Third World Poverty: Why Powerlines Aren’t the Answer
September 6, 2002

By Gar Smith

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Street markets lack the antiseptic sparkle of air-conditioned,24-hour supermarkets, but the food is fresh, varied and nutritious. Credit: Gar Smith/The-Edge
In the Industrialized North, life without electricity is nearly unthinkable. Access to electricity is almost considered a Constitutional entitlement — “the Right to Bare Amps.” Americans are juice junkies. In additional to such icons as mom, apple pie, the automobile and the bullet-spitting weapon-of-choice, there is the Fifth Unassailable — access to a wall socket.

One can almost hear Charlton Heston thundering, “You can have my 6,000 SPM Black and Decker 3.4A Navigator electric hand saw… when you pry it from my cold, dead hand!”

Surrounded as we are by streetlights, neon signs, movie houses, 24-hour shopping malls, TVs, radios, microwave ovens, audio-, video-, CD- and DVD-players, it’s easy to forget that our material comforts are a historical fluke based on a premise built on an illusion — the illusion that Earth’s oil resources are infinite.

A parallel and therapeutic illusion (one that helps assuage the guilt over our material self-indulgence) is that someday everyone on Earth will be able to live like a citizen of Manhattan or Paris — with full access to all-electric kitchens, HDTVs in the den and SUVs in the garage.

But, if you pause to think about it, electricity is a luxury, not a necessity. Human survival depends on the Four Fundamentals: clean air, clean water, healthy food and shelter from the elements.

One billion people lack access to clean drinking water and three million of them will die this year from drinking contaminated water. To the degree that electricity can address that problem, electricity is a good thing.

Certainly, the Internet has brought unparalleled interconnectedness to more than 40 million people in 110 countries but, as South African President Thabo Mbeki once commented, “Half of humanity has never made a telephone call.” When Mbeki made that observation, there were more telephone lines in Manhattan than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Energy in itself may not be a basic human right,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Sustainable Development Department conceded, but energy “is critical to the alleviation of hunger. Staple foods, on which poor people depend, are often eaten raw. In cold climates, it is also essential for adequate warmth.”

Unfortunately, electricity is not the best energy solution for either cooking food or heating homes.

Poor Choices: Poverty and Fuel in the Third World
According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), more than two billion people — a third of the planet’s population — lack access to electricity. This leaves them dependent on burning wood, charcoal, animal dung and kerosene to meet their heating and cooking needs. In Africa, some 400 million people live in extreme poverty. More than half of the population survives on less than $1 a day.

Germany’s Bellagio Forum for Sustainable Development [] notes that the heat efficiency of a burning log is only about ten percent, which means that “more than two tons of firewood are necessary for an average family in one year.”

Breathing smoke from household fires has lead to an epidemic of respiratory disease throughout the African continent. The UN estimates that breathing smoke from in-home cooking fires kills 1.8 million people a year. In Indonesia, 29 percent of the deaths of children aged 1-4 have been attributed to exposure to the smoke from wood fires.

Using charcoal is little better. The Bellagio Forum reports that ”the emissions from one day of indoor charcoal cooking are equivalent [to] smoking more than 400 cigarettes.”

Kerosene’s heat efficiency is about 50 percent but this is a fuel that must be purchased, not scavenged from the nearest hillside.

‘We’re on a Mission from Grid’
The idea of bringing electric power to the Third World seems like a noble proposition, although it comes with overtones of Rudyard Kipling — i.e., the White Man’s Burden transformed into the Light Man’s Burden to “bring ‘illumination’ to the Dark Corners of the world.”

Faced with the charge of the multinational Light Brigade, several essential questions remain unexamined.

  • How will the power be produced? In most cases, a large, centralized powerplant will be constructed — and thousands of miles of transmission towers and power lines erected — to bring power to the people.

  • Who will build the plant? More often than not, it will be a powerful multinational from the industrialized North that — after properly wining and dining the local government officials — will win a handsome concession to build a costly, state-of-the-art facility. The multinational will typically be given grants, loans, tax relief and guaranteed rates-of-return regardless of whether the plant performs to expectations.

  • What fuel will power the plant? If a multinational constructs the facility it will be powered by coal, oil, uranium or, in the case of massive hydroelectric dams, entire lake-loads of waylaid water.

  • Who will benefit from the power? In many cases, the poor continue to live without electricity while the new energy is channeled into energy-intensive industries serving the export market. All too often, the first beneficiary of mega-electrification has been an aluminum smelting plant. As we begin the 21st century, the planet is girdled with glittering powerplants in whose massive shadows one finds people still living in darkness. While they cannot afford the plant’s expensive power, they must endure the plant’s extensive pollution.

The Big Question: Does Electricity Cure Poverty?

ATLANTA: Without electricity, Pop-Tarts would be impossible. Would that be such a bad thing? Credit: Gar Smith/The-Edge
There is a generally unchallenged assumption that introducing electricity improves the lives of the poor. Somehow it is assumed that simply building a powerplant will flood the lives of a nation’s poor with illumination and previously undreamed-of creature comforts.

This might be true if the poor were given access to free electric power. But this has never happened.

UNDP Associate Administrator Zéphirin Diabré argues that the lack of modern, affordable energy services “limits job opportunities, farm efficiency, business and industrial development and access to education, health care and other basic social services.” But, as Susan McDade, the manager of UNDP’s Sustainable Energy Program is quick to add, it is important to assure that “the right energy solutions are found to improve peoples’ lives.”

Writing in the African magazine Mopheme (The Survivor), D. R. Phororo reflected on the completion of Lesotho’s massive Muela hydropower station: “Will it alleviate the burden of poverty saddling Basotho citizens, or remain a service accessible to the few rich but a rainbow to the majority poor?”

In the case of the Muela plant, the electricity has remained out of reach of the poor. Although many Lesotho Electricity Corporation officials “have roots in these unlit huts,” Phororo lamented, “after a ‘hard day’s work,’ they relax in the cozy comfort of their homes, manipulating the electricity switches” and give little thought to “how affordable electricity can be made available to the poor majority of Lesotho.”

Phororo had a suggestion. The poor do not pay income tax, but they are forced to pay “sales tax like anybody else. They are therefore entitled to access to a basic development service such as electricity.”

The Phororo Principle is worth considering. If we are to accept the argument that the goal of electrification is to raise the incomes and living standards of the poor, then the poor should be given access to electricity first — and without charge.

Do Electrons ‘Trickle Down’?
As S. K. Sarkar and Rakha Krishnan argue in The Economic Times, the theory that grid-based mega-electrification leads to an improvement in the lives of the poor is based on a familiar article of faith: “the trickle-down effect.”

Sarkar and Krishnan note that erecting costly centralized powerplants has a “direct impact on poverty… through employment created during the construction.” But there are downsides: the employment would be short-term and people living nearby would be subjected to long-term “environmental pollution” and “adverse social impacts, such as displacement of people from the project site.”

Sakar returned to the topic in an April 9, 2002 essay for The Economic Times. The article, co-authored with Vivek Sharma, noted that privatizing power in India’s Orissa State had failed to bring electricity to the poor since “the issue of rural electrification and access to disadvantaged groups in urban areas [has] been neglected by private service providers.”

Despite their egalitarian rhetoric, electricity providers are not in business of bringing electricity to the poor. They are in the business of bringing financial returns to their stockholders. Sakar and Sharma cited the case of the US energy company AES which bailed out of an energy project in Orissa last year “citing law and order problems.” AES’s specific objection? The Orissa government’s “lack of political support” for cutting off electricity to poor customers who had been unable to pay their bills.

One article of the Trickle Down Faith is that electricity jumpstarts poor economies by “extending the work day.” But being turned into factory wage-slaves may not be what the poor had in mind when they first were offered the promise of electric emancipation. In addition to the miracle of indoor light bulbs, many citizens of poor nations have also been introduced to the “miracle” of the “graveyard shift.”

And there’s another novelty that is well-known to many residents of the electrified Third World — the “miracle” of recurring power blackouts.

When It Comes to Energy, Only the Sun ‘Trickles Down’
The FAO’s Sustainable Development Department (SDD) looked at the link between electricity and rural poverty and concluded: “Hoping that improvement will ‘trickle down’ from more advanced sectors of the economy or that rural energy poverty can be solved by a ‘technical fix’ is untenable.”

The SDD noted that, in practice, “the costs of electrification were underestimated while its benefits were overstated. By itself, electrification does not guarantee economic development and its benefits tend to accrue to the wealthier groups in electrified areas. This may explain why, despite the spread of electrification, the world’s “Rich-Poor Gap” has only grown larger.

“Switching to more efficient, modern energy systems typically entails an initial capital cost that is beyond the means of rural households, although their running costs may be less than the energy sources already in use.”

World Bark economists Jean-Philippe Tre and Quentin Wodon investigated the question of “fuel poverty” (which they defined as the consumption of less than 2,125 kilowatt hours per year) and whether access to electricity actually reduced the cost of electricity.

Using Guatemala as a test case, the economists found that, while lighting a house with kerosene was only one percent as efficient as using electricity, “the gross price of kerosene is cheaper than electricity.” People were not inclined to use electricity for cooking since propane fuel was equally affordable.

The study confirmed that, as income increased, people abandoned wood burning for propane gas and kerosene for electricity. But with rising incomes, the study reported, “energy consumption also increases.”

Even If You Have Electricity, Can You Afford It?

GRENADA: American culture quickly follows on the heels of Mega-electrification. St. Nick and Rudolph hover over shoppers the sweltering Caribbean sun. Credit: Gar Smith/The-Edge
The symmetry of the Electricity Eradicates Poverty equation quickly breaks down on closer inspection. Sarkar & Krishnan note that even when electricity is made available, this “entails high connection costs.” Without subsidies, the poor will never be able to afford the electricity. And there are other obstacles.

“Lower prices do not ensure consumption,” Sarkar & Krishnan note since acceptance depends “on the willingness of people to accept the solutions thrust upon them by others, sometimes in an unsolicited manner.” Perhaps this explains why, even with government subsidies on kerosene and LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), wood, charcoal and dung are still the dominant fuels in 90 percent of India’s rural homes and 30 percent of its urban households.

The Big Power Barons claim that they want to bring the blessings of electrical energy to the world’s poor. But consider: These are the same people who have failed to make electric power equally available to everyone in their own countries.

In Great Britain, which has enjoyed the benefits of electrification for nearly a century, electrical emancipation has yet to reach tens of thousands of citizens who still shiver through cold winter months in a chronic state of “fuel poverty.”

In the US, the existence of a vast electric grid has failed to lift 34 million Americans out of poverty and access to a wall switch means nothing to thousands of poor and elderly who die each year during hot spells and cold snaps because they cannot afford to pay utility bills.

Within view of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), poor South Africans are warming their uninsulated homes with piles of smoking coal. While the official WSSD delegates dine in comfort, the air in the ramshackle tenements of Johannesburg reek with levels of pollution that are as much as three times higher than what is considered safe.

New York Times correspondent Rachel L. Swarns reported from Johannesburg that, “Even in neighborhoods where families have electricity, the poor rely on coal to keep electric bills low.” As one resident told Swarns, “The smoke, it’s dangerous. But there’s nothing we can do. We have no choice.”

Bush to WSSD: ‘No Goals, No Limits, No Choice’
UNDP’s Sustainable Energy Programme (SEP) has concluded that the solution to Third World poverty does not lie in the Mega-Electrification schemes pioneered by the Industrialized North. Instead the SEP, with the cooperation of the World Bank, is promoting Global Village Energy Partnerships that aim to meet energy needs on the village level, eventually assuring that 400 million people gain access to renewables and other forms of “modern energy.”

Using the world’s poor as the poster children for electrification to promote big-ticket, centralized power projects is a cynical smokescreen that masks the real agenda — the need by powerful multinationals to extend their reach and expand their riches.

That may seem like an extravagant claim, but the charge was tragically validated by the performance of the US and Saudi Arabian delegates to the WSSD. On August 28, the AP reported that the US delegation was laboring mightily to “water down proposals to rapidly expand the use of clean, renewable energy technologies around the globe.” The WSSD had proposed a relatively modest goal of increasing the world’s reliance on renewable energy to 15 percent by 2010. The AP reported that “the United States, Saudi Arabia and other industrialized and oil states were lobbying to eliminate the provision.”

The US, arm-in-arm with the anti-democratic oil monarchies of the Middle East, proposed redefining “renewable energy” to include wood-burning and existing hydroelectric dams. This would have immediately raised the percentage of the world’s current “renewable” energy use to 14 percent. The 15 percent goal could then be attained with a paltry one percent global increase in renewables.

The Bush/Big Oil plan is a prescription for global suicide. The AP correctly focused on the real solution when it reported that “development experts say renewable energy sources would best help poor isolated villages without connections to electricity grids. A windpower turbine or cluster of solar energy panels would generate enough power to illuminate homes, refrigerate vaccines and power water pumps.”

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