and welcomed. But the crisis is being addressed with virtually no accountability to the most important stakeholder: the targeted recipients. The discourse is dominated by donors, experts, international agencies and, too often, unaccountable governments. Amidst the challenges of implementation, oversight and political will, the critical missing factor is public accountability. Programs to improve access to modern energy are laborious to implement and challenging to oversee, particularly without political will. International donors and agencies have been loathe to hold their “clients” accountable or to leverage funds for pet energy projects as a tool of persuasion to meeting access targets.

Accountability to Government Targets
Last November, just prior to the climate talks in Copenhagen, the WHO and UNDP released a comprehensive review of existing government targets for access to modern energy in the least developed countries and all African countries. The targets include access to mechanical power, modern cooking fuels, and improved cookstoves in addition to electricity. For example, the report states that the Democratic Republic of Congo has set a national target to achieve 67% of the population having access to electricity by 2025, from its current rate of 11%. Ironically, over $1 billion has recently been invested to rehabilitate the DR Congo's degraded Inga dams and power grid which benefit Congo's mining sector, a few major cities, and power consumers in South Africa. The funding is doing little to move DR Congo toward its 67% access goal. Worse, the funding and the rehabilitation work both seem to be disappearing into an unaccountable black hole of corruption. There's no public accountability for addressing the electricity sector, and no budget for achieving its access target.

Africa’s Citizen Power
The bridge between targets and success can be paved with citizen powered accountability. Women’s groups, NGOs, churches and faith based groups, youth movements, healthcare providers, students, farmer associations, entrepreneurs, journalists, traditional leaders, and local governments should work together to publicize and hold their national governments accountable for energy access targets. Congratulate your government for successes in meeting targets. Offer to work with government to achieve targets. And hold your government publicly accountable if it is not fulfilling its targets. Who knows - maybe a citizen's movement demanding fiscal and development accountability could eventually lead to greater success in Africa's other energy crisis, too.

What You Can Do
Find out:
What is the government’s concrete plan to meeting the targets? Find your country's targets in the 2009 WHO/UNDP report The Energy Access Situation in Developing Countries.

Participate & Investigate: Work with your government and other agencies to make sure that there is a realistic road map to meet targets. Do results on the ground match budgets and spending reports? Learn about how to conduct citizen-led social audits and other accountability tools from International Budget Partnership.

Demand Accountability: If targets are not being met, call national and, if necessary, international attention to help hold your government accountable. Call for a halt to pet energy projects which don’t support access goals until governments get back on track to meeting their access goals.

If you take this information to heart, please tell me and others about it. Together, let's start Africa's citizen powered energy revolution!