The MENA’s Fight Against Climate Change

The MENA’s Fight Against Climate Change

The MENA’s Fight Against Climate Change

A child walks on the dried-up bed of Iraq’s receding southern marshes of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province on August 23, 2022. HUSSEIN FALEH ©AFP

The MENA’s Fight Against Climate Change: Oil-Rich versus Crisis-Riddled Countries

By Dana Hourany

 

The earliest known agricultural civilizations are thought to have started in present-day southern Iraq. Known as the “Fertile Crescent,” the area situated between the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’, witnessed the birth of the earliest known sedentary civilizations on earth.

Mesopotamia, the earliest human settlement in the area, saw the development of agrarian societies, the domestication of animals, thriving agriculture, and the invention of irrigation methods owing to the Tigris and Euphrates’ abundant water supply.

In 2022, the UN Environment Program placed Iraq, which was long considered the “Cradle of Civilization,” as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change.

The effects of climate change have long been most severe in IraqTemperatures have soared to more than 50 degrees Celsius, devastating water resources, food supplies, and agricultural livelihoods and needs.

Although Iraq is one of the MENA region’s most severely affected, environmental scientists and academics warn that if MENA governments continue to be inactive and unwilling to work together to create sustainable mitigation strategies, no country will be spared.

What went wrong?

In the past couple of years, Iraq’s annual rainfall has decreased exponentially causing more drought and structurally denting the agricultural sector.

While reasons vary, solutions are scarce. Upriver damming in Turkiye and Iran has restricted the water flow from the Tigris and Euphrates. Scorching temperatures affect soil moisture and salinization (increasing the amount of salt in the soil) have further degraded the land.

“The water that flows to the southern region is also extremely polluted. By the time it reaches us it is no longer the purified water that flows from the northern mountains of Turkiye. Ours is mixed with sewage, chemical pollutants and trash,” Basra-based researcher Mishtak Idan Obeid told Fanack.

The researcher added that the “diplomatic incompetency of politicians” has exacerbated the crisis since “Iraqi politicians have failed to negotiate with Turkiye and Iran, allowing them to take advantage of our water resources.”

Once a region of luscious greenery and a vibrant community of farmers, landowners and fishermen, it is now at great risk of desertification as farmers abandon their lands in hopes of landing better job opportunities elsewhere.

“This is their livelihood and main set of skills. If they move to urban areas they might not have access to job opportunities which can push them to unlawful activities, compounding local conflicts and putting pressure on an already fragile infrastructure,” environmental climate-security at The Hague’s Clingendael Institute, Maha Yassin told Fanack.

“The responsibility falls on the state to ensure these people are well taken care of to maintain civil security across the country,” she added.

More crisis for the crisis-riddled

Amidst this summer’s heatwave and crippling energy shortages, homes are plunging into darkness as power cuts become the norm in crisis-riddled Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Despite its abundant oil supply, the Iraqi electricity sector has seen years of neglect, deteriorating under the hands of corrupt leaders, according to analysts.

Similarly, cash-strapped Lebanon has been the subject of constant neglect and systemic corruption that crashed its economy and devastated its infrastructure. Unable to provide for itself, Lebanon relies on Iraqi oil imports to avert nationwide blackouts that now plague the country.

Syria’s power infrastructure as well has suffered heavy blows during the 11-year crisis causing frequent electricity cuts. Subsequently, many people in all three countries are turning to solar power to remedy the situation.

Syria’s state electric company has recently completed a 1-megawatt solar power station connected to the electricity grid, located between the central city of Homs and Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Only 50-250 houses will benefit from state solar energy.

Lebanese, on the other hand, are left to fend for themselves as many flock to private companies to purchase solar panels for their houses and businesses. As for the Iraqis, ambitions have been set to generate up to 12 GW of electricity from solar power by 2030, according to the Iraq oil report. However, political stalemate, disputes over payment terms and general political inefficiency have put the plans on hold.

“This is what sets Iraq apart from other oil-rich countries in the Gulf. Political instability and frequent protests push lawmakers to shelve important environmental projects,” Yassin said.

A huge impediment to decent living standards

While the peoples of crisis-affected MENA nations swelter the blazing summer heat, sandstorms add to their woes.

“Families have been going out less and less. People are forced to remain in their houses as if imprisoned and this is mentally taxing. You become easily irritable and unmotivated,” Obeid said.

Physical well-being is also at risk as Yassin puts it, “sandstorms compound pulmonary diseases such as bronchitis and asthma, while water pollution propagates cholera outbreaks and skin diseases.”

No country in the region is immune to climate change, but the effects are unequal and the solutions are unique.

“Climate change was never a top priority for MENA governments. The majority of environmental policies were developed as quick fixes. This has proven ineffective in an area that is prone to climate crises and has unequal mitigation capacities,” MENA Climate Change Expert Achref Chibani told Fanack.

In his 2022 research, “Sand and Dust Storms in the MENA Region: A Problem Awaiting Mitigation,” Chibani states that Gulf countries’ economic and technological advancements facilitate fielding faster and bigger projects to curb the climate’s impact, particularly sandstorms which he believes are only getting worse.

Saudi Arabia for instance is working on the “Saudi Green Initiative” and has invested several billion dollars in developing green belts, while the UAE has invested in new technologies that allow monitoring dust storms through a forecasting system to better prepare for any incoming threats.

Kuwait, on the other hand, reported dangerous air quality levels in some regions without discussing proper mitigation tactics.

Unlike Iraq, which suffers from similar breathing and temperature issues, most Kuwaitis enjoy day-long indoor cooling. Similar to Iraq though, Kuwaiti politicians delay finding solutions as inaction reigns over a comprehensive approach to tackle climate change.

North African countries at risk

According to Chibani’s observations, countries at most risk of climate crises are on the North African belt, while Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan sway behind. He says this is due to crops vanishing from North African fields, as well as threats of fiercer sandstorms, rising water stress, and soaring electric bills.

AlgeriaLibya, and Egypt are also dependent on the hydrocarbon industry and much of their revenue comes from exporting fossil fuels to Europe. Any negative diplomatic differences will therefore wreak havoc on economic security.

Tunisia, meanwhile suffers from limited natural freshwater resources, deforestation, soil erosion and rising sea levels. In addition to ravaging wildfires spread across North Africa and also Lebanon.

“Governments elevating the costs of electricity and water bills might make people more conscious of how much they’re wasting. However farmers need to switch to harvesting crops that consume less water for irrigation to further preserve our resources,” Chibani said.

Divided, we fall

Egypt will host the 27th UN climate Change Conference in November, which encompasses over 40 countries, in hopes of pushing a climate agenda suitable for the MENA’s challenges and needs.

However, Chibani notes that the region lacks environmental research that could contribute to future projects.

Until then, civil society and renewable energy seem to be the most productive remedies. Around 312 NGOs support the MENA’s environmental causes including bio-diversity, conservation, and protection. However, Yassin says that their existence is endangered by state corruption, scarcity of funds, and governmental pressures.

“Civil society groups run the risk of sounding like politicians when employing rhetoric that citizens perceive to be elitist and condescending. There needs to be more work done on climate change messaging for non-Western audiences,” Chibani noted.

Obeid points to the importance of civilian involvement in minute details such as conserving water and maintaining the cleanliness of public areas while keeping in mind that responsibility falls primarily on the governments that are not leading the way for people to follow.

“I estimate that in 30 years the MENA will have less water and more sand threatening its environment. Countries must cooperate, otherwise the whole region is in danger, particularly its poorer communities. Well-off countries need to help the economically vulnerable states to salvage what’s left of the region’s environmental richness,” Chibani said.

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Unlocking Peace Ministry in the Middle East

Unlocking Peace Ministry in the Middle East

All MENA countries, derived from the XIX and early XX centuries, acquired this capability when policing their citizens, identifying any person protesting their government without due process. The same applies to interstate relations where transboundary resources and interests of any kind envenom and more often inflame situations. So, at this conjecture, is it not the opportune time to at least try unlocking a Peace Ministry in the Middle East?

 

Unlocking Peace Ministry in the Middle East: Announcing the Middle East Consultation 2022

 

 

Everything is affected whenever peace is missing. Absolutely everything! Conflict has a way of harming all areas of the human experience. We all know too well the pain and confusion undermining peace throughout our nations, our communities, and our own souls in regrettable ways. It disorients and forces us to grapple with the seemingly overwhelming gravity of sin and the depth of its consequences. For this reason, God really, really cares about peace.

Seeking peace is essential to God’s story for humanity. Scripture demonstrates the extent to which conflict infects a fallen world while also declaring the length God goes for the sake of peace. This didn’t happen without sacrifice; Jesus Christ endured the extreme weight of conflict as he hung on the cross. And it was on this journey to the cross that he shared eternal words with his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). This is a perplexing type of comfort. Jesus is perfectly aware that our hearts will face trouble and fear in an uncertain world, but he assures us that the only kind of peace that can suffice is an otherworldly peace. Because of this, we have hope amid the storms of strife.

It can feel like the Middle East invents ever creative ways to undermine peace as people across the region deal with struggling societies, mounting insecurities, dirty politics, violent factionalism, destructive ideologies, and wave after wave of crisis. The problems fill headlines and reports throughout ceaseless cycles of bad news. Residents struggle through chronic frustration and disillusion, and growing numbers are joining a migration outflow seeking better fortunes in new locations.

Christ followers across the Middle East face their own flavors of conflict. Egypt encounters layers of challenges as churches and Christian groups serve amid rapidly changing times. In Algeria churches struggle to forge faith communities against the grain of a suppressive government. Christians of Iraq continue to navigate decades-long strife while trying to nurture one another and serve their neighbors. In Palestine, occupation and oppression hinder the most basic areas of human life and fuel hardships of many kinds. Sudan’s believers are dealing with rapidly changing political situations after years of regime change and upheaval. And in Lebanon, new layers of crisis pile upon old, unresolved conflicts to destabilize a state and its people. Unfortunately, these are only brief samples of the range of conflict raging across the region. It can all seem so overwhelming, and in the darkest moments cries go out, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10:1).

Though it doesn’t come easily, we must insist on recognizing the profound ways God’s people can and do faithfully minister peace amid challenging situations. Churches, organizations, and individuals of faith are ready vessels for extending Christ’s peace; they possess the potential by the Spirit to alter situations and write new stories for people and places. Is this not what it means to take hold of the peace that Christ leaves? This among the many questions the Middle East Consultation 2022 aims to ask on September 21-23 during Peace I Leave with You: Theories and Practices for Peace Ministry in the Middle East.

Practicing effective peace ministry requires us to imagine peace in ways that conform our thoughts and attitudes to the person of Christ in service of others. Biblically, peace ministry can be understood as the work of unlocking human potential by moving people, communities, and nations into healthier dynamics of shared life. Such outreach proceeds from deep convictions that the gospel is a holistic response to any situation where sin inflicts strife, oppression, hatred, and mistrust- everything antithetical to the restorative work of God.

Paradigms for peace ministry can help us recognize how peace involves multidimensional expressions (peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding) working across levels of the human experience, including the personal, group, and national. The following grid, which MEC 2022 will adopt as a basic working framework, helps conceptualize this dynamic:

National Peacekeeping National Peacemaking National Peacebuilding
Group Peacekeeping Group Peacemaking Group Peacebuilding
Personal Peacekeeping Personal Peacemaking Personal Peacebuilding

Such a framework is helpful, but it certainly cannot convey the complexity of engaging conflict. There are no simple explanations or quick solutions to the problems plaguing the Middle East. Each unique context in the region carries assorted variables that require us to ask a proper set of questions. Worldly logic may say peace is an elusive dream or unattainable ideal, but authentic faith in Christ compels us to take hold of the gospel’s promises of peace as we seek to discover how God is active and alive in the world. Our eschatological hope for the future moves us to action as we relish the words of Isaiah 9:7: There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.

God is working through conflict for redemptive purposes, and everyone has a role to play in this. This means embracing the invitation to partner with God in living out Christ-honoring works of peace and continually exploring new ways to think about the theories and practices of peace ministry.

On September 21-23, the Middle East Consultation 2022 will do just this in the three-day online event Peace I Leave with You: Theories and Practices for Peace Ministry in the Middle EastJoin us for a series of enriching discussions examining the challenges facing the Middle East region and illuminating the hopefulness of peace for the world in and through Christ.

Read Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.

Apply for MEC 2022 today!

MENA countries’ Soft Power Ranking

MENA countries’ Soft Power Ranking

What is the MENA countries’ Soft Power Ranking?  According to the latest Global Soft Power Index 2022, a nation’s ability to influence, whether through attraction or persuasion, the behaviour and preferences of different actors on the international scene, including political regimes, businesses, and communities.  That is nowadays labelled “Soft Power.”

So, here is the MENA countries’ soft power ranking

Certain countries of the MENA suffer from a loss of influence on the international stage. They are dangerously retreating in favour of several small countries that manage to acquire a much more powerful brand image.

The assessment of the strength of the national brand is based, among other things, on data from the “Soft Power Index” as compiled by Brand Finance.

Fifty-five thousand people from more than 100 countries were asked about the reputation of countries and their influence on the international scene.

According to Brand Finance, countries with high overall ratings are suitable for investment. They also have an easier time marketing their brands and products.

Founded in 1996, Brand Finance, an accounting firm touted as the world’s leading independent brand valuation and brand strategy consulting group, is present in more than 20 countries and is at the service of Marketing, Finance, Tax & Legal departments as well as Business Leaders.  It is the first brand valuation US consultancy to join the International Valuation Standards Council, an independent, not-for-profit, U.S.- incorporated, private sector standards organization headquartered in the United States with its social headquarters in London, United Kingdom.

For several years, the Global Soft Power Index (GSPI) has measured the power and influence of all countries worldwide. For this 2022 edition, Algeria has retreated on the international scene to find itself in the 75th position out of 120 countries.

The GSPI considered Algeria less influential than countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jamaica and Malta.

According to the GSPI, Morocco is considered much more influential, ranking 46th globally. Algeria is also far from being able to compete with Egypt, which ranked first in Africa (31st), followed by South Africa (34th).

In the MENA region, Algeria ranked barely 8th among the 15 listed countries, after the United Arab Emirates (15th globally), Israel (23rd), Saudi Arabia (24th), Egypt (31st), Kuwait (36th), and Morocco (46th). Algeria (75th) is only better than Tunisia (76th).

The GSPI 2022 does, at the same time, not include Mauritania and Libya because of their chronic weaknesses that exclude them from this world ranking of the most influential countries.

The UAE is ranked as the top country in the MENA region in terms of global influence; as a small country of fewer than 10 million people located along the Arabian Gulf, it rose to tenth in this new ranking of 120 countries in the world. The UAE is one of the ten most influential and powerful countries worldwide.

Translated from Algerie-Part

 

 

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue

When Reuters reported that Europe is facing a sharp rise in power bills driven by sky-rocketing gas prices, and all governments are looking for convoluted ways of relieving their respective populations from any pains this coming winter, Atlantic Council comes up with why brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue. However, MENA states may be able to meet their green ambitions.  

 

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue. Here’s why.

By Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou

August 25, 2022

Despite the many improvements on many social, political, and economic fronts over the past few decades, there is significant work—in areas such as wasteful and socially unjust fossil fuel subsidies, air pollution and environmental degradation, youth unemployment, and gender inequalities—to be done in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While there are significant inter-country or even intra-country variations regarding some of these issues, from a high-level macro perspective, one can identify strong links between these specific issues in the greater MENA.

$2.27 trillion. This is the amount of explicit fossil fuel subsidies paid by MENA governments between 2010 and 2020. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), MENA economies—led by Iran and Saudi Arabia—accounted for 50 percent of the world’s $4.57 trillion fossil fuel subsidy payments in this period (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Share in total global explicit fossil fuel subsidies between 2010 and 2020 (Percentage)

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue
Source: Data from IEA, author’s calculation. MENA countries in red bars.

127,000. This is the number of annual pre-mature deaths in MENA related to ambient air pollution—around 7 percent of all deaths in the region. An important factor contributing to the region’s air pollution is the wasteful usage of fossil fuels, which is incentivized by massive fossil fuel subsidies in the region (Figure 2). Post-tax estimates of fossil fuel subsidies that take into account explicit and implicit costs—social, health, forgone taxation, and environmental costs—hover around 16 percent of the region’s GDP or about $5.4 trillion for the 2010-2020 period.

 

Figure 2. Change in energy use (kg of oil equivalent) per $1,000 GDP between 1990 and 2014

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue
Source: Data from World Bank, author’s calculations.

62 percent. This is the share of total fossil fuel subsidies households in the top two income quintiles receive in the MENA region. Fossil fuel subsidies are ineffective in reducing poverty and inequality and can, in fact, lead to more inequality and poverty in an economy by shrinking fiscal space of governments, increasing budget deficits, and heightening inflation rates.

According to a 2015 International Monetary Fund study, MENA households in the top quintile received about 40 percent of all fossil fuel subsidies, while only 9 percent of these subsidies reached those in the bottom quintile.

Fifteen out of one hundred. This is the share of MENA’s entire female population that have formal jobs. It must be noted that, in many MENA economies, women’s labor participation and employment in informal sectors are larger than the formal sector. Gender-related inequalities in many MENA countries represent themselves in many forms and have deep roots in the region’s culture. While there are significant inter-country variations—for example, female labor force participation rates between the ages of fifteen to sixty-four range from 6 percent in Yemen, to 23 percent in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and 58 percent in Qatar—overall, the remaining cultural biases against female participation in the labor force and the type of industries and jobs deemed “appropriate” for women to work in have translated to significantly less employment opportunities for women, especially young women, across the region.

Only 10 percent of female youths participate in the formal labor market (Figure 4). Even then, 47 percent of female youth are without a job (Figure 5). In other words, only 5.3 percent of female youths in the MENA region are working compared to 30 percent of male youths (Figures 4 and 5). This is especially worrying, as women’s very low participation rate in MENA’s formal labor force—18 percent for females fifteen and above—has meant that less than half of the region’s adults actively participate in the region’s formal labor market. This creates a significant drag on the economy, especially as the region’s population ages in the next few decades.

 

Figure 4. Labor force participation rates by gender, MENA vs. World (Percentage), 2020.

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue
Source: World Bank.

Figure 5. Unemployment rates by gender, MENA vs. World (Percentage), 2020.

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue
Source: World Bank.

5.7 million. This is the number of net full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs that could have been created in MENA if half of the region’s 2010-2020 explicit fossil fuel subsidies was channeled to the renewable energy sector. Studies show that redirecting $1 million from fossil fuel subsidies towards the renewable energy sector will create five net FTE jobs in an economy. Considering MENA’s immense solar and wind potential, this number is on the conservative side for the region.

Therefore, if only half of 2010-2020 explicit pre-tax fossil fuel subsidies ($1.14 trillion) were directed towards subsidizing the renewable industry in the region, it could have created 5.7 million net jobs in the region over the past decade, according to my calculations. These millions of extra jobs would have been the jobs of the future: all green and the majority in high tech. This would have helped jump-start the region’s high-tech startups, employ the educated and tech-savvy youth of the region, and reduce overreliance on public sector employment. This is critical because, with limited revenues and rapidly rising populations—two-third of the region’s population is below the age of thirty-five—and expenditures, many governments in MENA—especially those in larger countries—have failed to keep up with the growing demands for jobs, resulting in high unemployment rates, especially among the youth.

Channeling all or a portion of fossil fuel subsidies towards the renewable energy sector—also known as brown-to-green subsidy swaps—will not only create much-needed jobs in the region, but will also promote energy efficiency and reduce air pollution and the many costs associated with it, including illnesses and premature deaths. The positive social effects of such massive job creation in MENA’s green and high-tech sector will also be significant. For one, the renewable energy industry is more gender equitable. Available data suggests that, globally, women account for 22 percent of the oil and gas industry workforce, while this number jumps to 32 percent in the renewable energy industry.

This impact would be more pronounced in MENA because almost the entire oil and gas industry in the region is male-dominated. Hence, subsidizing the oil and gas industry simply translates to subsidizing industries that are overwhelmingly male-dominant and less female-friendly, exacerbating and reinforcing the cultural barriers for female employment in the MENA region. Therefore, reducing fossil fuel subsidies and increasing the growth of the renewable energy sector in MENA would translate to even more employment opportunities for young women in the region compared to world averages.

Moreover, reducing fossil fuel subsidies would have tremendous savings for the MENA region in terms of environmental, health, and other implicit costs associated with subsidizing fossil fuel usage. For example, reducing 2010-2020 explicit fossil fuel subsidies by half would have resulted in about $2 trillion in savings for MENA economies—or about 6 percent of the region’s total economic output in 2010-2020.

Poorer households would be the major beneficiary of these savings; studies show that poorer populations depend more on the environment for their livelihood and shoulder the lion’s share of the health, economic, and environmental costs of fossil fuel subsidies.

Thus, in the medium to long run, reducing fossil fuel subsidies will benefit the poor much more than it can hurt them, leading to improvements in MENA’s increasing levels of multidimensional inequality. In the short run, any reforms to fossil fuel subsidies will lead to price increases across the economy, negatively impacting the poor. In response, governments must enact targeted social protection policies that would mitigate negative short-run impacts of fossil fuel subsidy reductions or removals.

To conclude, reforms in fossil fuel subsidies can help address many challenges and could result in many benefits for the MENA region. However, such reforms have faced serious obstacles in the region and have often led to social unrest and public resentment in various countries. Social unrest and violent protests in Iran in November 2019 and Lebanon in 2021 are cases in point. On the other hand, in 2006, Indonesia successfully eliminated most gasoline and diesel subsidies and channeled the resulting savings to finance economic and social development.

Considering their many environmental, economic, and social benefits, following Indonesia’s model of brown-to-green subsidy swaps could help reduce public resistance against such reforms, while also paving the path for a more energy-secure future in MENA and other regions. Of course, this will not be an easy reform process, but leaders in the MENA region must take it seriously and start looking into the details considering the specific political-economic environments of their countries.

 

Figure 6. Potential benefits of reducing/eliminating fossil fuel subsidies

Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue

Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou is a macroeconomist with the GeoEconomics Center and an assistant professor of Economics at the American University in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @AMohseniC.

Further reading

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development, but there are risks, thinks Ben Radley of the University of Bath, UK.  Or is it another story of how a new generation of entrepreneurs will tackle the world’s biggest challenges?

The above image is of the World Bank Blogs

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development – but there are risks

By Ben Radley, University of Bath

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development
The African Energy Commission says expanded access to new, people-centred renewable energy systems will “lift hundreds of millions of people” out of poverty. KRISS75/Shutterstock

 

UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 aspires to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. But in Africa, around 600 million people continue to live without access to electricity. Seeking to reach as many of these people as quickly as possible, African governments are signing agreements with foreign firms to deliver off-grid solar products to millions of households.

British firm Bboxx, for example, has an agreement with the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to deliver solar home systems (SHSs) to 10 million citizens by 2024. SHSs consist of one or more panels, usually installed on household roofs, capable of providing up to 300 watts of power. This is sufficient to power laptops, televisions, LED lights, and – in certain models – refrigerators and cooking.

Underpinning this process is the belief that expanded access to off-grid solar can drive economic development by strengthening household income. According to the African Energy Commission, the process will “lift hundreds of millions of people” out of poverty.

Do these claims stand up to interrogation?

Increased income, increased risk

In a recent study, Patrick Lehmann-Grube, an independent researcher, and I reviewed 56 papers that focused on how access to off-grid solar energy impacts household income in Africa. Initially, the available evidence appears to provide strong support, with almost all the papers finding a positive effect.

This was largely based on the finding that SHSs enabled local stalls and kiosks to stay open longer by operating beyond nightfall. The testimony of a Kenyan fruit and vegetable seller is typical. After the addition of a SHS, she reported being able to add “two more hours of trading each day”. Across the studies, additional work hours allowed household income to increase by around US$20–£40 (£17-£33) per month.

Workers’ greater capacity for self-exploitation

Existing studies generally cite working longer hours as a marker of economic progress. Yet this finding is ambiguous since increased income here is achieved through a greater capacity for self-exploitation. Given the physical limits to the length of a working day, these observed increases can only lead to a limited economic gain.

For economic development to be strengthened and sustained, it must be incorporated into a process of increased productivity. This should be achieved by an increasing output per unit of labour time – not simply via people working longer hours or more people working – and supported by an accumulation of capital.

Existing studies tend not to focus on these dimensions, leaving the true economically transformative nature of off-grid solar products unclear. The low energy capacity of SHSs should, nonetheless, caution against any great enthusiasm that they can generate such transformative economic progress.

Short-term gains, long-term losses?

The shift of energy provision via SHSs away from centralised public governance and towards a privatised model has in many instances also shifted the financial burden of maintenance onto local communities. Several studies noted that the maintenance costs for off-grid solar products often surpass what rural households and communities can afford.

Yet most studies focus on the short-term impact, usually within a couple of years of a household or firm gaining access to off-grid solar. Short-term income gains will prove fruitless in the future, however, should communities be unable to assure maintenance of the equipment.

Several studies also documented the recent introduction of a pay-as-you-go model. The model aims to extend low-wattage solar products to income-poor rural African households, who are often unable to afford the full upfront cost. Already, pay-as-you-go solar firms are beginning to push a range of other products to their clients, such as irrigation pumps and appliance leasing.

This strikes a further note of concern, as studies on financial technology (or fin-tech) services have demonstrated their frequent association with rising indebtedness. Indebtedness constrains rather than liberates households, a process hardly conducive to economic development.

Expanded access to solar power in Africa can stimulate economic development A ground-mounted solar power plant in a small community with a forest in the background.
Mini solar grids are capable of powering entire rural communities or urban suburbs.
Sebastian Noethlichs/Shutterstock

Can off-grid solar still drive economic development?

One solution to the limited economic impact of increased access to SHSs would be to focus on the provision of mini grids. Capable of powering entire rural communities or urban suburbs, research demonstrates that they support a far larger range of activities, extending into productive and industrial use.

Another avenue will be through developing domestic capacity in the design and manufacture of off-grid solar power. This carries the potential to generate productive employment and help stimulate a shift towards industrial development.

Here, Kenya has been a frontrunner through the selective use of strategic industrial policy. Many other countries, such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda, are looking to follow suit.

Existing studies have proved adept at identifying households who appear to have financially benefited from access to off-grid solar through increased income. But they have been less well attuned to the downsides.

Alongside rising indebtedness, these include the more general processes of polarisation, marginalisation and exclusion that inevitably accompany any process of capitalist economic development.

If, as Brazilian economist Celso Furtado once wrote, capitalist development is “a process of reshaping social relations founded on accumulation”, future research would do well to focus on how social relations are being reshaped by off-grid solar expansion – and with what consequences.The Conversation

Ben Radley, Lecturer in International Development, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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