Originally published on the Practical Action website here.
Last month, I participated in the Global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 Conference in Bangkok, from 20-23 February 2018. The conference provided a thoughtful review of the progress on SDG7, ahead of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) later this year; which is expected to be the first critical milestone to take stock of progress to date.
Although success stories and changes are being witnessed, including an impressive growth in the number of people gaining sustainable energy access in Central and South Asia and Latin America, and the role played by a diverse range of new business models and SMEs to bring energy access services to remote areas, we still face several huge challenges. More than 1.06 million people, mostly located in poor rural areas, don’t have access to electricity; and, shockingly, 3 billion people are still cooking without clean fuels or more efficient technologies.
Practical Action has been deeply involved in promoting energy access for more than 40 years. We provide systemic solutions for un-served rural dwellers across the Global South; while also convening and facilitating processes and creating spaces to catalyse positive change at national, regional and international levels. We are perhaps more active now than we have ever been, working with new partners in exciting and challenging ways to solve this difficult equation.
SDG7 Conference in Bangkok
So, can we say that we are close to solving the gap and providing modern and sustainable energy access to all un-served communities? The result of the SDG7 Conference was clear. While some progress is shown in specific geographic areas – for instance in Kenya where energy access rates have risen from 15% in 2010 to 70% by 2017 – we see little or no advancement in other areas. This includes insufficient progress in electricity access for the sub-Saharan region (where the population growth is bigger than annual electricity access rate growth) and the very often overlooked cooking sector that suffers from, above all, an endemic lack of funding.
Moreover, the imbalance between global and national agendas at the conference was plain to see, as we barely heard from countries offering national voluntary assessments.
People at the heart of the solution
There is a clear need to change the way we are framing the solution. It is widely acknowledged that business as usual will not challenge the current problem; as we have learned under our flagship series publication Poor Peoples’ Energy Outlook, similar to IEA’s recent statement, decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions represent a better cost-effective and faster pace to achieve universal energy access than top-down traditional strategies – but sufficient investment this is not yet happening. Contradictorily, we also know there is currently not enough available investment to cover the current funding gaps within the energy access sector; and as result of this, not enough financing flows to sufficiently support the sector’s service delivery. There is also an increasing recognition of the need to work with diverse groups of relevant stakeholders but not always the same understanding of the need to involve and listen to rural, under-served communities themselves from the very outset. They are often the ones who know what they need (in terms of their demand and priorities) and how to adapt current solutions to their current situations. Unfortunately, the discussion at the SDG7 conference was often framed around the ‘what’ (technology, natural resources availability) but not sufficiently the ‘how’ (systems building, bottom-up participatory processes).
So, are we doing things differently?
Meaningfully including civil society, which provides a bridge between public and private sectors and the populations they aim to serve, can help to address the ‘how’ of service delivery. Fortunately, a clear civil society voice was heard during the SDG7 Conference. The ACCESS Coalition organized a panel where Practical Action, together with other partner organisations (HIVOS and SNV, among others), were invited to showcase specific and positive experiences from civil society in Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Kenya – as well as highlighted learning around actions that require adaption or simply do not work.
However, although the dialogue around this panel was substantial and alternatives to business as usual were showcased, across the conference more generally the voices of CSOs were not sufficiently represented. Recognizing the value of the civil society in solving the enormous energy access challenge we have in front of us is crucial. CSOs are excellent partners for better understanding the needs and demands of rural communities. CSOs can help other stakeholders connect with rural populations, raising awareness of and building trust around positive energy access behaviours and solutions. They can increase stakeholders’ understanding of energy-poor people’s cultural behaviours and socio-cultural challenges, which are so often overlooked and which can compound a perception among investors of rural populations being high risk.
Overall, the SDG7 Conference offered an opportunity for exchanging global best practices, and it provided a good place to consider the interlinkages across SDGs; in particular how essential energy access is if we want to achieve many other SDGs by 2030. However, although we are starting to move in the right direction, more proven disruptive approaches that deliver energy access cost-effectively by including a diverse range of stakeholders are still needed if we want to see SDG7 accomplished by 2030 – and enjoy all the other development and wellbeing benefits that go alongside.