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Access to energy - necessary but not sufficient to cut poverty

The UN estimates that 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, hurting their ability to earn a living or educate their children. But connecting to an electric grid may not be the only solution.

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"This makes it less attractive for private enterprises to offer services in this sector, which compounds the problem of having limited infrastructure available," he says in the report. "Without infrastructure (including clean energy services), it remains very difficult to persuade skilled people to move back into rural areas, leading to a shortage of trained teachers, nurses, engineers etc. in rural areas."

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Drew Corbyn, energy consultant for Practical Action, explained that access to energy is not a miracle solution – that energy alone cannot solve people's problems, but that it's necessary before other steps can truly help.

"Energy is not the be-all and end-all. It is an enabler. To realize increased incomes, you need many other factors," he said, such as business skills, access to markets, appropriate policies, and regulations.

But the bottom line, he said, is "Energy access is a prerequisite for development. Energy is important for all development goals. It's required in the home, in enterprise, and community service."

And because energy is required in these different realms of life, Practical Action doesn't prioritize which energy needs should be met first. Instead, the organization advocates what it calls "total energy access."

This approach contrasts with that of other organizations that Corbyn said look at the supply side of the issue and define energy access in terms of grid electricity or use of kerosene, for example.

"If we only consider energy access as using, say, grid connection – so for example, you discount a solar lantern or a solar home system as having energy access – I think all of the money would then flow to areas which are easily connected to the grid," he said. "It would potentially mean that a lot of the efforts and resources aren't going into technologies which are actually a lot more appropriate for certain poor households and that can meet poor people's energy service needs.

"I think there is a danger if the definition of energy access is too narrow or too focused on grid electricity or just simply modern fuels – then the full range of benefits won't be realized," he added. "We're looking at the way that energy is used, in terms of the lighting and cooking, which actually brings you much closer to the potential development benefits."

Corbyn is optimistic that the UN's initiative this year will drive attention to the issue of energy access, which was not one of the Millennium Development Goals and has been left out of much of the global conversation around poverty and development. The Poor People's Energy Outlook report lays out a framework for action that Practical Action calls an energy access ecosystem. There are specific recommendations in the report for governments, civil society, international institutions, and the donor and private sectors. 

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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