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High-level political forums, high-level workshops and panels – it seems every year more discussions relating to energy and development are taking place at a high level, with eminent speakers. All very impressive, but does it mean that these conversations result in accelerated progress towards achieving access to sustainable energy for all (SDG 7)?

According to the dictionary, high-level panels or meetings are undertaken by or involve people in ‘very important and powerful positions’, people with high status. The thinking is that if we get those who make decisions to listen to influential, distinguished, esteemed speakers, this will more likely result in actual change.

It is not just me who has observed an increase in ‘high-level’ gatherings. The United Nations University Centre for Policy Research noticed a rise of high-level panels in the UN since the 1990s. They are seen as change management tools, a way to push for institutional and policy reform. In this study, ‘high-level panels’ refer to a group of international leaders assigned with a specific task, operating for a limited duration and presenting their findings in a final report with recommendations for change. But their conclusions apply more widely.

Last week, I was invited to attend the High-Level Workshop about the Africa Energy Outlook, organised by the International Energy Agency (IEA). This workshop brought together leading policymakers, industry representatives, experts, and other stakeholders to discuss the issues confronting African countries as they develop their energy sectors. Keynote speakers included Dr. Fatih Birol (Executive Director IEA), H.E. Dona Jean-Claude Houssou (Minister of Energy, Benin) and H.E. Chakib Benmoussa (Ambassador of Morocco in France).

This event brought together an interesting mix of ‘high-level’ people from governments, donor organisations, financial institutions and companies, with experts from universities and civil society. The IEA received constructive input and suggestions for the findings and messages in their Africa focussed report. The value of the event was further enhanced in the ‘deep dive’ sessions which followed the large plenary.

As a diver, I tend to think of a ‘deep dive’ as a dive underwater at a depth of more than 30m. However, lately the ‘deep dives’ I’ve experienced took place in a meeting room with a group of 30 people maximum. This type of deep dive allows for a thorough examination of a subject, for problem-solving or idea creation.

My IEA Deep Dive dived into the challenge of achieving universal energy access and addressed the solutions required to provide universal access to electricity and clean cooking. Though a useful exercise with frank exchanges about successful experiences and challenges encountered with electrification, the subject of clean cooking was once again last on the agenda, getting too squashed in time to go into the depth of this enormous challenge. There was just enough time to point to the recent study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency PBL on transition pathways towards clean cooking. This valuable study explores various policy options and pathways for a transition in the cooking sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, evaluating their implications for costs, child health, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

The article of the UN Policy researchers concludes that high-level panels should be used more sparingly in order to preserve a tool whose value resides at least in part in its rarity. Of course, we need high-level meetings to ensure that those who make the decisions make the right ones. To put the right policies in place, to make sure money flows to where it is needed most. The importance of SDG7 was recognised in the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2018, where it was reconfirmed in the ministerial declaration. We need other high-level people to follow this lead. 

But we also need a high level of engagement with the people we are trying to help, to learn what it is that will help those people most. My wish for 2019 was that we all listen better to inspiring voices from developing countries, to learn and be inspired to act. Those voices do not need to have high status or powerful positions. We need to listen to those people we aim to support, people living in poverty who fight every day for a better life.

And then we need a high level of commitment from everyone: people in powerful positions, people with money, people with knowledge, people with skills, people with their feet on the ground. We can only achieve SDG7 if we connect all these people and scale up our actions - Together.

Rianne Teule

Senior Advocacy Officer - V4CP (Energy)