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UNlogo.jpgIt's time to declare energy to be a human right.

Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world. 

Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet 1.5 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.

But progress is being made. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, announced that 2012 has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”. 

For those of us who have been fighting energy poverty, this is a big deal.  In fact, this is a big deal for anyone and everyone who cares about clean water, food security, women’s empowerment, healthcare, education, poverty alleviation, and the protection of our global ecosystem, for energy access is a prerequisite for all of the above.

For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community.  Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000.  Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services.   And now, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations has elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General is calling upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.

The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.  

I am happy to see this campaign get underway. But we can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right.  We can make it official!

On what grounds, then, can access to energy be considered a human right, and secondly, to what extent might a human rights platform help to accelerate progress towards the goal of universal energy access?

To find justification for the concept of energy as a human right, one need look no further than to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which has its roots in the same process that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In 1945, the newly established United Nations began drafting a “Declaration on the Essential Rights of Man”, which was split early on into a declaration setting forth general principles of human rights and a convention containing binding commitments.  The former evolved into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was adopted on December 10,1948.

Drafting on the convention continued, but due to ongoing differences among member states on the relative importance of “negative” civil and political rights versus “positive” economic, social, and cultural rights, the convention was eventually split into two separate documents: 1) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 2) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Both drafts were presented to the UN General Assembly for discussion in 1954, and adopted on December 16, 1966.  As of July 2011, the Covenant had 160 parties.

A quick review of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reveals just how essential energy access is to a wide range of socio-economic goals upheld by the ICESCR. Article 11 of the Covenant, for example, lists a number of rights that are essential to achieve a decent standard of living, including access to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement in living conditions”.  Article 12 confers the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant establish the right to work, while Article 13 establishes the right to education.   

While not identified as such, it may be argued that the right of access to modern energy is implicitly conferred by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as it is essential to the fulfillment of many if not most of the articles contained therein. This is precisely the case with the Millennium Development Goals: access to energy, though not included itself, is an absolute prerequisite for achieving each and every one of the MDGs.

With the launching of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the timing could not be better for the assigning of legal status to the right of access to modern energy services.  Doing so would impose obligations on States, both at the national and international level.  A human rights approach to energy access would also help to mobilize the entire structure of the UN human rights apparatus, and empower organizations fighting for rights in other sectors to champion energy access as a key component of their respective agendas.

Let’s take women’s rights, for example, which are not only the focus of Millennium Development Goal No. 3 (“promote gender equality and empower women”) but which are also embodied in a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women.  Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention provides the basis for achieving equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life as well as in the areas of education, health and employment.  According to Article 3 of the Convention, “States Parties shall take in all fields, in particular the political, social, economic and cultural fields, all appropriate measure, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women.”

In light of the above, the question is: how will women’s rights ever be safeguarded if they are the ones who have to walk miles every day to fetch water and fuel? Or inhale the noxious fumes from indoor cooking fires and kerosene lamps? Or give birth in the dark?  

Women surely bear the greatest burden when it comes to energy poverty, and unless and until modern energy services are made available to them, women—especially those in rural areas—will continue to suffer from gross inequalities in their health, education, and economic opportunity.    

Water is another issue that is tightly interwoven with that of energy, but in terms of rights, water has made greater progress.  In fact, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right.  In adopting the resolution, the UN General Assembly expressed deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water, and called upon member states and international organizations to help poorer countries scale up efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.

And yet, access to clean water itself depends upon energy.  For example, the MDG target of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water will require one million electric pumps.  Many types of water purification systems also require electricity to operate.   So in the final analysis, the right to clean water—which underpins a number of other social and economic human rights—is itself dependent upon having access to modern forms of energy.

The same argument can be extended to other sectors as well. Healthcare is an obvious one.  Without access to energy, especially electricity, it is not possible to store vaccines and other vital medicines, or operate a modern healthcare facility.  The concept of health as a human right has made great strides in recent years, and is now championed by a growing number of visionary leaders such as Dr. Paul Farmer, who recognizes and has publically spoken out on the critical importance of modern energy in delivering healthcare services to the poor.

 

The list goes on and on.  Whether it be in terms of gender equality, clean water, healthcare, or any number of other priorities not discussed here (such as food security, poverty alleviation, or protection of the environment), energy access—or the lack thereof—invariably factors into the equation. Since all the Millennium Development Goals, and many of the rights upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ultimately depend upon having access to modern forms of energy, it is time that we declare energy itself to be a human right.

In light of the fact that 2012 has just been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, I cannot think of a better way to strengthen the resolve of the global development community in its efforts to achieve universal energy access.

A human rights platform would provide a strong moral basis as well as an authoritative legal structure by which to pressure governments to provide basic energy services to their people, especially those living in rural and remote regions.  It’s not just about investing government resources, which in the developing world can be quite limited; it’s about creating an enabling environment—in terms of laws, policies, and regulatory frameworks—that will encourage creative partnerships between local governments, civil society, and the private sector to increase energy access for the poor.

Energy is essential for life.  It is essential for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  And it is essential for safeguarding a broad range of basic human rights.  The right of access to energy is, in fact, implicitly conferred by a number of international treaties and conventions, but now the time has come to make such an assumption explicit and formally declare—with the full backing and authority of the United Nations—that access to modern energy is, and shall henceforth be deemed, a fundamental human right.

It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.  In some cases, though, it may also begin with a visit to the district capital to obtain a copy of one’s birth certificate.

As mentioned in a previous post, access to modern energy—while omitted from the initial group of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched by the United Nations in 2000—has gained growing recognition as being a prerequisite for achieving the MDGs. Indeed, the United Nations has even gone so far as to designate 2012 as the “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.

Last month I was invited to participate in “Energy for All: Financing Access for the Poor”, a high-level conference that took place in Oslo, Norway. I was asked to present a case study on our solar-powered drip irrigation model in Benin that has enabled women farmers in the arid, northern part of the country to grow highly nutritious food year-round.

The organizers of the conference also asked if I could bring with me to Oslo a member of the local community in Benin so that he or she could provide a first-hand account of how village life has been tranformed as a result of our project.

I immediately thought of Ms. Ganigui Guera, president of the women’s farming cooperative in Dunkassa—one of two villages in northern Benin where SELF’s Solar Market Gardens have been in operation over the past four years.

Ganigui Guera2.jpg

Ms. Guera, whom we affectionately refer to as “Madame La Presidente”, was my first choice for two reasons: 1) as president of the women’s farming cooperative in Dunkassa, she is a natural leader who can speak authoritatively on behalf of the other women in the community, and 2) she is a strong, dignified woman who carries herself proudly. Such dignity was all too palpable when Madame was featured two years ago in Vu du Ciel, a French documentary about our project in Benin.

Unfortunately, this invitation came with precious little time remaining before the conference. Madame would need to apply for a visa to travel to Norway, a process that normally takes two weeks. But getting a visa, as I found out, was the least of our problems. Madame didn’t have a passport, nor did she have a national ID card, or even a birth certificate. So in order to travel to Norway, she would have to obtain a birth certificate, then a national ID card, then a passport, and finally a visa—all within two weeks!

Against all odds, Madame Ganigui was able to obtain her birth certificate, national ID, and passport in one week, and with support from the Norwegian government as well as Danish embassy in Benin, she was issued a visa just one day before her scheduled flight to Oslo (via Brussels).

Madame had less than 24 hours to prepare for her trip to Europe. Fortunately, our solar technician Zacharie had traveled to Cotonou with Madame, so he was able to assist her with the purchase of essential items such as a suitcase and carry on bag, shoes, and of course, a warm jacket since Oslo would be significantly colder than what Madame was accostomed to.

I arrived to Oslo several hours before Madame, so I was able to pick her up at the airport. Needless to say, I was relieved to see her arrive safely, but I was also dismayed to learn that no one from the airlines had greeted her in Brussels, as agreed to, and escorted her to her connecting flight. I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been for someone who had never traveled abroad or flown before in an airplane. But Madame is a resourceful woman who managed to find the gate on her own.

After checking in to our hotel, we had a buffet dinner and retired for the evening. At dinner, and during subsequent meals in Oslo, it was very interesting to observe Madame experience certain foods for the first time.

The next morning Madame and I attended the opening plenary session which led off with introductory remarks by the Prime Minister of Norway. Thanks to the simultaneous interpreting that was available throughout the conference, Madame was able to listen to everyone’s remarks in French, a language she speaks fluently in addition to Bariba, an African dialect that is spoken widely in the north of Benin.

Later that afternoon I arranged for a brief tour of Oslo. While waiting in the lobby with Madame for our French-speaking tour guide, we had a most fortuitous encounter. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon walked through the revolving front door of the hotel, and suddenly there he was, right in front of us. I siezed the opportunity and quickly introduced the Secretary General to Madame, and told him about the solar-powered drip irrigation model that she has championed in Benin. As Madame La Presidente shook hands with Ban Ki-moon, one of the UN staff photographers took pictures.   

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The next morning, I gave a talk on our work in Benin. After my remarks, I invited Madame on stage for her to share her thoughts with the audience. A bit nervous but resolute, Madame walked up to the podium and began to speak. Her voice was quiet and measured. Everyone listened intently as Madame explained who she was and what she has been doing to help her community improve its food security and climb out of poverty.“Solar energy, Madame affirmed, “has transformed our village”. “Thanks to our new-found ability to pump water from rivers and underground aquifers, we are able to grow food year-round. Not only are we feeding our families, we—the women of Dunkassa—are also earning extra income from the sale of fresh produce, income that we can use to pay for school fees and medical treatment.”

When Madame concluded her remarks, the moderator of our panel captured the general mood and reaction of everyone in the room when he said, “If ever we needed a clearer reminder of why we’re here, I think we’ve just heard it.”

 

Indeed, Madame’s personal testimony was the perfect way to conclude this two-day conference in Oslo. Through her presence, energy poverty suddenly took on a life-like quality that could never be conveyed through a rehearsed speech or powerpoint presentation. Madame was the real deal and everyone knew it. And though Madame’s journey to Norway had been a long and arduous one, it was worth it. Her words, gentle but powerful, will continue to reverberate in the hearts and minds of people who care about energy poverty long after she returns to her native Benin.

Madame is now back in her village, helping to prepare for the dry season which begins this month. But unlike before, when virtually nothing could be grown from November to April, Dunkassa’s drip-irrigated fields will soon be sprouting all kinds of leafy green vegetables—for both consumption as well as sale to market.

And now, Madame knows that her voice has been heard on the world stage, and that the example she is setting in Benin will light the way towards a brighter future for thousands of villagers like her elsewhere in Africa—and beyond.

In April 2009, the French environmental magazine Terra Eco published a story on the Solar Electric Light Fund, SELF and the Empire of the Electifying Sun.” That story grabbed the attention of of Vu du Ciel, a National Geographic - like program hosted by world-renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand

You may have seen or own a copy of Arthus-Bertrand’s stunningly beautiful coffee table book Earth from Above.  Or perhaps you have watched HOME, the documentary about planet Earth (as seen from above) that was filmed and produced by Arthus-Bertrand and made freely available to the world via the Internet.

On November 26, 2009, French television broadcast a 90-minute episode of Vu du Ciel entitled “The End of Oil” which featured SELF’s work in Benin, West Africa. 

Here’s the English-language version of SELF’s segment in the program:

Vu du Ciel from Solar Electric Light Fund on Vimeo.

cop15.pngI’ve just returned from the COP15 talks in Copenhagen.

One of the events I attended was a CNN/YouTube–sponsored debate that featured the following panelists: Yvo de Boer, Exec. Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NY Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman, actor/environmentalist Daryl Hannah, and Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.


Mr. Lomborg, an environmental skeptic, says he believes in the concept of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, but unlike the vast majority of people and organizations who attended COP15, he doesn’t think that cutting carbon emissions is the best approach to dealing with the problem. Instead, he argues, we should invest our time and money helping those who are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of global warming.

In an article (“Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming”) that appeared in the Dec 15, 2009 edition of  the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg states that “money spent on carbon cuts is money we can’t use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/AIDs prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation.”  

While I appreciate Mr. Lomborg’s concern for the poor—and yes, it is true that the world’s poorest citizens will, in fact, suffer the greatest from climate change even though they are least responsible for causing it—I do not agree with his reductionist way of thinking.  It’s the same old false dichotomy of “the economy versus the environment” argument, repackaged in a different form and for a different audience.
 
According to Mr. Lomborg, people who are dying of AIDS or malaria, or who are worrying about how they’re going to get their next meal, could care less about global warming.  That may well be true, but dealing with their individual plights while ignoring the causes simply perpetuates and compounds their problems. He fails to recognize that unless the rural poor gain access to modern energy services, they will have little hope of ever dealing effectively with the host of ills and injustices that plague their lives.

This point was certainly not lost on Tom Friedman who, sitting right next to Bjorn Lomborg at the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, astutely countered Mr. Lomborg’s specious argument with the following remarks:

…every problem Bjorn referred to is an energy problem. The school that has no light, that’s an energy problem. A clinic in a remote part of Africa that doesn’t have the capacity to refrigerate medicines, that’s an energy problem.  These are all energy problems, and if we, the developed countries, take the lead in driving down the cost of distributed energy, we are solving both problems (climate and poverty).

Watch:


Needless to say, I concur with Tom Friedman, and I am also pleased that I had an opportunity to contribute to his thinking on the subject of energy poverty, a topic to which he devotes a full chapter in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I am grateful to Mr. Friedman for having quoted me in his book, and more importantly, for having articulated to a global audience the indispensable role that modern energy must play in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Thanks to Hot, Flat, and Crowded, people around the world are now familiar with the concept of energy poverty.

Had I had the opportunity to interject in yesterday’s CNN/YouTube debate, I would have described to Mr. Lomborg my recent trip to northern Benin, where I witnessed a dramatic improvement in food security thanks to solar power and its ability to pump water for drip irrigation.  Or, I might have cited the example of Dr. Paul Farmer whose organization Partners In Health is now using solar as the primary source of power for its rural health centers in Rwanda, Lesotho and Haiti — where tens of thousands of poor patients are being treated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases.  Or, perhaps I would have mentioned Zwelenqaba High School in rural South Africa, where students are now able to gain computer skills and access information via the Internet thanks to a solar-powered computer lab that was installed last year.

These are perfect examples of how investing in clean, renewable energy for the developing world can not only help mitigate against climate change but also improve the health, education and economic security of some of the poorest people on earth.

At the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, and again in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg calls for an increase in R&D in the cleantech space as the best way to counter global warming.  While I agree that basic research is important, the fact is, a number of renewable energy solutions, including solar and wind, have already benefited over the past couple of decades from dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency.  Solar cells are now being produced for under $1.00 per watt, and new breakthroughs are being announced on a regular basis.  Interestingly, the innovations are being driven by business opportunity as much as anything.

Even without further technological breakthroughs, however, solar energy today represents the least-cost option for generating electric power in parts of the world that are not connected to a conventional utility grid. 

We don’t need to wait any longer before we help those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by enabling them to adopt clean energy solutions in their own lives and communities.

It’s time for a smarterand more holisticapproach to combating climate change.  Let’s turn to the sun to help people and the planet.

Watch the full debate here >>

hopenhagen.jpgI’m lovin’ it”??  There is still hope in Copenhagen. And a sense that our time is running out.  The sincerity of the world’s young people is on full display, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed

copenhagenpeace.jpgThe question I’m raising is: can our governments and our businesses show the same level of commitment?

Earlier, Bishop Tutu had raised the question of how much rich nations are willing to pay poor ones to secure emission cuts.  The point he made is that one we have been making for some time now: the fight against energy poverty must be a global priority.

tutu.jpgOur position is simple: energy is a human right.

A few days ago, Prince Nasheed of the Maldives eloquently invited leaders to join him in signing a pact for the survival of their low-lying coastal countries, instead of a “suicide pact” at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Watch:



Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, announced a plan to deploy clean technology on Monday, and I know SELF can play an effective role in his Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative.

In yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin cites the Solar Electric Light Fund  as an organization with a proven track record of bringing cost-effective solar solutions to poor villages in the developing world. Working with government, industry and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has facilitated solar electricity projects in twenty countries, including Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, China, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Losotho, Navajo Nation, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

We’ve been at it for twenty years.  Here’s what we do:

  • Bring partners and participants together
  • Establish “in-country” joint ventures and “for-profit partnerships”
  • Develop projects with community and local stakeholders
  • Identify options, formalize project design
  • Develop written proposals
  • Design micro-finance mechanisms
  • Provide technical design of photovoltaic systems
  • Procure project equipment
  • Train solar technicians
  • Manage system installation
  • Manage partner relationships
  • Build the capacity of local partners
  • Prepare evaluations and reports

Our goal?

We work to deliver solar power and wireless communications to rural villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

SELF
facilitates a new generation of “whole village” solar electrification projects to power water pumping and purification, drip irrigation, health clinics (including vaccine refrigeration), schools, household and community lighting, and income-generating micro-enterprises that can be scaled up through the private sector or through public/private partnerships.


brightgreen.jpgplanethope_s.jpgBack in Copenhagen, I had the pleasure of meeting Haakon, the Crown Prince of Norway, on Saturday at the Bright Green Expo

The Norwegians are taking Copenhagen very seriously, and are also deeply committed to eradicating poverty in developing nations.

It’s time.  The world has waited long enough.

In early June I traveled to Arusha, Tanzania where I spoke at the Sullivan Summit, a biannual conference that brings together political, business and civic leaders from the U.S. and Africa to focus attention and resources on Africa’s economic and social development.

The gathering was hosted by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, a Washington, DC based organization whose mission was inspired by the late Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, a civil rights leader and social activist who in 1977, while serving on the board of General Motors, developed a code of conduct for companies operating in apartheid South Africa that came to be known as the Sullivan Principles.

Arusha is the gateway to Africa’s tallest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro.  When Tanzania became an independent country in 1964, its first president Julius Nyerere said, “We, the people of Tanzania, would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where it will shine beyond our borders, giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation.”

Arusha is also the point of departure for some of the finest wildlife parks in Africa, including the Serengeti, home to the largest and longest overland migration in the world.

This year’s summit was held at the Arusha International Conference Center, Tanzania’s largest conference venue which also hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, an international court that was set up under the auspices of the United Nations for the prosecution of offenses that occurred during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

My talk, entitled “Energy as a Human Right; Solar Power as a Key Enabler of Sustainable Development”, was very well attended, perhaps too much so as the room was not big enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to listen in. Given the dire lack of electricity in Africa, and the growing interest in alternative sources of energy such as solar, I’m not surprised that my talk at the Sullivan Summit attracted so much interest.

While attending the Sullivan Summit, I met a young lady named Aika Marealle who, together with her father Calvin, founded the Kisongo Academic College, a vocational secondary school for Maasai youth.  Aika took me to visit the school, which does not have electricity.  Upon arrival, I was warmly welcomed by the Maasai students with a song they had prepared just for me.  Not surprisingly, the song lyrics included a special appeal for solar.

As it turns out, Aika’s father Calvin has experience with solar.  In fact, for 10 years he worked at the Kigali Institute for Science and Technology in Rwanda, where -- small world! -- he received training from SELF in solar PV design and installation.  I told Aika and her father that SELF would do its best to help with the provision of solar power at their school.

If we are able to help bring this simple dream to fruition, it will surely be one the most worthwhile things that could have possibly resulted from my traveling to Tanzania and participating in this year's Sullivan Summit.

On Oct. 28, 2005, SELF was honored as a recipient of Chevron's 2005 Conservation Award. Watch this clip of Chevron´s video presentation at the award ceremony >>

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