We won’t achieve the MDGs without tackling energy access

By Emily Haves, Ashden International Programme Officer

By Sarah Butler-Sloss, Founder Director

Ban Ki-moon recently announced that the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water had been halved, meeting target 7.C of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the international development goals that world leaders agreed back in 2000 to achieve by 2015. This is great news.  But what of the other goals?  

The economic crisis has had a disastrous effect on livelihoods. Little progress has been made on education, while on gender equality, women still lag behind men in access to education and jobs.  Most experts acknowledge that the MDGs will not be met by 2015.

A key reason for lack of progress is a dearth of the necessary supporting structures.  These include roads, pumped clean water, and telecommunications infrastructure: all pre-requisites for development, yet in many countries still lacking. 

Another major barrier in many countries is a reliable energy supply: blackouts bring factories to a halt, work without electric tools is slow and uncompetitive, and smoky homes caused by cooking on open fires mean poor health for women and children.

There is hope. By leapfrogging the traditional infrastructure model, which depends on big government projects, and enabling individuals and communities to produce their own energy (or use less of it), this year’s Ashden Award finalists are demonstrating the key enabling role that access to sustainable energy has on wider development goals. Here are some examples:

Goal one is to ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger’. Hydro projects in GIZ’s Afghanistan programme and IBEKA’s Indonesian programme are providing a reliable source of electricity for the first time to mountainous villages and towns, so stimulating local businesses and enterprises, while having light after sunset gives women new opportunities to work, for example on sewing or handicraft production. Plus Barefoot’s system of training entrepreneurs to sell their affordable solar products has so far created jobs for 2000 entrepreneurs and technicians as well as allowing more income-generating activities among recipients of solar products. 

Achieving universal primary education is MDG number two, and the electricity provided by Ashden finalists, such as micro-hydro in mountainous areas and solar power in remote African villages, means that children have light to study in the evenings - vitally important for their ability to progress at school.  There is also anecdotal evidence that teachers are more likely to stay in remote communities if there is electricity.

Access to clean energy can help to empower women and reduce gender inequality by reducing the burden of tasks that are traditionally women’s responsibility. For example, technology that reduces the need for fires for cooking and heating water, like iDE/Hydrologic’s water filters and biogas systems financed by SKDRDP, are hugely beneficial for women because they typically shoulder the burden of collecting firewood, a time-consuming and onerous task. 

Being connected to the wider world through TV and radio can also help to empower women by challenging traditional gender roles as well as providing entertainment and information, as Anne Wheldon has noted in her recent blog.

The goal of reducing child mortality can be helped by having a reliable source of electricity, either through solar or hydro power, which enables clinics to keep vaccines refrigerated and treat children properly.  And as mentioned above, biogas systems and water filters decrease indoor air pollution.  This is critically important as indoor air pollution causes 2 million premature deaths annually, mostly among women and children.  Also, iDE/Hydrologic’s water filters make water safer for children to drink, thereby reducing infant mortality. 

Birth clinics also benefit from a consistent supply of electricity which enables midwives and doctors to perform procedures safely, a key part of achieving the fifth MDG of improving maternal health.

And finally, all our finalists are helping to achieve MDG7, that of ensuring environmental sustainability, by reducing carbon emissions and helping to fight climate change.  The water filters made by iDE/Hydrologic and biogas systems financed by SKDRDP also reduce the need for fuel wood, thereby slowing the rate of deforestation.

It may be too late to meet all the MDGs within the three years to 2015, but this shouldn’t stop us striving to achieve them.  World leaders preparing to gather in Rio for June’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development could do worse than learning from these shining examples of what is possible.

Read more about the international finalists for the 2012 Ashden Awards

Watch the Awards ceremony via webcast at green.tv from 7pm on Wednesday 30 May.


Keep up with the buzz around this year’s conference and awards on Twitter: #Ashden12