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

June 17, 2018

Solar home systems could be part of the solution for providing electricity to Kobong 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 ramifications of such transformational development, as well as assessing the possibilities for rural electrification, were the objectives of my recent mission to Khammouane province.

As an employee of UNDP’s Global Programme Support, dealing with 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.

A recurring discussion within the global team is around the level of support we can and should provide to national counterparts, and how much we should be involved in the actual design and implementation of project outputs. There is a certain dissidence on this which has not been resolved, despite efforts from all team members.

When I decided to participate in a recent site visit to a rural off-grid community in Lao PDR, I had a strategy about how UNDP would help the government to achieve their Rural Electrification Master Plan and their nationally determined contributions towards the Paris Agreement on climate change. The objective of the site visit was to assess the villagers’ energy needs and the affordability of electricity for these rural communities. The technical details that built the basis for the energy solutions the team presented to local government representatives prior to the on-site visit were provided by a consultant, who had visited the site to pre-assess possible permanent electrification solutions for the target communities.

Despite these preparations, when I arrived to this remote community after a 2-day journey by car and boat, the reality turned out to be very different to what had been described before. The UNDP mission team and government representatives had to go back to the drawing board and develop electrification solutions that best fit the communities’ needs and their challenging socio-economic context.

Confronted with beginning the design process from scratch at this advanced stage of project implementation, I learned two important things: First, that responsible and meaningful development work requires me to be in the field and that I must dive deep into the reality of the communities that we want to serve. Second, that the shifting paradigms of our development work are all about trust and accountability. At the core of this is that we cannot delegate programme design to others. It’s imperative to verify information ourselves. It’s our responsibility to find sustainable solutions together with the affected stakeholders and government partners. Being on site, seeing the reality and deeply understanding the needs and capabilities of the people is a pre-requisite for responsible development work, no matter how long the journey takes. As a matter of fact, such a journey always takes us further than expected. But probing deeper will ensure that we provide the most sustainable solutions for development of the communities – at the same time delivering on our promise to constantly re-examine and renew our approach to development work in times of quickly changing global scenarios.

This site visit also helped me to realize that grant support is not always replaceable with ‘bankable’ private sector driven approaches. It also highlights 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 – no quick, private sector driven, bankable solution can be offered.  

We can proudly present a UN approach that ensures no one is left behind. A very targeted grant support will help those most in need. In the case of these rural communities I visited, solutions include subsidized solar home systems. Receiving electric power, even if small capacities, will help the villagers to familiarize themselves with electrification services that they never had before. In addition, a village development fund will be established, seed-funded by the villager payments for the solar home systems. This fund will help the communities to 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.

It is imperative that our proposals are carefully designed to ensure that remote communities have the ability to absorb new electrification systems without being rushed into financial obligations they cannot meet yet. If this is done successfully, it is evident that energy access can help to slowly transform rural societies, with dignity, towards a green and sustainable development pathway.

About the author
Alexandra Soezer is a Climate Change Technical Advisor at UNDP’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Support Programme.

Follow her on Twitter: @ASoezer

Read our article on possible solutions to providing the villagers with improved access electricity

Read our photo story about Kobong

Check out this video on our field mission to Kobong