During the past year or so, I have been participating in some analytical work done by the World Bank and several other organizations to develop a framework for measuring and improving energy access across the world. By energy access, we refer to a household’s access to enough, safe, and clean energy from basic (lighting, cooking) to productive (agriculture, industry, services) and community (healthcare facilities, schools) needs.

This is how far one can get without being all that controversial (feel free to disagree). Then, it gets complicated. How do we prioritize energy needs? How exactly do we measure access? How do we account for variation in social and cultural preferences? Is energy poverty all that different from conventional income poverty? If so, why?

\There are no clear answers to these questions — and the analytical work I and countless others are doing is very much in progress — but one great place to start is Practical Action’s “Poor People’s Energy Outlook.” It offers a stunning panorama of the difficulties poor people face in their everyday lives with regard to energy. The problem is global, probably of major importance for economic development, and wicked in its complexity.

As a social scientist, I tend to believe that one reason we do not understand the problem very well is the lack of a genuinely global database of the situation on the ground. Various countries have produced datasets on energy, but these are often difficult to compare and rarely available for long time series. One of the things I am going to keep demanding from the rapidly growing energy access community is a global energy access database. Such a dataset would allow policymakers make better decisions on funding and policy priorities. Moreover, a large dataset would allow us to finally begin testing hypotheses about the role of social and cultural factors, as well as national policy, in determining energy access.

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