In a little glass building with a red-brick façade, across from the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, is an intrinsic but relatively unknown component of the United Nations system – the United Nations Foundation. Set up as a public charity in 1998 through a generous $1billion gift from billionaire Ted Turner, the Foundation describes its work as that of connecting “people, ideas and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems.” A dynamic, fast-moving organization, the UN Foundation supports the UN through advocacy, fundraising and developing public-private partnership networks, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the Practitioner Network on Energy Access, without most of the trappings of bureaucratic elephants.
You might think, how much can an organization that is not officially part of the UN contribute to UN efforts? The answer, in short, is a lot. The UN Foundation has close working relationships with the UN Secretary-General’s office and other UN agencies, such as UNIDO and UNDP. In recent years, it has been focusing its efforts on developing global campaigns for the UN on specific issues such as eradication of malaria and polio, as well as problems that adolescent girls face in the developing world. It also runs domestic campaigns such as the Energy Future Coalition and Better World Campaign, the latter aiming to create greater awareness among the US population of the work of the UN across the world.
I spent my summer at the UN Foundation, helping kick-start the UN Foundation Practitioner Network on Energy Access, which brings together some of the most innovative enterprises in the world that are working hard to provide energy access to the world’s bottom two billion. Besides these commercial, social and not-for-profit enterprises, also on the network are multi-lateral organizations, investors and research institutions. These entities are collaborating through this network to highlight barriers to providing universal energy access, to develop a set of recommendations and solutions to address these barriers, and to advocate for the needs of this critical sector.
This sector is critical because, in addressing energy poverty there also lies an opportunity to address climate change concerns, and to support sustainable employment and thriving local communities. Technological advances and innovative financing and business models, including that of the social enterprise, are making possible access to modern, affordable and clean energy to those who have very little of it, or none at all. Read about some success stories here and here.
These efforts are contributing directly to UN priorities, in particular, the 2012 International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and the broader UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which has three specific goals for 2030. These include ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
The Practitioner Network exemplifies the power of connecting people across the world to address what are turning out increasingly to be global development challenges. Admittedly, going into this venture, I was skeptical of the usefulness of such networks and alliances to bring about real change. I mean, shouldn’t these organizations be spending more of their time on doing the actual work than on attending meetings and phone conferences? What I learned, however, is that if set up with the flexibility and dynamic nature of the Practitioner Network on Energy Access, such connections can provide new opportunities for collaboration among investors and enterprises, energy enterprises and technology companies (for example, for mobile payments for energy services), and the various energy sector enterprises themselves.
A lot of work remains to be done in creating electronic platforms for matching funders and enterprises, understanding the development and climate change mitigation impacts that social enterprises can create and whether the nascent social enterprise sector is indeed sustainable itself. It is equally important to ensure that those enterprises not on the Network, particularly ones in developing countries, do not lose out on funding and partnership opportunities. Setting up the Practitioner Network is only the beginning of the global effort towards Sustainable Energy for All.
Himani Phadke is a second year IPS student focusing on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources