John Magrath is an Oxfam researcher currently working on renewable energy
Hats off to Sarah Best for her recent post on energy and in particular, for highlighting the excellent new Practical Action report, Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2010.
I’ve been delving into energy issues too lately. I’ve just come back from Senegal, where I was trying to get clearer in my own mind what exactly is the contribution energy access makes to making people healthier, wealthier and wiser? And what are the limitations, and essential other things that have to be added to the mix to make the dough of development rise?
So I went to a village that is well off the national grid, which has a “renewable energy power station ” – a wind turbine towering above the baobabs and an imposing inclined plane of solar panels, all connected to a hefty bank of industrial-sized batteries. Overhead cables snake off to every house. People pay any one of four tariffs, based on how much power they use, from 50 watts up to 200 watts – enough for a set of light bulbs and a TV.
My overall impression was – what a real and rare pleasure to go somewhere where people were happy – and told you so? Everyone seemed really delighted, confident and optimistic about the future. This sense of confidence and security, and therefore, ambition, seems to me the biggest impact of having electricity. Exuding a new pride in the village, people talked about a “revival of the town”, – how young people who had left for the capital were coming back, people from surrounding areas were coming in buying land and building houses (a building boom was visibly in progress). This confidence is based on people concretely getting wealthier; the women I spoke to all said they were making big savings by no longer buying kerosene, and they were earning more – they could make and sell things late into the night, more people were coming round to buy, they could sell cold drinks, invest in getting goods from further afield etc.
So, people are both mentally healthier and economically wealthier, thanks to electricity; if I was giving energy a score vis-a-vis other interventions, I’d have said this was a 100% winner of an effect.
What about wiser? People pointed to two developments. They said, “before we only had two TVs, now we have 31; we are smarter, we are more cultivated, we know what’s happening around the world”. Ah, the development benefits of TV….when, I can’t help wonder, do the benefits of TV as an educational medium disappear and get overtaken by the Senegalese equivalent of Big Brother? The second thing mothers said was how their children could (and did) study longer, and that their school exam results were much improved.
However, I think the reasons behind education benefits are more complicated, and electricity is only one of several. The school was well equipped, with desks, books and wall charts. The teacher – who, like the electricity, had started about a year ago – was clearly very good, even inspirational. And it turns out the exam results were up all over the country this year. So, I’d credit electricity with, say, 50% of the effect.
Finally, how much does electricity contribute to a (physically) healthier society? There are certainly effects – if kids have to gather round a candle or a smelly, flickering kerosene lamp to study, then they may well develop eye strain and lung and throat problems. (Women still cook on firewood, so smoke remains a health hazard). The school teacher said that in his opinion, one of the best impacts of bright electric light was that children with weak or damaged eyesight were no longer disadvantaged – “everyone is on the same level now”, he explained.
However, when people talked about health, they also made a lot of how because of light, attendance was up at the village health centre. I might have taken this as an indicator of success, had I not asked to see the health centre. The new electric bulb illuminated a scene of filth and squalor. Clearly no-one knew how to take care of the centre or the medicines and instruments, only how to fill out the attendance book. So in these circumstances, electricity => more attendance => possibly worse health and greater risk of death….a negative correlation with energy! It’s almost an argument for removing the bulb….It is also most definitely an illustration of how many other things must be in place to create beneficial outcomes, and how energy on its own may be a necessary, but is by no means sufficient, to bring about change.