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The Transformative Power of Power


Three years ago, at the 70th United Nations General Assembly session in New York, 193 countries agreed on 17 goals for improving life for people across the globe, especially the world’s poorest, by 2030.  The “Sustainable Development Goals” – or SDGs – range from “Zero Hunger” to “Decent Work and Economic Growth,” and virtually all require significant resources, political will, policy change, and tackling old problems in new ways.

We at The Rockefeller Foundation think the SDGs are solvable. To mark the 73rd UN General Assembly, we asked all of you to vote for the Sustainable Development Goal you believe has the greatest chance of being achieved. The response was overwhelming: we heard from nearly 13,000 people in 164 countries over the span of just over two weeks.

We asked:  What was the number one, most-solvable goal? You answered: “Ending Hunger.”

Many of you wrote in with your own ideas to end hunger: “Taking measures to stop the waste of food among the supply chain of the food industry,” Gisele wrote, from Brazil. “Empowering women with agriculture, nutrition, and financial services and knowledge,” Melanie offered. “Less waste and plant-based diets,” Carol wrote, from the United States.

What SDG do I believe stands the greatest chance of being solved? A recent visit to India convinces me SDG 7, access to Affordable and Clean Energy, is not only solvable, it’s solvable soon. My visit to the rural village of Naratoli, outside the city of Ranchi in the northeastern Indian state of Jharkhand, brought home powerful, actionable truths about what I have come to think of as “the transformative power of power.”

It’s estimated that approximately 300 million citizens in India live without electricity.  That’s roughly the population of the entire United States.  Despite tremendous progress by the government of India to build state utility power lines that extend to even the most remote villages in the country, connections to actual homes – not to mention connections that are reliable and provide a constant source of electricity – are still a major challenge.

The absence of available or reliable power has obvious implications, even to those of us who have always had the benefit of flicking a switch or plugging into an outlet and having light, or heat, or a charged cell phone: Without electric power, you have no ability to work or read after dark. No operable medical equipment that relies on electricity: think x-ray machines, electrocardiograms, or sonograms.  No ability to freeze or refrigerate food to keep it from spoiling. Less obvious are the ways in which an absence of reliable power locks families and whole villages into poverty – and how powering up those villages with enough productive-use power to build or expand their businesses can change the economic circumstance of millions of people in the developing world.

Naratoli is a village of about 10,000 people who are firsthand witnesses to the “power of power.” In this remote farming village, the ability to turn the food they grow into family income was limited by a number of factors:  limited growing seasons, lack of refrigeration to keep crops until market day, and only dirty, diesel-fueled farm equipment to support activities like hulling rice or expelling mustard seed oil.  Enter Mlinda, an energy services company that’s supported by Smart Power India, a subsidiary of The Rockefeller Foundation. With the help of SPI, Mlinda and other energy service companies have delivered electricity to more than 60,000 people across over 150 Indian villages through decentralized renewable energy mini-grids.

During my visit to Naratoli, for example, I met a mother of three who supports her family by incubating chicken eggs in a hatchery attached to the back of her house. Before she had access to energy from a solar mini grid, this mother and business owner had limited and unreliable power sources to keep the hatching chicks light and constantly warm – important conditions for their ability to stay alive and grow. Now, with a steady stream of power from a mini-grid, she’s able to expand her business, increase her chicken crops, pay her electricity bill, and buy medicine.

Power helps businesses expand, and once they do, families have new means to pay for electricity.

The arrival of Mlinda grids in Naratoli debunked a couple myths: first, that there’s not enough economic activity to justify the cost of bringing power to a community without it – the truth is, bring the power and you can create the demand. Power helps businesses expand, and once they do, families have new means to pay for electricity.  The second myth is that rural poor villagers won’t be reliable payers – utilities will lose money if they invest in bringing access to poor rural villages. That’s also untrue. In fact, supplying power to a village is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, with ending energy poverty being integral to bringing people out of poverty itself.

My trip to India and your responses contribute to my prevailing belief that while the challenges we face are steep, they are not insurmountable.

What emerged from your responses again and again were certain core beliefs. Together, you advocated for strong institutions and governance; inclusive and effective politics; economic empowerment; the creative use of new technology; education and training; and care and consideration for the environment.

Reading your responses inspired us. You brought so much energy and interest in tackling the problems facing humanity today, and the optimism that they can in fact be solved. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we are working hard with our partners – public and private – to find lasting solutions.

Thank you for your participation. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

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