Robin Burgess, Michael Greenstone, Nicholas Ryan, and Anant Sudarshan
High-income countries take electricity for granted: people know the lights will switch on twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. In developing countries, nearly a billion people are not connected to the electricity grid, and those who are receive partial and intermittent power supply. We argue that these shortfalls arise as a consequence of treating electricity as a right, rather than as a private good.
By a “right to electricity,” we refer to the social norm that all people deserve electricity regardless of payment. This entitlement has driven universal electrification programs around the world for decades and remains salient in developing countries investing in electrification today. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi writes, “Everyone has a right to a life of dignity. Traditionally, food and shelter have been seen as the most basic necessities. However, the Modi government has gone beyond this core basket of necessities to include even electricity” (Modi 2019). In Bolivia, the constitution itself guarantees a right to universal electricity access, and former President Evo Morales declared that electricity, among other basic services, should “be recognized in international legislation and in national standards in all countries as a fundamental human right of the people in all corners of the planet” (Morales 2012). The UN, under Sustainable Development Goal number 7 (SDG7), has set 2030 as the date by which universal access to electricity should be achieved worldwide. Electrification has been described as a necessary step to achieving other goals, including the goals of poverty eradication (SDG1), enhancing education (SDG4), creating economic opportunity (SDG8), and empowering women (SDG5) (SEFA 2012). The push to universal electrification—irrespective of cost—is global