Power to the People: Kandeh Yumkella Shares Strategies for Making Energy Accessible

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Photo Credit: Micaela Ayala V/Agencia Andes. Creative Commons.

When the subject is energy and climate change, Kandeh Yumkella doesn’t hold back.

“Climate change makes it more urgent to take action on global energy systems—otherwise, we are all condemned to climate hell,” the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) says in the new issue of Handshake, the World Bank Group’s quarterly journal on public-private partnerships. Yumkella, appointed co-chair of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative in 2012 alongside World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, sees the inequity of the global economic system through the lens of climate change – “the biggest risk multiplier,” as he calls it, pointing out that those who pollute the least will suffer the most from “business as usual.”

An aversion to “business as usual” pervades his approach to the Sustainable Energy for All initiative – in fact, even his position is new to the UN. But he’s no stranger to the issue of energy poverty and its link to income poverty. For over a decade, he’s been arguing that poor developing countries, particularly those in Africa, can’t achieve their economic targets without access to energy. This belief underpins

SE4ALL’s three goals: to achieve universal energy access, double the share of renewable energy in the global mix, and double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. The SE4ALL post is significant, he tells Handshake, “because suddenly the UN believed we must institutionalize these issues in the context of ongoing development discussions.”

That means a big part of Yumkella’s job now is convincing government officials who may not intuitively understand the link, or make access to energy a priority. These leaders focus on energy for economic growth, so Yumkella makes a point to introduce the social dimensions of energy with data that impacts GDP. For example, he emphasizes the fact that girls in certain developing countries might spend 20 hours per week collecting firewood and water, pointing out that if they had solar powered pumps, it would save enough time that they could do the job and attend school. “This is the way to humanize the energy debate,” Yumkella believes.

Yumkella understands the importance of energy to people’s lives because he has lived without it. As an undergraduate at university in his native Sierra Leone 30 years ago, he led a demonstration against the school administration because it could not provide electricity and hot water to the dormitory. At a recent visit back to the university to commemorate its 50th anniversary, he noticed that the same problems -- lack of lights, lack of clean water supply – still plague students, keeping them from achieving their potential. “Thirty years later, here I am still trying to deal with the same issues,” he says.

But Yumkella also shares with Handshake readers the successful strategies of many developing countries that are bringing access to energy to their people, especially the approaches that can be replicated more widely. He believes that incentives and regulations are important, as well as public policy, because it can create the “enabling environment.” SE4ALL’s progress will be monitored via the

Global Tracking Framework, which puts numbers to each objective, identifies what needs to change, and outlines how progress can be made. Throughout and beyond the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, Yumkella says he will emphasize that sustainable energy for all isn’t just about poor countries: “It’s about you and me living in the first world, doing our share.”



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