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close this book Energy research in developing countries
View the document Acknowledgments
View the document Introduction
Open this folder and view contents Volume 1: Patterns of energy use in developing countries
Open this folder and view contents Volume 2: Energy demand: analysis, management, and conservation
Open this folder and view contents Volume 3: Energy economics
Open this folder and view contents Volume 4: Electricity
Open this folder and view contents Volume 6: Oil and gas
Open this folder and view contents Volume 6: Alternative liquid fuels
Open this folder and view contents Volume 7: Nonconventional energy
Open this folder and view contents Volume 8: Bioenergy
Open this folder and view contents Volume 9: Human energy
Open this folder and view contents Volume 10: Energy planning: models, information systems, research, and development
Open this folder and view contents Volume 11: Energy in Africa
Open this folder and view contents Volume 12: energy in Asia
Open this folder and view contents Volume 13: energy in China
Open this folder and view contents Volume 14: energy in Latin America
View the document Acronyms and abbreviations
Open this folder and view contents Bibliography


David B. Brooks

The Energy Research Group (ERG) was a joint project of the International Development Research Centre and the United Nations University. Conceived in 1981, at the same time as the United Nations

Conference on New and Renewable Forms of Energy, ERG consisted of a panel of 11 scientists from as many developing countries. Because the bulk of energy research was both funded by and carried out in developed countries, ERG chose to suggest how to focus that research more directly on the needs and priorities of developing countries and, if possible, how to shift some energy research to those countries.

The broad conclusions of ERG were published in 1986 (ERG 1986) and fulfilled the two main parts of its mandate, which were to

· Recommend priorities in the conduct and use of energy-related research and present its findings to decision-makers, researchers, and other interested parties, and

· Recommend ways to determine the allocation of resources for energy-related research and ways in which this allocation could be improved, both nationally and internationally.

The preface to Energy Research: Directions and Issues for Developing Countries (ERG 1986) provides a history of the project and a summary of its approach and conclusions.

The two main parts of the ERG mandate were supported by several other elements, which allowed ERG to

· Carry out a thorough review of energy-related research and technology relevant to developing countries,

· Survey the existing and likely capability in developing countries to conduct, finance, diffuse, and use energy-related research and development, and

· Survey energy-related research and technology in developed countries, its relevance to developing countries, the terms under which access was available, and the ways of using this information for the greatest benefit of developing countries.

These three elements of the ERG mandate were essential to its main work. However, they required knowledge of such a wide range of technologies, geographies, and issues that the 11 members of ERG could not hope to know all or even most of what was required. To fulfill these three supporting elements of the ERG mandate, over 100 state-of-the-art reviews were commissioned. The list of authors reads like a "Who's Who" of energy analysis in the 1980s. A full list of these reviews appears in the Bibliography. Copies of the typescript versions of all reviews are housed in a special collection at the IDRC Library.

The final element of the ERG mandate was to

· Disseminate the views of the Group, invite informed opinion, and provoke discussion on the energy-related issues facing developing countries.

This part of the mandate was fulfilled, in part, by the publication of the main ERG report (ERG 1986). As well, 14 additional volumes were published under the general editorship of Ashok V. Desai, a member and the coordinator of ERG. These volumes were organized by subject matter (according to commodity, region, or issue) and contained information from 60 of the original 103 commissioned reviews. In a number of cases, several reviews were combined into a single paper.

All studies were subject to peer review by two, or in some cases three, energy experts. Comments were also received from staff at the World Bank Energy Policy Program and at the Science Policy

Research Unit at Sussex University. In principle, those studies selected for publication were considered by the reviewers and by the ERG panel as methodologically sound and as a contribution to their field. However, some subject areas (notably environment and institutions) were not included.

This book is a one-volume summary of the 14 volumes of research reviews. These reviews, despite their gaps, present a reasonably complete picture of the relevance of energy knowledge to developing countries from the perspectives of the natural and social sciences in the mid-1980s. As such, the book completes the final element of the ERG mandate.

Each chapter in this summary volume represents one of the original 14 volumes. Within each chapter, the main points and conclusions of each review are summarized. The summaries were prepared in 1992 and 1993 by a number of energy specialists under the general direction of Stephen Graham, a consultant to the ERG. They were subsequently edited to their final format by Michael Graham.

Energy specialists may wish to explore the full studies; however, this book should be useful to a wide audience. No attempt is made to summarize the main ERG report, which stands on its own.

Relevance Today

Energy Research: Directions and Issues for Developing Countries was published in 1986. However, for a number of reasons, largely related to communication with globally dispersed authors and copublishers, publication of the 14 commodity-, region-, and issue-oriented volumes was delayed. When they appeared in 1990, interest in the issue of energy had waned considerably, particularly in the North. The issues that had led to the oil-generated energy crisis of 1973 (and the less widely recognized but more traumatic crisis of 1978-1979) were no longer as pressing because energy supplies had grown and sources had become more diversified.

Economic forces also pushed energy to an issue of secondary importance. Income growth lagged behind the optimistic expectations of the early 1980s (throughout the world but notably in developing countries), and, as a result, growth in demand for commercial energy lagged. As well, because large blocks of capital were no longer as readily available, projections that energy investments in developing countries would double from 2 to 4% of gross domestic product (GDP) (World Bank 1983) were not fulfilled. Certainly, energy prices never again reached the levels of 1979. Today, most forms of energy cost little more in real (inflation-free) dollars than they did in the 1960s.

However, these reviews are still relevant because of

· The perspective they offer on the history of energyin-development as an issue,

· The information they contain on energy technologies and options, and

· The gaps that are now evident in both perspective and content.

This threefold relevance is, in some ways, more evident in this single summary volume than it was in either the main report or the 14 separate volumes.


The main ERG report, the 54 reviews published in the 14 volumes, and the remaining unpublished studies represent an important stage in the history of energy analysis. They indicate how energy-in-development was seen by competent and involved scientists from developing countries during the mid-1980s. Notable is the broad shift in perspective that is represented by the three explicit premises on which the ERG study was conducted and the reviews were commissioned (ERG 1986, pp. 1-3). These premises were that

· Energy research must be related to research on the entire economy and society,

· Energy sources must be studied in the context of the demand for them, and

· Energy saving is as important as energy production.

ERG deserves enormous credit for basing its work on these premises, which are, if anything, even more important today than they were when the group was active. The fact that the collection of reviews does not fully live up to the challenge of these premises - energy saving received less attention than energy production, and social issues received much less attention than technical issues - is less relevant than the cast they put over the whole body of work. The work of ERG represented a significant advance over most of what had come before.

The ERG program of work was designed in the early 1980s, at a time when conventional wisdom held that large increases in energy capacity would be needed to power development in the South. Therefore, its perspective on the energy problematique was almost radical. A similar perspective was also emerging in the industrial world, where more and more studies were, implicitly or explicitly, based on the same three premises. However, with the partial exception of "soft energy path" analyses, these studies fell equally short.


Research funding, and to a lesser extent research interest, follows political and economic trends. Because interest in energy as an issue waned during the latter half of the 1980s, funding and interest in energy research slipped. Advances continued to be made, particularly in end-use efficiency and in some new supply technologies (for example, fuel cells). However, for the most part, the reviews commissioned by ERG have stood up remarkably well over the last decade. If they were offered for publication today, they would require little revision to provide an accurate reflection of current methods to assess options for the use of energy research in development planning. In short, the ERG work provides sensible, clear information on such topics as patterns of energy use in developing countries, alternative liquid fuels, and energy in Africa.


Despite the breadth of perspective, and the deliberate look for alternatives, some aspects of the energy-development discussion are missing from the research reviews and, to a lesser extent, from the main ERG report. The two gaps that deserve specific attention are energy and environment, and energy and politics.

Only two of the studies commissioned by ERG could be considered environmental. One was by El-Sayed (Health and Environmental Impacts of Energy Systems), and the other was by Smith and Ramakrishna (Traditional Fuels and Health: Social, Economic, and Technical Links); neither was published. Although some of the other studies did refer to environmental issues, they did so only in passing and without any overall perspective on the nature or extent of environmental impacts resulting from energy use. Much better work on energy and environment was available than is reflected in the research reviews, although little of it was specifically focused on developing countries (for example, Holdren et al. 1980; UNDP 1985).

In the main ERG report, environment does get a fair bit of attention-certainly more than would be expected from its comparative neglect in the research reviews. One must surmise that, in the late stages of their work, the members of ERG realized that

· Environment was a more critical development issue than had been recognized at the start, and

· Energy production and use were among the most serious sources of environmental degradation at the local, regional, and global levels and were closely tied to development problems.

Perhaps, too, the notion that "environment" was more a Northern than a Southern issue had begun to lose the credibility that it unfortunately held for some time after the United Nations conference in Stockholm in 1972.

If environment was neglected as an issue in the ERG reviews, it would appear that politics was deliberately avoided. With the partial exception of some references to women's issues, fuelwood and nuclear proliferation, the role of energy availability as a form of empowerment at the local level was almost totally ignored. Also ignored was the role of large and typically transnational corporations in energy supply at the global level.

There was no discussion of various collective approaches to energy supply and delivery (for example, village-scale electrical cooperatives). Absent, too, were references to workers' actions aimed at the oil industry in Nigeria (for example, Turner 1990) as well as reviews of the ways in which both private and public energy corporations organize to protect their interests. There was also no discussion of the fact that alternative transportation fuels imply not merely different energy systems but also a different distribution of economic gains and environmental losses. In a few cases, political aspects were emphasized. However, these reviews by Peter Hayes, Wereko-Brobby, and a few other analysts were neither published nor cited in the main ERG report.

In the selection of reviews to publish, and in the editing, almost all political discussion was eliminated (for a perspective on Hayes' political views, see Hayes (1981); Wereko-Brobby's views can be found in a number of reports he prepared as Director of Ghana's National Energy Board, for example, Wereko-Brobby (1988)). In contrast to the environment, politics received no greater attention in the main ERG report. It was rather as if the world was seen as a very orderly place, where the only difference between rich and poor nations was that the former were rich and the latter poor-a world in which the politics that linked energy and development could be left safely to nongovernmental organizations (typical examples involving electricity include Goldemberg et al. 1988; Butera 1989; Foley 1990; Geller 1991).

With the benefit of hindsight and of the considerable shift in perspective after the publication of the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987), it is now apparent that the absence of environmental and political aspects weakened the impact of ERG's work. More broadly, it reflects the Group's failure to recognize a still only partially emerging new development paradigm. As Gus Speth said in an address to UNDP staff after he assumed his post as Administrator in mid-1993:

What is this new paradigm? says that development that does not improve the lives of the great mass of the poor has no soul, that development that impoverishes the environment has no vision. It says that development does not occur in a political vacuum but depends both on effective governance and also on the empowerment of the many communities in civil society to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

These were just the areas ignored or downplayed by ERG in what was likely an attempt to constrain the energy-development debate within reasonable bounds and to ensure that South-North consensus would be as strong as possible. The goal was to emphasize the potential benefits of cooperation in energy research, not to focus on the political conflicts implicit in their patterns of development.

Nonetheless, this one-volume overview of the ERG research reviews brings out the merits of the 14 separate volumes. Despite the caveats, the effort represented by the sum of the main ERG report and the reviews was, and is, impressive. For the most part, the work stands up well to inspection nearly a decade after most of the analyses were completed. This is certainly a tribute to the individual researchers, the members of ERG, and the secretariat that managed the process for 4 years.