Year after year, the luminaries of international development, from Bill Gates to Jim Kim, Nick Kristof to Steven Pinker, line up to tell us about the wonderful progress that has been made against global poverty. According to the most recent estimates, published by the World Bank, there were “only” 734 million people living on less than $1.90 per day in 2015, down from 1.9 billion people in 1990.
It sounds like wonderful news. But there is a problem with this narrative. Oddly enough, there is no empirical basis for the $1.90 line. It is an arbitrary threshold that has no grounding in actual human needs. Empirical evidence shows that $1.90 per day is not even enough for people to secure decent nutrition, to say nothing of other basic requirements. In fact, at least 3.5 billion people live on more than this, and yet remain trapped in poverty.
Without a doubt electricity is one of the most vital infrastructures for any development initiative. However, not any type of electricity source is appropriate or sustainable for development, especially in remote areas.
While many of the community members in the rain forests of Borneo have diesel generators that provide some electricity for TV or phone charging, the diesel generator comes with a big down side: it requires constant supply of diesel. Ironically, accessing a supply of diesel is not a considerable challenge for community members, because in the majority of cases diesel is provided for free by logging companies in exchange for easy access to their lands with no regulations, oversight, or whistleblowers. Communities are divided between those who support the logging companies and those who don’t. If you are against their logging activities on your land, you get nothing. If you support them, you get diesel, cash, food, etc.
So what does this mean for renewable energy development? That it is almost impossible to organize such a project within communities that support the logging companies, which perpetuates illegal and unsustainable logging activities in the region. The story of Bruno Manser, a Swiss environmental activist who spent years in Malaysian Borneo fighting against the logging companies only to mysteriously disappear in 2000, still haunts the elders in these communities.