Going Beyond the Meter for Sustainable, Inclusive Energy Access in South Asia

Women working on water mills in Mangaltar, Nepal.
Women working on water mills in Mangaltar, Nepal.

By Francesco Tornieri

South Asia needs more gender equality and social inclusiveness in the energy sector.

Much of the global energy transition currently underway is driven by Asia’s demand. This presents the region with a unique, perhaps even historical opportunity to move toward a higher level of socioeconomic development dubbed the Asian Century.

The Asian Century, though, must be inclusive. It must not leave behind the poor, women, and disadvantaged groups. Let us not forget that while Asia has experienced remarkable progress in the last few decades, it is also the region where many of the world’s ‘energy-poor’—over 1 billion people without access to electricity, with women comprising the majority—live. Women are also the largest group among those excluded from the benefits of the region’s economic expansion. All this has important implications for the energy sector.

Since I joined ADB in 2009, the importance of energy access for poverty reduction and the nexus between gender equality, social inclusion and energy have led me to engage deeply with the sector, and building strategic partnerships with sector colleagues and practitioners has been my main approach.

Driven by evidence-based research, we have adopted the inspirational motto Going Beyond the Meter to guide our gender mainstreaming approach in energy sector operations. We intentionally selected ‘meter’ to symbolize the static and purely quantitative approach defining energy access debates, and juxtaposed this word with the action-oriented ‘going beyond’ to indicate that maximizing energy access by the poor requires addressing non-physical or non-technical impediments related to poverty, social and gender inequities. Our commitment is to move beyond the meter and identify sustainable, gender- and socially inclusive solutions for greater access to energy resources, services and technologies for all.

Until the 1990s, most energy sector policy and programs in Asia aimed to increase electricity, coal, gas and oil supplies for industrial and urban uses. The energy needs of the poor were overlooked, leaving them with insufficient access to affordable, reliable, clean and safe energy. Gender-differentiated energy needs have also been ignored, and poor women thus endure disproportionate time, physical and health burdens associated with supplying and consuming energy.

In South Asia, we started to address this problem with three energy-related projects in Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka. While gender issues weren’t the specific target of these projects, all three nevertheless did provide benefits for women. The projects helped women save time, created more livelihood opportunities, and reduced their workload as well as their exposure to indoor air pollution from cooking with traditional stoves. They also improved overall safety, security and mobility, maternal health services, and learning conditions at school.

The lessons learned from the three projects informed the design of a JFPR-financed ADB project to support women’s access to clean and renewable energy in Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, implemented in 2012-2015 and considered the first serious attempt to systematically mainstream gender in ADB’s energy portfolio for South Asia.

In all these and other projects related to energy access in our portfolio, we have identified five key issues for gender equality and social inclusiveness:

  1. Affordability. Modern energy services are too expensive for the poor. Public consultation processes—including assessing the willingness of communities to pay a certain price—are not always gender- or socially inclusive. Baseline tariffs, targeted subsidies and schemes, conditional cash transfers, and revolving funds providing cheap credit to connect can help, but these financial and policy instruments must be adapted to better target the poor, women, and disadvantaged consumers.
  2. Health and security. Heavy dependence on traditional biomass fuels adversely affect women more than men, as women are the primary collectors, producers, and users of agricultural waste, animal dung and wood. Exposure to household air pollution from using solid fuels causes 3.6 million premature deaths each year, higher than previous estimates, so we need to do more to prioritize investing in clean and safe cooking energy. The same goes for street lighting to improve women’s safety and mobility.
  3. Economic empowerment. Participation in the energy sector can contribute to increasing women’s economic and social empowerment. A growing number of energy enterprises have begun to employ women as sales representatives to reach consumers at the base of the pyramid with clean cooking and electricity solutions.
  4. Skills development. New energy-intensive industries require a pool of local skilled labor and provide opportunities for women to enter the sector. These opportunities should be identified early, and women trained to operate basic systems operation and maintenance.
  5. User education. Household energy efficiency is of special relevance to women, so user education programs at the household level should complement energy efficiency projects, which are often overlooked or not effectively targeted at women household consumers.

At ADB, the SARD GESI Team continues to search for ways to achieve gender equality and social inclusiveness in the energy sector. We hope to learn new approaches at this week’s Subregional Conference on Inclusive Energy Solutions in Jaipur, Rajasthan.