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Crucial role of civil society in campaigning for universal energy access

Annette McGill
16 Mar 2016
IIED senior researcher Sarah Best highlights the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in advancing universal energy access.

Sarah Best focused on the role of NGOs and CSOs in helping to deliver energy access at a meeting at the Royal Geographical Society in London in late February (her full speech can be watched in the video above). She said CSOs could play a key role in campaigning for access for energy for all.

The discussion meeting was one of a series of public events designed to bring together experts to focus on key challenges of the 21st century. The event looked at the question of how to provide energy to the estimated one billion people worldwide who live off grid.

Goal seven of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is "to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all". But the UN estimates that one in five people currently don't have access to modern electricity.

Best, who works on energy issues in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group, spoke about the meaning of "energy access" and the key role that NGOs and CSOs can play in driving the energy agenda forward.

What does energy access mean?

She said that for many decades governments had got it wrong in terms of defining energy access. They simply measured whether people had access to a grid connection or an improved cook stove. 

Best said this was a very limited definition of energy access. She said: "It's really important that we understand what energy access is: that is not just about the supply of a technology or megawatts on the grid. Its about what leads to better lives.

"Energy is a means to many different ends. It is a means to better health, it is a means to higher wages, it's a means to improved literacy. If we get the goal right... then we'll find the right solutions."

The role of civil society

​Best said organisations such as NGOs, trade unions and faith organisations could help deliver access in key ways:

  • They were good at understanding people's needs and communicating about new technologies
  • They had expertise about wider social concerns, and
  • They could experiment and take risks where the private sector could not.

Best said NGOs and CSOs could also play an important role in advocacy and campaigning to ensure that governments honoured their commitments: "A measure of the success of the SDGs is whether by 2030 we see the same kind of campaigning around access to energy as we see on HIV/AIDS, women's rights and education."

She added: "The goals and aspirations are fantastic but they are not enough on their own. We really need campaigning and citizen involvement in ensuring that governments make the right decisions in the interests of everyone."

Villagers in Chitral protest about unreliable electricity supplies (Photo: Ground Report, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Best told the audience that IIED was part of a group of NGOs that last year had set up an alliance called the Alliance of CSOs for Clean Energy Access. Their goal was to press governments to be ambitious in the delivery of the SDGs and to create spaces for citizens to engage in policy debates.

Read more

Demanding supply: Putting ordinary citizens at the heart of future energy systems, Sarah Best (2015), IIED Report

Understanding the SDGs: powering goal seven, video interview with IIED researcher Ben Garside about the importance of goal seven and IIED's work on energy access

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