Going closer, probing deeper: My transformative journey to a remote community in Lao PDR

By Alexandra Soezer, UNDP

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Solar home systems could be part of the solution for providing electricity to Kabong village in rural Lao PDR. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/ Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo

How much difference would a renewable energy supply make to rural communities without access to energy and markets? Understanding the implications of such transformational development, as well as assessing the possibilities for rural electrification, were the objectives of my recent mission to Khammouane province in Lao PDR.

As a part of a Global Programme Support Unit on high impact climate change actions, I am providing technical assistance to national project focal points and country offices, with the overall objective of ensuring high quality programme outputs.

Before visiting this rural off-grid community, I had a strategy about how UNDP would help the government to achieve their Rural Electrification Master Plan and their climate commitments (the nationally determined contributions) under the Paris Agreement. The objective of the visit was to assess the villagers’ energy needs and the affordability of electricity for these rural communities.

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Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/ Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo

The technical details that built the basis for the energy solutions were provided by a consultant, who had visited the site previously. However, after a two-day journey by car and boat, the reality of the situation turned out to be very different to what had been described. The UNDP team and government representatives had to go back to the drawing board and develop electrification solutions that were more considerate of the socio-economic challenges the community faced.

While communities desire electricity for lighting, TVs, refrigerators and charging mobile phones, grid connected electricity would require them to pay monthly for their electricity consumption, which would be a big commitment that this community, comprising largely susbsistence farmers without regular income, could not make. Interim solutions will be smaller, subsidized systems such as solar home systems that allow communities to consume electricity without long-term financial commitments.

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Responsible and meaningful development work requires you to be in the field, to visit sites, and to deep dive into the reality of the communities we are serving. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR/ Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo

Confronted with beginning the design process from scratch at this advanced stage of project implementation, I learned several important things: mainly that responsible and meaningful development work requires you to be in the field, to visit sites, and to deep dive into the reality of the communities we are serving. This allows you to gain a real understanding of the needs and capabilities of the people. At the core of this, is the necessity to verify information ourselves, and not to delegate this work. Being on site allows you to identify the most sustainable solutions for development and is a pre-requisite for responsible development work, no matter how long the journey takes — and as a matter of fact, such journeys always takes us further than expected.

This mission also helped me realize that grant support is not always replaceable with ‘bankable’ private sector driven approaches, and highlighted where we as the UN are still irreplaceable: Which business would be able to provide sustainable solutions for subsistence farming societies that have no income, no jobs, and no cash system yet? In such a context, there are no easy solutions that fit the complex socio-economic needs of these communities. We can proudly present a UN approach that ensures no one is left behind and even those with no income can access energy that meets their needs.

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In the case of the rural communities we visited, subsidized solar home systems that familiarize villagers with electrification services they never had before, is one plausible solution. On top of this, a village development fund will be established, seed-funded by the villager payments for the Solar Home Systems. This fund will help the communities identify and develop new skills and roll out new income-generating activities. Proposed solutions include sustainable agricultural processing to sustain their pristine natural habitats, handcrafting for women, and access to new markets, facilitating the generation of stable incomes.

It is evident that energy access needs to be carefully designed to ensure remote communities have the ability to absorb new electrification systems without being exploited, and rushed into financial obligations they cannot meet. With this in mind, well designed energy access can help to slowly guide rural societies, with dignity, towards a green and sustainable development pathway.

About the author
Alexandra Soezer
is a Climate Change Technical Advisor with UNDP’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Support Programme. Follow her on Twitter: @ASoezer

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