The perplexing persistence of the development community’s faith in market-based energy access projects in the global South

Dr Jonathan Balls1

1University Of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia


This paper examines the persistence of support from the development community for delivering energy access through decentralised market-based initiatives as opposed to state-led interventions. This trend continues despite the fact that, in practice, market-based initiatives remain stubbornly subsidy dependent and recent state interventions have had large-scale reach. Over the last two decades, prompted by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and SE4All initiative, there has been a sustained international focus on extending energy access in the global South. International development organisations, looking to support energy access, have primarily directed funding to market-based initiatives that sell energy products to low-income households – most notably initiatives for cookstoves and solar products. A bullish narrative of market-based initiatives being primed to deliver energy to millions has become firmly established. In this paper, we look at recent initiatives for the sale of solar systems and cookstoves in rural India. We examine how, while seeing some success, they have remained reliant upon non-market funding and have struggled to scale-up. We argue that a valorisation of market-based initiatives coupled with suspicion about state interventions and financing is limiting the effectiveness of the development sector’s efforts to support energy access in the global South.


Jonathan is a New Generation Network (NGN) Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. He works on energy, economic and development geography. His research has focused on the off-grid solar power market in North India, bottom of the pyramid capitalism, frugal innovation and entrepreneurship, and electricity market governance in India.

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