Measuring the actual value of electricity interventions: what social indicators can tell us

4 April 2018

We are delighted to feature the third and final blog that Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa (pictured below) has written, providing an overview of the research that she has completed during her three month placement on defining social and economic ‘indicators of impact’ that can be monitored and analysed before, during and after the introduction of decentralised energy governance, with Community Energy Malawi and the University of Strathclyde. 


For so long, both researchers and energy practitioners have attempted to quantify the economic benefits of electricity interventions on human and societal development. Typically, such quantification is aimed at providing indices of macroeconomic development to support policy formulation, implementation processes as well as infrastructural deployment at the subnational level. Providing macroeconomic data on the correlation between electricity and development is however only one of the several paths by which the true impacts of electricity on development can be measured. The development of socio-economic and cultural indicators can provide good metrics of measurement as well ¾ as this exposes local and collective expectations on electricity and helps energy practitioners as well as decision makers to understand how electricity becomes integrated into the daily routines of individuals and communities. For rural communities, socio-economic and cultural indicators can provide a clear picture of micro-transformations such as the impact of electricity on girl’s education, domestic violence, cultural aspirations and even income generating opportunities ¾ all which might not easily be captured by big cross-national surveys. Still, over the years researchers have constantly grappled with piecing together evidence on the actual benefits of electricity in rural settings.

In the developing south and mainly in Africa, studies have provided contradictory reports on the socio-economic and cultural impacts of electricity. A common problem is the absence of a generally acceptable quantifiable or measurable indicators. At best, what is mostly observed in the literature is the attempt or use of indicators to measure the sustainability of deployed electricity projects (see ilskog, 2008). While a focus on the sustainability of electricity projects can be instructive to show who benefits, it does not, however, reveal how and at what scale those benefits are transforming the spaces of intervention. Even when sustainability is measured, we are mostly fixated on the analysis of the immediate spillover effects one or two years post-intervention. Typically, when this becomes the basis of evaluation, we are likely to observe positive results as users or beneficiaries are still reeling from the excitement of interacting with these systems. However, a post 5-10 years evaluation would likely reveal static or negative results as issues of maintenance, conflict and ownership would have probably occurred. This cycle of mixed result slows down concrete investment for local electrification projects as developers, investors and policymakers become reluctant in pushing electricity projects that aren't reflective of the "progress" being made.

To address this data lacuna and move from sustainability to social based indicators to measure the impacts of electricity interventions at subnational and rural settings, I propose a three-step approach. First, a synthesis of individual cases of electricity for socio-economic development must be made as this might provide a more robust basis and iterative process for generating social indicators that are broadly generalizable across spatial lines. Second, while we might want a spectrum of broad data baseline to measure the impacts of electricity at the subnational level, it is also pertinent to focus on context-specific data. Here I propose the use of community-generated priority data. Taking this approach allows us to explore energy demand, use and value from a social, political, institutional and cultural realm as this data is largely self-generated by members of the proposed community of intervention. The use of such data would not only serve as a baseline for pre-intervention, it would also serve as a post-intervention tool to help measure whether the deployed electrification project has provided its intended social benefits. This approach is valuable as it will lead to further understanding of why certain social developments materialise in some places than others ¾ thus helping policymakers as well as investors to understand the contextual conditions which underscore successful initiatives while providing insights as to how these successes might be transferred to other places. In addition, relying on such data might reveal how actors within these communities of impact have embedded to promote the uptake of new technologies and which new behavioural and lifestyle changes have emerged post-electrification. Third, it is not enough to generate an exhaustive list of indicators from synthesised cases from the literature and community data, rather this list must be subject to expert and stakeholder evaluation to determine what is measurable, qualitative, realistic, applicable in practice and yet, contextually relevant. This validation process is pivotal in order to promote transparency, rigour and remove room for subjectivity. Tasking experts with the responsibility of aggregating indicators would also likely promote acceptability and operational use of such listed social metrics. Summarily, as pivotal as social indicators on electricity interventions are, their development can be quite challenging due to the extensive empirical work that is required. Moreover, social indicators are not as easily identifiable and quantifiable like macroeconomic variables. Therefore, we not only have to pay attention to how these indicators are generated, but also develop tools and frameworks to better refine them to suit local specificities. 





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