In any village, the big threshold is crossed when a few kilowatts of power become available. Water can be pumped or purified, workshop machines run, fields irrigated, homes lighted, television shown, and help summoned by phone.
"Without this minimum of power," says Michael Gill, an Israeli experienced in installing small power units in third-world villages, "people will go to polish shoes in the cities."
The source of the energy -- oil, coal, mini-hydropower, solar cells, or whatever -- is secondary to reliability and low maintenance, he says. The need for such very small amounts of power in the world's 2 million villages is urgent , Mr. Gill says. He adds, "When they are in the cities, it's already too late."
Yves Lambert, a French technician who has helped install hundreds of solar pumps, solar television sets, refrigerators, and other appliances in rural West Africa, agrees: The basic challenge to technology is to develop small turbines to generate electricity cheaply and unattended in remote villages.
"Government aid has to demonstrate the technology first," he says. "Afterward the manufacturer goes in to sell his product, which third-world governments can finance through the World Bank or another lending agency. But new technologies must first be introduced by Western governments. You need demonstrations on a large scale for a year or so."
The practical views of such experienced technicians, interviewed here at the just-ended two-week United Nations conference on new and renewable sources of energy, make a lot more sense than the North-South political debate.
The role of the United States at the conference was largely ideological and negative. The Reagan administration seemed chiefly concerned with playing down aid in favor of a greater role for private enterprise. Nobody got down to brass tacks on how this would be done.
The US successfully resisted pressures from the poor nations to found new institutions to finance energy investment. Most Western nations, the Soviet bloc, and some of the third-world nations themselves opposed the formation of another UN bureaucracy. A proposal to establish an energy affiliate of the World Bank, which did have wide support, was shelved because of American opposition.
The Nairobi conference was intended as a forum for a major new initiative in North-South cooperation and a showcase for countries and companies developing new technologies. Only a few US manufacturers showed their wares; few of them were geared for village use.
In contrast, the export-oriented French, Italians, West Germans, Scandinavians, Japanese, and Israelis had adapted sophisticated technologies to rural third-world needs, as had the Chinese and Indians.
The World Bank estimates the developing countries will need to spend $60 billion to $80 billion each year during the coming decade on energy development. About one-fourth of this should go to renewables -- hydroelectric, solar, wind, biomass, and reforestation projects -- with oil, coal, natural gas, and conservation getting the rest.
The poor three-fourths of the world consumes only 8 percent of the world's oil supply. The developed countries consume 12 times a much per capita. The need to spend 50 to 60 percent of foreign-exchange earnings on oil has slowed development in Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia.
The cheapest way out might be to set up a global network of energy technology research centers, modeled after the one established in recent years for agriculture.
During the 1970s, more than 130 developing countries joined in an international network linking 13 agricultural research centers. They pool knowledge and genetic material on crops, exchange findings on livestock breeding and plant and animal diseases, and study new farming systems.
Something similar could be done with both conventional and renewable energy technology. In Nairobi, the Chinese suggested an international research and training center on biogas and other biomass be set up in China.
This would be cheap. This year's total budget for the agricultural centers was just $145 million, of which the US paid one-third. The much-repeated phrase "transfer of technology," whether of farming or energy skills, means, after all the movement of technical knowledge, not money.
What is needed is a system: Western experts develop new energy technologies. Western manufacturers design the equipment. The World Bank finances sales. Third-world technicians get trained to go back and get small power units humming in those 2 million villages.
Something like this would mean a huge increase in international trade. It would give substance to President Reagan's claim that private enterprise can solve the third world's energy problem.