Getting vaccines (and good health care in general) to all the people who need it depends on connecting remote and rural health centres to renewable energy. And making that happen will require multilateral cooperation, including the United States taking its “build back better” mantra to the global stage.
“Decentralized renewable energy solutions present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable, cost-effective, and tailored electricity services to rural health centres,” argues economist Dr. Kandeh Yumkella in a recent post for the New African. Currently a Member of Parliament in Sierra Leone, Yumkella was previously a two-term director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and founding UN under-secretary-general for Sustainable Energy for All.
And never has there been a better opportunity to build decentralized energy in poor rural communities in the Global South than with the fight to secure and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, Yumkella writes. “A quick geopolitical win for the Biden administration could be democratizing access to vaccines through multilateral cooperation, to reverse the trend of vaccine nationalism.”
To that end, he urges U.S. President Joe Biden to recognize just how much good it could do if his administration stepped up to help—for the world, but also for America itself.
Already, U.S. philanthropists are doing just that, he says, noting a new coalition launched recently in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. With a wide range of heavyweight members from the international government and finance communities, the coalition has pledged to bring life-saving electricity to millions in the developing world.
“One billion people are served by health facilities without access to electricity, and in sub-Saharan Africa, one in four health facilities have no access to electricity,” Yumkella notes.
While multiple big-picture efforts are taking shape to address the problem, their success will depend on the willingness of signatories to open their wallets—ever more so, given the International Energy Agency’s 2020 World Energy Outlook’s findings that electricity access in Africa has begun to decrease again, and that “COVID-19 induced a 30% drop in energy sector capital investments in Africa.”
While the private sector will play an enormous role, all eyes will be on the world’s governments, particularly the most powerful and wealthy nations.
Yumkella cites Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv Shah’s “succinct” assessment that while “aligning public and private investments can allow faster progress in electrifying health facilities and achieving greater economic benefits at the community level,” such progress “will depend on how effectively each nation establishes transparent and predictable enabling policies.”
Meanwhile, aid organizations continue their good work. At the beginning of the pandemic, UK-based SolarAid raised $300,000 to help communities power some of the life-saving services they needed after reporting the dire situation that was developing at remote clinics in Malawi and Zambia.
Such efforts, put on the ground with a coordinated, U.S.-government-backed approach, could prove Yumkella’s argument that “the ‘Build Back Better’ mantra of the new administration could be a beacon to spread prosperity, inclusive growth, and secure global peace and health security in a post-COVID world.”