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Energy access: lessons to be learned from the MDGs

5 minutes to read

The case of sanitation access policy

The year 2015 is set to be a decisive milestone for global community: new Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are to be announced and global leaders will work on a new agreement to combat the climate change.

Energy access is in a priority focus of both of these development policy initiatives. The latter was also one of the main themes of the Social Good Summit 2014 that took place on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in New York. As the end of the first MDG period approaches, it becomes clear that some of the goals will not be met. Whilst realization of the 7th goal: “Achieve the environmental sustainability” is particularly hard to evaluate, the efforts in terms of health and sanitation were clearly not sufficient to reach their target. The fact that the technology needed to address most of these policy aims does exist and becomes widely available makes this situation all the more regrettable. This is the case not only in the energy access, but also and especially in sanitation access. Therefore this policy field can provide us with valuable lessons, which are to be avoided in the energy access field, where each mistake is much more costly in terms of level of deprivation, money and time.

“But they don’t use it”

A recent study in North India[1] reveals astonishing inefficiency of policy focused solely on supply of sanitation. In aproximately 40% of households with working sanitation, there is at least one member who still defecates in the open. As John Kluge from Toilet Hackers initiative puts it: “you can get people toilets, but they don’t use it”. And they do not share it either: only 7% of households with a working latrine reported that non-household members also use it.

Finally, only 1% of households with no latrine use a community latrine. Efficiency of sanitation access policy thus critically depends on certain underlying social and cultural factors. Without a proper educational approach, supply of sanitation alone may not automatically result in desired health benefits. In the words of Yamini Aiyar, Director of policy research group Accountability Initiative in New Delhi: “People need to be taught the value of sanitation.”[2]

One size does not fit all

Another important element to “connect” with cultural features is the product design and quality. The systematic disuse of working sanitation equipment is to some extent related to its state. Many respondents consider unacceptable to defecate in the same building where they live and eat. Others compare latrines to “scary dark cells”. Finally, preference for going open is for many respondents related to other social habits such as gossiping on their way to forest etc. Therefore the product supplier should not neglect these cultural specificities of his customers’ preferences. As J. P. Piverges from Mpowered puts it, producers should not only offer what they consider as “good enough” for emerging markets, but to adapt at best their products to local needs. Similarly, in the case of energy access, supplier’s focus should be broadened from the energy infrastructure alone to other closely related issues, such as energy affordability as well as reliability of the grid.  

Servicing - a policy tool in itself

 Last June’s fatal accident[3] in Limpopo, South Africa, in which a schoolboy drown in public school toilet, has shown the state of servicing of sanitation equipment which was neglected in a staggering way. However, this case is not to be taken as an exception. The supply of sanitation alone cannot bring its fruits if its continual correct functioning cannot be ensured. The skill of maintenance needs to be developed on the very local level.

This is even truer in the context of energy access. There, the costs of education to ensure the servicing on the local level are significantly higher. At the same time, they have a bigger potential to trigger further societal changes. What if these particular skills were acquired in priority by women? Would this enable to raise their status within their communities. given the crucial importance of the energy supply? As long as particular development policies share their ultimate aim, their bundling could be particularly impactful. It may also ease the investment gap in certain fields and stimulate new forms of cooperation. The latter are key for further progress in realization of MDGs. And beyond. 


  1. ^ Research Institute for Compasionate Economics, Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends (SQUAT) Survey, 2014, http://squatreport.in/#squat
  2. ^ Katikay Mehrotra, “India’s Toilet Race Failling as Villages Don’t Use Them”, in Bloomberg, 3 August 2014http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-03/india-s-toilet-race-failing-as-villages-don-t-use-them.html 
  3. ^ Poloko Tau, “Limpopo promises safe toilets at schools after boy’s death” in City Press, 26 January 2014 http://www.citypress.co.za/news/limpopo-promises-safe-toilets-schools-boys-death/