Does a Lack of Electricity Keep People Impoverished?


SEATTLE — 1.3 billion people around the world lack access to electricity. The same number of people live in what is considered extreme poverty, living on less than 1.25 dollars a day. So what is the connection?

There is not one answer to this question, but one can conclude that a lack of electricity keeps people impoverished. But how exactly it does this varies.

One way a lack of electricity keeps people impoverished is by impeding businesses. Job growth is often impossible when many enterprises such as supermarkets depend on electricity to exist.

Between 60-70 percent of business owners in Sub-Saharan Africa say that a lack of power is the number one factor stunting their growth. Access to global markets is also restricted because businesses must shut down after dark and thus cannot network with parts of the world in different time zones.

As Michael Elliot, CEO of Bono’s nonprofit ONE said, “For us, life does not stop after dark. For 550 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa and many more than that around the rest of the world, it does.”

In developed countries like the U.S. many businesses run well after dark and many people receive an education through attending night school.

For many impoverished people, night school is not a possibility. Night school does not exist in places like Sub-Saharan Africa where 90 percent of all primary schools have no electricity. This means that people who spend all day collecting wood or other household necessities cannot go to school at all. No education keeps people locked in a cycle of poverty with no way to break out.

Furthermore, receiving a poor education keeps people impoverished to the same effect as receiving no education. For example, many students around the world go to school in classrooms that do not have electricity and, therefore, no air conditioning.

While the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety states that it is generally accepted that humans work best at temperatures from 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit some places in Africa can have average temperatures in the 90s.

Working in these conditions is unsafe and leads to confusion and exhaustion and makes learning extremely difficult.

Because schools do not have electricity they also do not have computers. In an increasingly digitized world students without computer access are missing out on a breadth of resources like online news and scholarly journals.

Having these resources is important to keep students and teachers up to date on the latest and best information. It creates a chance to connect their classrooms to the outside world. Becoming computer literate also provides young students with the necessary skills needed for a career.

This is especially relevant in the global market where there is high demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) trained students.

Lack of access to electricity also keeps people impoverished in ways that people in developed countries might take for granted. For example, having refrigerators and stoves is crucial for good health. Without electricity, food cannot be refrigerated or frozen. Buying and storing food in bulk is not an option.

Any food that is not eaten right away goes to waste. Improper storage of food also causes disease and illness such as diarrhea, which kills 2.2 million people around the world every year.

People who cannot access electricity have to cook using biomass fuels on open fires. These fuels, from things such as animal waste, charcoal and wood, are extremely toxic when burned.

This is especially dangerous for women and children in impoverished countries who spend most of their days cooking in poorly ventilated homes. The toxic fumes from burning biomass are responsible for more than 4 million deaths each year. Of those deaths, more than 50 percent are children under the age of five.

The connection between electricity and poverty is complex. One often leads to the other and creates a cycle of poverty. Fortunately, many efforts such as the U.N. and World Bank’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the U.S. Congress’s proposed Electrify Africa Act, aim to solve the electricity problems and power the world by 2030.

If achieved the world will have a more productive and healthy standard of living and raise 1.3 billion people out of extreme poverty.

Celestina Radogno

Sources: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Center for Education in Science and Technology, International Energy Agency, National Geographic, ONE, STEM Education Coalition, Sustainable Energy for All, Time, World Bank, World Health Organization, World Health Organization 2
Photo: Flickr


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