For the first time in its nearly 100-year history, Foreign Affairs covered the topic of energy poverty in its new issue. This is an important step in firmly placing the issue of energy poverty into the cannon of geopolitical security and foreign policy. While energy poverty and a lack of access to energy services by billions of people is typically considered, and thus treated, as a development issue, it needs to also be seen as a clear catalyst for unrest and instability, especially in the context of urbanization and youth unemployment. In military parlance, it is both a “threat multiplier” and a “threat instigator”.

As an analogy, consider how the climate community has attempted to make its case for inclusion within the wider security genre as a threat multiplier. Why do this? Well, in the case of climate change, having 15 generals and admirals commenting on the issue widens the audience. It also lends a certain credence that environmental advocates can’t get through typical civil-society and NGO channels. It is high time for the energy poverty community to also use the levers presented by the security apparatus.

Half the world’s population

Energy poverty impacts every aspect of people’s lives; it impinges on freedom. As the Foreign Affairs essay notes, “The economist Amartya Sen has argued that economic development can be achieved only if the poor come to enjoy a set of freedoms including political participation, safety, and economic opportunity.” Access to energy services is a crucial foundation for the safety and security aspects of freedom.

Due to its scale, the issue of energy poverty can be an overwhelming one. It affects about half of the world’s population. The World Bank’s Global Tracking Framework shows that more than 80% of the affected population live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, mostly in rural areas. It also shows that progress is slow and barely outpacing population growth.

Energy poverty affects both lives and economies. Consider emerging-tech hubs in cities such as Nairobi. Without power, or with poor quality power, the internet cannot support the platforms and aspirations of young Africans carving out new careers and innovations. The same is true of businesses and industries that rely on energy services to maintain productivity. To stay operational they have to buy their own generators; nearly 50% of sub-Saharan African companies own or share a generator.

Plenty of oil and gas, but no street lamps

It is clear that we must treat energy poverty not only as a core geopolitical threat, but as a tenet of energy security. The recent Foreign Affairs essay put it this way: “Since 2010, the Kenyan government has improved the electricity supply in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, as part of a programme that targets the areas of greatest social inequality. Providing electricity and modern fuels in the poorest countries can lower the risk of internal unrest and reduce the movement of people across borders.”

The recent discovery of oil and gas in some of the world’s poorest countries and most fragile states further highlights the direct links between energy poverty and security. A prime example comes from Nigeria, where children play in the light of enormous natural gas flares because of a lack of public lighting.

It’s not often, though, that the two issues of energy access and energy security are treated quantitatively together. This is where the Forum’s Energy Global Architecture Performance Index plays an important role. The index has energy access and security placed as one of three pillars, noting: “The supply of energy is subject to a number of risks and disruptions. But energy security is also about relations among nations. Security of supply from trade partners, the risks of energy autarchy and uncertainty over prices – all creating volatility – are critical concerns that must be managed.”

A lack of access to modern, reliable and affordable energy services hinders the aspirations of billions of people, and cripples economies. It, and not the recent drops in crude prices, the stability of OPEC nor the financial viability of traditional utility companies, is the real energy crisis.

Authors: Kandeh Yumkella is a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Electricity. Morgan Bazilian is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Decarbonizing Energy. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors.

Image: A woman sits with her grandchildren at their home on the outskirts of Oaxaca December 8, 2011. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata