Power to the masses

Power to the masses

There’s an interesting piece of reading in Oxfam’s latest report on the response to the Sahel food crisis. It’s on electricity. 

When Chad began developing oil in 2003, there was some hope and a little expectation that it might help lift people out of poverty. Money would be poured into schools and hospitals and electricity would be brought to the masses. 

Its two main donors, the World Bank and European Union hoped so too. That’s why they agreed to work with the Chadian government on prioritising initiatives to alleviate poverty, by making oil companies enact strict mechanisms for managing oil revenues.

In the end it came to nought, with the government dismantling the agreed governance system to shift money to the military. It was engaged in an armed rebellion in the east, and needed money fast. 

It would be easy to bash the government for transferring funds. But what government wouldn’t do something similar if faced with a similar threat? Indeed, during World War II Britain spent well over 50 per cent of national income on defence spending.

Either way, economic development in Chad has since remained stagnant.

By one measure, the maternal mortality rate, depressingly so.  

Clockwise from left: Harne Waddaye, aged 60, lives in Louga village, Chad and cares for her 4 children and 6 grandchildren (clockwise from left Matar 8, Khadije 6, Fatime 13, Amne 11, Fatouma 7 and Salamata 6). The village is a collection of mud huts separated by grass fences. Harne holding maize at the Oxfam food distribution point. Harne waiting to receive her allocation of food. Each family receives 34 kilos of maize, 4-5 kilos of beans, 2.25 litres of oil and 0.37 kilograms of salt. In 2005, the maternal mortality rate was 1,100 deaths/100,000 live births. In 2010, the figure hadn’t budged. Photos: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Oxfam. 

Meanwhile in Kenya it dropped from 450 to 360, in Mali from 620 to 540 and in Nigeria from 820 to 630.

Much of this terrible problem could be solved if rural areas had access to electricity. Hospitals could be built and powered, schools funded and even jobs created.

But just 3-4% of people outside Chad’s capital Ndjamena have access to electricity. Chad pumps out over 100,000 barrels of oil a day but people do not see the benefit as they do in countries such as Norway, which by way of comparison pumps 1.5million barrels (and has a maternal mortality rate of 7).

That means 8-9 million people cannot access proper health facilities or have reasonable hope that a company may turn up and set up shop close to them with the promise of work that could raise incomes. 

But it’s not just in Chad that the government has not provided power. All across Africa, governments have systematically failed to provide one of the most essential services of the modern age. According to this recent piece on blackouts in Ivory Coast, Corruption and under-investment mean sub-Saharan Africa's 47 nations produce a maximum of 68 gigawatts of power daily between them – roughly the same as Argentina alone.

This is a shame. Rural electrification has provided enormous benefits to people around the world. In Bangladesh, for example, incomes have risen by up to 30 per cent according to one study. 

Then there is Ireland, which launched its rural electrification scheme in the 1950s. Agricultural output gradually increased and the volume output of livestock and livestock products doubled during the period 1951-70. 

This might not have led to an explosion in commerce. But it did help boost economic development and hold communities together that might otherwise have been utterly decimated by emigration.  

Indeed, when people did get electcirty, the common refrain wasn’t ‘what size fridge’ have you bought. It was “did you get the light”. 

A farmers son could study at night after working during the day, always on the lookout for ways in which he could boost his prospects. 

There is every reason that people in the developing world will do the same. 

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