07/01/2013 - 15:05

Village autonomy is not rural romanticism

Tri Mumpuni has discussed how privatization in the Indonesian energy sector has alienated poor people, particularly women, from local resources. Kalpana Sharma has correctly emphasized that poor women's difficulties in obtaining energy for cooking must be addressed if gender equity is to be achieved in the developing world. All three participants in this Roundtable agree that community-centered, renewable energy approaches are a good path toward improving poor women's lives. But what is preventing these energy solutions from being implemented, and what can be done about it?

The problem is that hierarchic, bureaucratic mindsets are usually a more powerful force than is the communitarian egalitarianism underlying alternative, decentralized energy. Hierarchic thinking results in centralized energy systems that marginalize and atomize customers—mostly women trying to run households against long odds—ultimately reducing them to helpless fatalism. But hierarchism's triumph is Pyrrhic. Because the public becomes unwilling to invest in grid expansion schemes, either through bond purchases or tariff increases, utilities find themselves unable to meet growing energy demand. So they abdicate their responsibility to the public through privatization schemes that only make matters worse for the poor and the disenfranchised. Yet the utilities refuse to concede space to alternative energy sources.

Meanwhile, energy solutions such as those proposed in this Roundtable are brushed off as rural romanticism, as ideas unworthy of serious consideration in a modern, urban age. They are derided as small pilot schemes that cannot be scaled up to meet global challenges, as expensive options that cannot compete against centralized approaches with their supposed economies of scale. But there is nothing romantic about alternative energy solutions, or even expensive—as international energy-policy wonks would discover if only they could shed their hierarchic biases.

In fact, the centralized schemes that politicians, hydrocrats, and contractors promote are often supported by so many hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies (not to mention riddled with so many kickback opportunities) that they fail to provide the economies of scale they promise. As a result, they are often far more expensive than alternatives, as was the case with Nepal's notorious Arun 3 hydroelectric project. This scheme was supported by the World Bank, among other international aid agencies, along with Nepal's electricity utility. But activists opposed it because of its excessive costs, which would have been very unfair to Nepal and its poor consumers. The World Bank endured heavy criticism over Arun 3 and aborted the project in 1995. This is just one example of a monopoly utility scheme that, economically and ethically, is inferior to decentralized alternatives.

Among the problems for which the world must brace today are those associated with increasing urbanization. Rural life is tough—and that is why people continue to migrate to cities. The United Nations projects that 64 percent of people in the world's "less developed regions" will live in urban areas by 2050, compared with less than half today. Urbanization on this scale represents a potential catastrophe of poverty, crime, and pandemics. If such a future is to be averted, life in villages must be improved through whatever methods show the most promise, notably the alternative energy approaches discussed in this Roundtable. This is not rural romanticism. This is encouraging village autonomy and protecting people from the horrors of slum life.

An energy agenda for the future should throw its support behind any initiative that shows promise for preventing the rural poor from migrating en masse to urban slums. Policy should build on the demonstrated successes of alternative, community-based energy systems. And alternative energy approaches that seek justice and equity must be given space at the table when energy systems are designed—as a counterbalance to bureaucratic utilities' demonstrated proclivities for control-seeking and the private sector's ruthless profiteering.