Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Donors must respect African ownership of renewable energy initiative

by Brandon Wu | ActionAid
Thursday, 18 May 2017 09:54 GMT

In this 2013 file photo, a boy stands in front of wind turbines at the Ashegoda Wind Farm, near a village in Mekelle, Tigray, 780 km (485 miles) north of Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Kumerra Gemechu

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The African Renewable Energy Initiative is a potential game-changer but much of what makes it unique is under threat

One and a half years ago, the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) was launched at the climate negotiations in Paris. The AREI is a potential game-changer – an ambitious initiative that could genuinely transform how energy is produced and consumed on the African continent, with huge benefits for communities.

Unfortunately, many of the things that make it so unique and exciting are under threat, as France and the European Commission have pushed an agenda that threatens to keep decision-making power, and control over money, in the hands of rich countries. This has prompted over 100 civil society organisations to release a letter today urging respect for the principles at the core of the AREI.

The AREI’s aspirations and significance go far beyond its simple (but ambitious) quantitative objective of creating 300 gigawatts of new renewable energy generation on the African continent by 2030. As stated in its framework document, the AREI aims to increase renewable energy generation specifically to ensure universal access to energy.

Moreover, it recognises that how it reaches its goal is as important as the goal itself. It is based on a slow and steady approach – focused on capacity building, policy frameworks and deeply inclusive stakeholder engagement processes – instead of a project-based approach that aims to deliver short-term results for donors at the expense of long-term impact.

One reason the AREI’s approach differs from so many previous efforts is that it is truly an African-owned initiative, conceived by African climate negotiators and endorsed by African heads of state well before donor countries came into the picture. In a world still dominated by top-down development agendas that are driven by rich-country aid agencies, contractors and NGOs, this is sadly something of a rarity.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. Despite a mountain of experience and evidence that development interventions are most successful when recipients are empowered to decide how money should be spent, rich countries are loath to give up control over "their" money.

Sure enough, at the last board meeting, France and the EU pushed through endorsement of 19 of their own projects, over the objection of several African board members. None of the projects had been evaluated based on AREI criteria. The head of the AREI’s Independent Delivery Unit (IDU), Youba Sokona, had been given hardly any information about the projects, with no time for any kind of evaluation.

Even more to the point, the projects were put forth by Europeans and not by Africans – contrary to the AREI’s African-driven nature. Furthermore, France and the EU angled for seats on the AREI Board, contrary to a common understanding that the Board would have only one representative from developed countries, and also pushed to include European technical experts in the IDU.

In response to these developments, Youba Sokona resigned in protest. Over 200 African civil society organisations wrote an open letter demanding that France and the EU reverse course. Today’s letter from over 100 non-African groups expresses solidarity with the demands of African civil society: that approval of the 19 projects be suspended, that proper AREI governance processes in which African sovereignty is respected by upheld, that full transparency on the nature of donor support for the AREI be provided, and that civil society participation at all levels of the AREI be prioritised.

For the organisations signed on to these letters, the message is clear: the AREI is truly something to be excited about. It is innovative, potentially transformative, and empowers African governments and civil society to control their own destiny rather than relying on rich countries and former colonial powers. But an AREI that is divorced from its current principles is none of these things – it would simply be business as usual. And to be frank, in the world of development and climate finance, business as usual generally means a lack of any real long-term impact.

But this is an easily avoidable outcome: donor governments must simply respect African ownership of the AREI. A great deal of work must be done to ensure the AREI lives up to its potential, but the groundwork has been laid and the initiative is incredibly promising. What’s more, as the two letters from civil society demonstrate, the AREI is no longer hiding in the shadows of the Paris Agreement. The world will be watching, and counting on the AREI to succeed and set an example for how other developing countries can implement renewable energy in a way that meets people’s needs and is accountable to communities, not donors.

Brandon Wu is director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA