Role for renewable energy to address developmental problems

Intellidex philanthropy research manager Zoheb Khan, PhD attended the Learning Event on Deepening REIPPPP’s Community Development Impact on 25-26 February, hosted by the IDC and sponsored by USAID, Synergy Global Consulting and Forethought Africa. It was attended by representatives from across civil society, the private sector and IPPs. He outlines the main themes below.

The major focus of the conference was on why socioeconomic development initiatives (mandated under renewable energy independent power producers’ procurement programme – REIPPPP) matter, and how the independent power producers might go about doing it more effectively.

Fumani Mthembi, MD of Knowledge Pele, gave the keynote address. She sees a clear role for the private sector in piloting and testing innovative community development projects that can be implemented at scale by government.

She says large budgets typically do not encourage trying new, untested ideas in an area that is inherently and unavoidably complex – the development of human beings and their communities. But this requires that the IPPs to do a better job at monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and at demonstrating the impact that their projects are having (or not). Research thus has a crucial role to play.

Other pertinent issues were:

  • Despite the existence of large amounts of funds for socioeconomic development – roughly R2bn a year – this is dwarfed by the budgets of government departments (eg R24bn for the Department of Basic Education) and corporate social investment (roughly R10b a year). Given the smaller scale of projects, a common refrain throughout the two days of presentation and discussion was that collaboration is increasingly important – between IPPs, between IPPs and local government and between the IPPs and the communities in which they operate.
  • A lot of emphasis was placed on the importance of participatory developmental approaches – that development is not something you can do to or for people, but only with their active participation in planning, implementation and M&E.
  • Thuli Dlamini, the social and economic development manager from the IPP Office, concurred with the importance of community participation, especially in the planning process and in the conducting of needs assessments in the area of IPP operations. The IPPs have experienced difficulties in doing this – how does one gauge needs? Or define what a community is and whose interests are representative of the collective? The IPP Office recognises the difficulties in this but says needs assessments, and M&E more broadly, is difficult to standardise. Broad guidelines can be suggested though and they hope to do this in the near future.
  • There is some agreement among the IPPs that M&E is important to foster political legitimacy for the REIPPP programme and to improve the design and effectiveness of their developmental interventions. But there are substantial obstacles to getting this right. The most commonly cited in the conference’s breakaway session dedicated to M&E was in defining indicators. Many indicators exist for the same outcomes and there is uncertainty around which would be most appropriate to use and report on. Which would be best understood by policymakers and the broader public? To what extent are standardised sets of indicators – like the IRIS+ framework developed by GIIN – applicable in the particular contexts of IPP operations? There wasn’t much discussion around the technicalities relating to attributing impact to projects and programmes – this could have been an opportunity to engage with the current debates in development economics around randomisation, evident in the awarding of the Nobel prize in economics to leading randomistas and the ensuing backlash. I believe that engaging in a thoughtful way with attribution could be useful in getting a real sense of whether projects are working or not, and in turn to demonstrate the value of IPPs’ SED work. However, the costs of M&E are off-putting for some IPPs and distract from both core operations and the developmental work itself. There may be some scope here for the IPP Office to provide more support to the IPPs to get this right.
  • Adam Boros from Tshikululu Social Investments outlined some of the alternatives in institutional and financing models that could be employed by the REIPPP trusts – for example, small business funding entities, or the establishment of section 30 trusts (rather than s18a). He also highlighted impact investing and specifically social impact bonds as areas that could see growth in future.
  • Several presenters provided insights from their experiences with working in SED and with trusts about what works and what doesn’t. Neville Gabriel of the Other Trust reiterated the importance of involving communities in the design of SED projects and in trust operations, but cautions against research fatigue: many communities feel over-researched and over-consulted without having experienced any benefits from the interventions that the research relates to. He said that trusts work best when sponsors provide more independence and when they include independent representatives on trust boards. This can promote legitimacy within the communities the trust operates.
  • The head of Trialogue, Cathy Duff, provided valuable insights from her experience of consulting on SED planning in the corporate sector, noting that enterprise development in particular is challenging. How do you stimulate local markets and buying power in the potential consumer base for the supported SMMEs? If supported small enterprises are struggling, is it worth propping them up artificially or is it better to divert these resources to more sustainable endeavours? In some cases, engaging with SED and avoiding retrenchments have become either/or choices – though she doesn’t believe it needs to be this way.
  • A major focus of the second day was the idea that development work needs to engage with the psychological and emotional dimensions of underdevelopment and the legacy of the history of South Africa. In addition, working in communities scarred by unemployment, poverty and violence is emotionally draining and can lead to “compassion fatigue”. These are rarely integrated into planning processes for organisations working in this space and more attention is required, according to the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation’s Nomfundo Mogapi and Camber Coaching’s Kim Ballantine. While it is often regarded as difficult to measure the impact of, for example trauma counselling and psychosocial support as complements to traditional development activities, many activities can be measured quantitatively and others can be assessed in a randomised way (for example, running these services in one project and not in another and comparing more standardised developmental outcomes).
  • A final reflection is that nobody from government outside of the IPP Office and the IDC presented at the conference or seemed to have been in attendance. A message of support from, for example the Department of Energy, National Treasury or the Presidency itself would have been encouraging. Similarly, no indication was given on when the round five bidding window for IPP procurement will open.