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Why Energy Poverty Needs to be Addressed in Poverty Alleviation Programs

 June 25, 2021 • 7 minute read

Person holding phone over a stand of fruit and vegetables

By Caitlin O’Donnell | Technical Advisor & Bobby Irven | Communications Manager, BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative

Poverty is multidimensional. This is undeniable, but as one peels back the layers within this concept, the complexities of poverty, particularly extreme poverty, only deepen. One critical element of this is energy poverty. Defined as a household being deprived of access to sufficient electricity and/or modern cooking fuels to meet basic household needs, a household is energy-poor if it does not have physical access to energy and/or the price of energy is too high for the consumer. Currently over ten percent of the world’s population still does not have access to electricity, which equates to approximately 840 million people around the world who still lack access. This number has only increased (by 2% or 13 million people) due to the impacts of COVID-19, which wiped out much of the progress made in Africa over the past few decades.

According to the World Bank, energy poverty has impacts on a wide range of development indicators, including health, education, food security, gender equality, livelihoods, and poverty reduction. For many, having access to a reliable light source or electric port is a luxury one cannot afford, or perhaps isn’t even available where they live. Without lighting, one cannot read or study at night. Without electricity, there is nothing to power the radio, or charge a mobile device. Running a small business becomes much more difficult without things like cold storage, some modern agricultural tools, or electronic money transfers to speed up commerce.

In many contexts where BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) provides technical assistance, energy poverty is a critical barrier for people living in extreme poverty. When combined with other aspects of extreme poverty, like health or nature-related shocks, the situation becomes exponentially compounded, driving those already faced with countless challenges further into the poverty trap.

A women uses a mobile money program (mPesa) at her market stall in Kitui, Kenya.
Mobile finance technologies, like mPesa, are empowering millions of people to take charge of their small businesses and savings (BRAC/CARE 2018)

By providing an integrated, holistic approach to alleviate extreme poverty, BRAC’s Graduation approach is able to combat many of the barriers that face people living in extreme poverty, including energy poverty, and sets participants up for continued growth long after the official interventions end. The comprehensiveness of the approach builds resilience and contributes to sustainability that make it unique from many other traditional development models.

However, addressing the dimension of energy poverty is no small feat. It will require close partnerships between governments and private sector partners, as well as innovations and inputs from development practitioners, technical advisors, and multilaterals in order to make a sizable dent in the number of people who do not have access to clean, affordable energy.

In September 2019, BRAC UPGI began a partnership with Guinea’s National Agency for Economic Inclusion (ANIES) to develop strategy recommendations for improving economic and social inclusion among the extreme poor, which included a focus on energy and energy poverty. The most current figures available (as of 2016) indicate that only 8.8 percent of the rural population had access to electricity, and only 1.2 percent of the entire population had access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking. Besides adding to the many barriers people living in extreme poverty face, these statistics translate to real world dangers caused by indoor air pollution and countless hours spent collecting firewood and other biomass to burn. While no simple solutions exist to bring populations that are the most marginalized into the fold, building partnerships with energy-related ministries and agencies and leveraging technologies like microgrids or solar kits — where it aligns with market realities and community needs — is one way to start to bring this dimension of extreme poverty into focus for social and economic inclusion programs like the Graduation approach.

Guinean women at their food stall in a local market.

A visit to the market as part of the Technical Assistance team’s assessment phase (BRAC 2019)

As development practitioners and national governments gain a greater understanding of energy poverty, new research has shown that overall poverty reduction can actually lower energy demands. Contrary to popular belief, empowering people to escape extreme poverty does not increase energy consumption. Switching from traditional cooking fuels (fire, charcoal, dung, etc.) to more efficient and standardized ones like gas and electricity can actually save on costs and lower harmful emissions. When considering the impacts of climate change on those living in extreme poverty, energy poverty thus becomes an issue of economic justice and climate justice.

With a quickly changing world reeling from the effects of COVID-19 it is clear that energy poverty is a key factor of multidimensional extreme poverty, and one cannot be eradicated with the other still in existence. As BRAC UPGI works towards its goal of scaling the Graduation approach through governments, strategies and interventions that address the various barriers of poverty eradication, including energy poverty, will continue to be top of mind.

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