Vijaya Ramachandran, a native of Bangalore, India, has been studying and writing about energy and development for more than three decades. In this episode, she discusses the “rank hypocrisy” and “green colonialism” of the rich countries who have said they will quit financing hydrocarbon projects in the developing world, why Africa must develop its vast natural gas resources, how coal is “embedded” in India’s economy, and why “If we just address climate change and ignore poverty, that is completely immoral.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, and welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And my guest today, I’m pleased to tell you is vagina Ramachandran. She is the Director for energy and development at the breakthrough Institute vagina. Many thanks for coming on the podcast. Welcome.
Vijaya Ramachandran 0:23
Thanks so much, Robert. Thanks for having me. And happy new year.
Robert Bryce 0:27
Thank you, Happy 2022 to you. I didn’t warn you. But if you’ve listened to my podcast, guests introduce themselves. So I know you have a long CV. I’ve looked at it. I’m not going to repeat it. But imagine you’ve arrived somewhere and you have less than a minute to introduce yourself, please introduce yourself.
Vijaya Ramachandran 0:43
Thank you, Robert. I am the Director for energy and development at the breakthrough Institute, which is in Berkeley, California. And I work on issues related to energy access in poor countries. I have a long history of working in Sub Saharan Africa, including interviewing businesses in Africa to understand what their constraints are. And I’ve always been told that energy is a huge constraint. So it’s always been a central focus of my work. Well, that’s
Robert Bryce 1:11
a good summary. Well, and that leads right to one of the first things I mean, we met a few months ago, in fact in Sausalito, at the break through dialogue, and I was fascinated by your presentation. But I wanted to start by talking about this piece that you wrote in foreign policy that was published in November, it was titled rich countries, climate policies are colonialism in green. You said at COP 2620 countries went even further pledging to stop all funding for overseas fossil fuel projects beginning next year. It was clear you you’re well, you talked about development and energy. Why does this irritates you so much? What Why is this, as my father used to say, get your why does this get your goat?
Vijaya Ramachandran 1:54
So I think that, to me, you know, this is sort of rank hypocrisy. Basically, the rich countries are using as much fossil fuels as they want. And in the weeks and months since cop 26, every rich country has increased its use of fossil fuels, to meet its heating needs for the winter to meet in the gaps in renewable energy, you know, the wind stops blowing in Europe for the last several months. So coal consumption is up in Europe, every country in Europe is trying to increase its imports of natural gas to meet its energy needs. There is a strong recognition amongst rich countries that they need to meet their citizens demands for energy, that if there are shortages, you know, whether it be in Europe or whether it be in the US, we are going to call for more energy from all kinds of sources. So in the US, for example, President Biden has asked oil and gas producers to step up production, you know, to meet rising prices here, in I think, a couple of weeks after cop, the US government auction the rights to 1.1 billion barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, we have called upon OPEC to increase production. So there is no one set of rules for the rich countries, they can use whatever energy sources, they need to meet demands, and but at the same time, they are imposing another set of rules on poor countries, telling them that they that they are refusing to allow the financing of any kind of fossil fuel production in, in Sub Saharan Africa, in countries that are dependent on international financing. And that really was the main outcome of cop 26. You know, there wasn’t a whole lot more that happened. Other than that pledge, there was some net zero commitments for you know, 2040 and 2050 and 2070. And, you know, who knows him, but that those will be realized, I think it’s relatively
Robert Bryce 4:02
far enough in the future, that it’s certain that they won’t happen, but nevertheless,
Vijaya Ramachandran 4:06
you know, yeah, it’s just it’s always out there in the future, the people who are making these commitments will likely not be in power, you know, at that time, but for poor countries, the the command is to stop producing fossil fuels now. So, you know, the pledge to not finance fossil fuels goes into effect immediately. And at the World Bank, the rich countries, which are the majority shareholders are forcing the World Bank and other multilateral development bank’s, to, quote, align with the Paris Agreement and not do any financing of fossil fuels past 2025, which is, you know, very soon, I find this double standard. You’re doing whatever we like in our own countries, and then imposing these bans on poor countries, the poorest countries, which are also the lowest emitting countries. I find that a form of green colonialism and that’s why I am calling out these countries, I think it’s hypocritical and its colonial and attitude to say, you know, we’ll tell you what’s best for you. While we do whatever we like.
Robert Bryce 5:10
Well, I wanted to follow on that because I mean, no disrespect to you. But other people have made this same kind of observation. And there have been several different. In fact, it was in 2015, I looked it up because I wrote a piece about it for National Review back then, that Arvind Subramanian, who was then India’s director, or advisor on chief economic adviser, wrote a piece that was in the Financial Times I think, if memory serves, and he said that these efforts to stop he was talking about what was happening in Paris now. So this is seven years ago. Now we’re in 2022. He said that these efforts to stop fossil fuel fuel projects in poor countries, quote, smacks of carbon imperialism. And such imperialism on the part of advanced nations could spell disaster for India and other developing countries. So now you’ve said it climate colonialism, energy, colonialism, carbon imperialism? This is all the same, though, isn’t it? I mean, is there? Is there one phrase that I mean, I guess all of them apply. But but it’s all pernicious and of the same cloth? No.
Vijaya Ramachandran 6:10
Agree. You know, I’ve just been, as he’s mentioned, speaking and writing about this for a long time, and he has a piece a couple of days ago, in Project Syndicate where he again, Oh, right.
Robert Bryce 6:21
Yes, I saw that headline, I meant to look at that. I saw the headline but didn’t read the piece.
Vijaya Ramachandran 6:25
Yeah, yeah, again, raises these concerns, you know, and he says that this sort of repackaging of, of development, finance into climate finance, could lead to also sort of a set of financial pathologies as as donors, you know, flood countries with climate financing, which is the sort of the latest fad. But But you are right, these are different ways of expressing the problem. There’s also an op ed in the Financial Times by uzodinma, EB Allah, a Nigerian scholar who argues that this, this type of refusing to finance certain types of energy projects in poor countries is a form of climate, redlining, you know, similar similar to how banks in the United States refused to, you know, lend to African Americans or other ethnic groups. And so he makes that parallel. There are a number of us, Todd moss, the energy for Growth Hub has also been writing about this, you know, there’s a number of us kind of sounding the alarm using slightly different phrases. My fear, Robert, is that this is sort of overwhelmed by, you know, our voices are overwhelmed by the the rich countries priorities, which seem to cater much more to their own domestic environmental constituencies and their own domestic priorities than, you know, what Africans need or what poor countries need, or you know, what the world bank should do. From a development perspective, I think the overwhelming sense of the rich world is that we consume all this carbon, you know, we’ve got all this pollution and all this card, all these carbon emissions, and we’ve got this terrible problem of climate change. And domestically, we are not able to do a whole lot other than technological advances. So we are not able to ban fracking, we’re not able to ban leasing on of oil and gas production on public lands, we’re not able to curb meat consumption, we’re not able to raise up impose a carbon tax or raise prices or anything like that. So then the the politically easy thing to do is to impose these bans on other countries, and make it sound like victory. So you know, amongst the rich countries that signed this pledge at COP, 26, to stop financing fossils in poor countries, there was an enormous amount of self congratulation going on. between the various envoys all congratulating each other, I didn’t see many African envoys or any African envoys congratulating them for this pledge. And when the media covered the story, the quotes were almost always from Western based environmental NGOs endorsing this pledge, not from Africans, you know, not from people who have barely any, any electricity all day long, or are not able to grow food because they don’t have enough fertilizer. We are not hearing those voices. We are hearing the voices of rich, the rich world or people in the rich world, who are, you know, whose consumption needs are met. And for them, the center, we need to cut back this stuff. So, you know, as Todd and I were writing in foreign policy, there’s this fear that black and brown people will destroy our climate ambitions. So you know, let’s stop that before that happens. Let’s stop them from doing that. That seems to be the prevailing view. But I
Robert Bryce 9:47
think you’re right. I think you hit on something that I hadn’t really thought about that in the way that you phrased it, though, that yeah, so it’d be it’s a first way it’s a it’s a first class ticket out of office to say, Oh, yes, you My constituents here, you’re not going to eat hamburgers, and we’re not going to give you gasoline. And you know, this is the way, this is the way to lose your position. But it’s easy to say, Oh, well, we’ll do it over there somewhere else. So that no, no, none of this climate policy is going to affect you. We’ll do it in a way that doesn’t affect you. But will it claim victory? I think it’s a really key insight. Okay, so, name names here for me. Look, you you’ve been at this a long time, you’ve got to, you’ve been at World Bank, you were at the you worked at the UN, you’ve been at the Center for Global Development. Now, your breakthrough? You’ve watched this a long time. So who are the NGOs? Who are pushing this kind of policy? Name? Um,
Vijaya Ramachandran 10:39
no, I would say a very large coalition of NGOs across the rich world. You know, in the US, the big one Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, you know, various other large NGOs. Also, some some of the development NGOs have signed on to this, which I think is unfortunate. And I’ve tried to call them out on this a bit. In Europe, I think, very rarely, very large coalition of NGOs and others in the in the sort of green movement that, you know, I really want energy to be wind and solar only.
Robert Bryce 11:15
And so this made friends in Europe would be friends with the earth in and
Vijaya Ramachandran 11:19
yes, I think things like that, you know, that have both US presence and your presence, many of these NGOs are sort of across the western world. Right. And I think that’s one constituency, I wouldn’t say that’s the only constituency, I think also, there are constituencies, you know, comprised of sort of so called Green parties that have convinced their constituents that, you know, there is a world of wind and solar only, there is a world where all energy must come from wind and solar only. And so I looked at
Robert Bryce 11:48
if I can I interrupt there, because I think that’s that’s a key issue here. Because, you know, I’m assuming you have Indian heritage. And I’ve only been to India once. So I’m no expert. But it’s a very large country with an enormous population. And we traveled in the countryside, and I didn’t see any empty area. I mean, for being such a big country. It’s, it’s very, it’s populated throughout pretty much everywhere in the country. And so this idea that, Oh, there’s a lot of land, this is the bias. And the one that I just I mean, it just grills my cheese, to quote my late brother, John Bryce, that will just build all this wind and solar, well, where exactly are you going to put it? And where exactly are you going to impose? I mean, forget the carbon part of it. But this idea, we’re just going to use wind and solar will the the land, I’ll ask the question, instead of giving you the homily here. Is there enough land in India to make renewables work at scale?
Vijaya Ramachandran 12:46
He has a very, very tough question, Robert, you know, India has made this commitment to increase its solar capacity from the current 44 gig 44 gigawatts to 5700 gigawatts
Robert Bryce 13:01
that 44 gigawatts today, to 5700.
Vijaya Ramachandran 13:05
Watts today to 5700 gigawatts by, I think 2070 is the target. And as you say, you know, land, land issues are paramount. Paramount here to land issues are really significant, both for solar and for wind. And in the rich world. You know, we’re seeing this pushback on wind, that people don’t like looking at winter bins, they don’t want their land being used for winter bins. And I was reading a piece of political this morning that said that in Germany, there’s one or two states that have passed rules that make it virtually impossible to install wind turbines, and the very is one of them. Yeah, very, that’s right. They mentioned Bavaria. So I think, you know, we’ll start to see some kinds of backlash like that. I think some of these targets are really ambitious and very, very hard to realize. And I think it’s it is also the case that from a purely technological perspective, we are not in a world where we are wind and solar only no country is and so to try to impose that on poor countries, I think is immoral and unjust. There are several sectors in which you cannot build things with renewable energy only. And you know, in my various writings, that breakthrough I pointed out the production of cement and steel, which is critical for poor countries building infrastructure needs, it needs fossil fuels, and in particular, it needs natural gas. The production of fertilizer is done most efficiently using natural gas and Africa’s fertilizer use is a 10th of India’s use, and its yields are about a 10th of India’s yields. So there’s enormous room for improvement there but they will need access to cheaply produced fertilizer and that in turn requires natural gas. And then for transformation
Robert Bryce 14:56
may interrupt there because I really I want to explore this because it I’ve written just a little bit, I just touched about it a little bit. But the closure of fertilizer plants that we’ve seen across Europe, because of high natural gas prices, we’ve seen fertilizer plants closing in, in Asia as well shortages of urea, that this, this is the one. Okay, so there are a lot of issues around this renewable only vision. But the one that I keep, I think has not gotten nearly enough attention is the reality that the haber bosch process and turning gas into into ammonia and nitrogen rich ammonia for fertilizer. This is key to the food economy. And so this idea that we’re gonna do without hydrocarbons, ignores the fact that as Alex Epstein puts it very well that hydrocarbons are the food of food. So how might this play out? And then in poor countries, if there isn’t enough fertilizer? We could we see food shortages or just a drastically higher food prices? Have you thought about this much.
Vijaya Ramachandran 15:54
So we see all of that already. You know, we see food shortages in Africa every year, and many African cities are forced to import very costly food. And you also have a high degree of malnutrition, and undernourishment, because food is so expensive and so hard to produce. The Moroccan government has invested a substantial amount of money in producing fertilizer, and Morocco’s parastatal has started to push into African markets, and sell fertilizer to different countries, many African countries are in desperate need of more fertilizer, better produced cheaper produced fertilizer, and there is demand for it. And there is there are sources of production, what we don’t need is for the Western countries to impose natural gas bands, because you as you mentioned, that’s a critical input into the into the production of fertilizers, the haber bosch process. And that’s where I’m trying to kind of push back against the donors. You know, this is not a conversation about Africa wanting to produce more coal, it does not want to produce more coal, but it does want to exploit its natural gas reserves, for food production for the production of industrial inputs for liquefied natural gas for transportation. And if donors decide they don’t want to finance natural gas projects, and try to prevent everybody from financing natural gas projects, that’s basically keeping Africans poor, so that we can claim some sort of victory to our domestic constituencies. It makes no sense from any from any argument. And it particularly doesn’t make sense, because Africa contributes 4% of global emissions. So you know, banning them from fossil fuel production is sort of the most absurd way you can go about things, while increasing rich countries old fossil fuel production, it’s the exact opposite of what you would want, if you were really serious about addressing climate change, you would want to reduce emissions in rich countries. And you would want to allocate any remaining carbon budget to the poorest countries that need these fossil fuels for food production for industrial inputs. What we’re seeing is the exact opposite, because I think the politics dictate that, you know, the politics are such that we are in a greater rush to please environmental constituencies, and this is the fastest, easiest path of least resistance. But I think it’s sort of devastating for poor countries that are trying to become rich,
Robert Bryce 18:25
willing, and you use that word unjust, in those words, unjust and immoral. And I completely agree with you. But I think the other part of the backdrop that I see in Africa in particular is now in Tanzania, Senegal, Mauritania, these massive discoveries, massive discoveries of new gas that that could be developed now, is there going to be enough capital is that well, that’s always a question, right. But if there’s no if there’s no foreign capital available, if Blackrock is saying World Bank is saying the Biden administration is also saying the same thing, I want to we’re going to prevent the financing. Even if it’s, they’ll, as I understand it, from some of these by my bilateral or multi lateral lenders, they’re gonna say, Oh, well, we’ll we’ll we’ll lend to you for LNG import, but we’re not going to lend to you for LNG export or exploitation if I heard this correctly.
Vijaya Ramachandran 19:12
You know, there’s some, there is some interest in in in financing imports, because those imports come from rich countries. The rich countries are the shareholders. And that’s what I picked up on in the foreign policy piece that you mentioned at the start of our conversation. You know, Norway has agreed to increase its natural gas exports by 2 billion cubic meters. To alleviate Europe’s energy shortage. Norway is very happy to increase its exports of natural gas to whoever will buy it at an ever increasing prices. So it will make a lot of money from this current shortage that we are all experiencing. At the same time, Norway is pushing very hard inside the World Bank to prevent the financing of natural gas projects in Sub Saharan Africa. This is green colonialism. You know, this is what I’m kind of trying to call out that, as far as their own interests are concerned, whether it be financial or whether it be satisfying their own Consumers Energy Needs, they’re very happy to export natural gas and produce more natural gas. Norway is the most fossil fuel dependent rich country in the world. 14% of its GDP comes from natural gas, wow, oil and gas exports. Yeah, six to 7% of employment 14% of government revenues from oil and gas. But at the same time, this country, you know, wants to say, in international fora, to look good, really, that, you know, poor countries should not be exploiting these very same resources that it has. And the argument that’s made, Robert, is that, you know, Africans shouldn’t make the mistakes we made? Well, Africans have expanded their production of renewables to a very significant extent, several countries are majority renewable, they are not asking to produce coal, they’re not asking to produce fossil fuels only. They’re asking very reasonably, to be able to exploit their natural gas reserves of which they have an enormous amount of natural gas to meet the kinds of production needs that cannot be met with renewables. That’s what they’re asking for. It’s an extremely reasonable request. And I think, you know, what the rich countries are doing right now is just really very hypocritical. And and they have must be called out for for what they’re doing, I think.
Robert Bryce 21:35
Well, so let’s see, let me step back a moment because I’m very interested in your work in Africa and this issue and how you’re phrasing that and how you’re framing the the issues, but I was looking at your CV, you, you have three degrees from Harvard University, including a PhD. Were you born in India, raised in India in depth at Harvard? Tell me how that happened. I’m just curious.
Vijaya Ramachandran 21:56
Luck, I think, yes, I was born and raised in India, I’m from Bangalore, in South India, right. And when I was in high school, my teachers encouraged me to apply to Harvard. So I did. And that’s how I got in and I got a scholarship to attend. And so that’s when I moved to the US. And then I remained there for my advanced degrees as well. So that’s how that came about.
Robert Bryce 22:23
I’m just curious, because you will, you know, Jennifer Hernandez, who’s now on the board at Breakthrough Institute, and she’s been on the podcast, and I greatly admire she is it talks about green, Jim Crow in California, right, we talked about green imperialism, green, green colonialism. But I’m just curious, because she’s talked about it. I mean, she wrote about that in her own essay about how you ended up in Cambridge. And now you’re in, you know, affiliate and you’re living in California, I guess you’re in San Diego. But I mean, that’s quite a remarkable life path. No, I mean, do you ever think about that, or you talk to your friends and your family in Bangalore and think, Wow, this is it amazing. How did I end up here, as you said, occur to you?
Vijaya Ramachandran 22:59
Yes, I think for those of us who migrated to different parts of the world, you know, very far away from where we grew up, there is sort of a commonality of experience, you know, you grew up in a very different setting, and then you end up career wise and life wise, you know, in a very different place I in in some sense. You know, the Bangalore I was raised in was a small town, it was sort of post colonial, it still had a lot of British architecture and very little going on, beyond sort of regular economic activity. And now, if you go to Bangalore, it’s a bustling town. It’s the hub of India’s IT industry. It’s a very global city. There’s people from all over the world living and working there. There’s very little of its colonial past anymore. It’s got, you know, big gleaming IT companies surrounding the the core of the city, a big international airport. So India has changed a lot as well, over the decades since I’ve been away. And I tried to go back periodically, although I haven’t for a while now. But it is, you know, sometimes you don’t have time to reflect on how much things have changed.
Robert Bryce 24:07
So you’ve been so you came to the US? How long have you been in the US then?
Vijaya Ramachandran 24:12
Now for decades, so long? For decades? Yes. Yes. And Jennifer and I share the history of we both got scholarships to attend Harvard College that that’s something that we share in common Jennifer Hernandez and I she was cultivating one I was constantly the six. Oh, yeah, we were not sure
Robert Bryce 24:31
she called it she called it the golden ticket. But I don’t want to dwell on that but I just thought it was you know, look, I look at my own life and think wow, you know, how lucky I’ve been and how it’s fortunate in so many different ways but I you know, I didn’t go to a different country. I didn’t migrate but but is that part of where your your motivation comes from on these issues that you you come at this from? I think Jennifer Hernandez does as well but comes that your own life experience inform how you view these issues? Is that is that a How would you describe that?
Vijaya Ramachandran 25:01
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s exactly right. You know, the India I grew up in was extremely poor. I mean, there was poverty everywhere, you could not escape it, there was just an enormous amount of chronic malnutrition there were in the city of Bangalore, there were 1000s of St. Kitts, you know, that that lived in really abject poverty.
Robert Bryce 25:24
In your home, when you were growing up, we had electricity
Vijaya Ramachandran 25:26
in my home, you know, I was from a middle class home, we had electricity in the home, but we frequently had power outages, sure, we never went up probably we did not go a week is certainly not a month without significant outages. We also had chronic water shortages, that was just a part of daily life, that water would be available only for a few hours a day. You know, and I grew up without telephone service, that was just something that most households did not have. Back then, I think my perspective is very much informed by the reality that I saw growing up, and also the reality that I see in my fieldwork in Sub Saharan Africa. You know, I’ve spent a couple of decades going conducting fieldwork in Africa, conducting surveys of businesses, trying to understand the constraints that that people face on a daily basis, I think that becomes kind of part of you, it becomes ingrained in, in the way you think, you know, what the what experiences you have the things you see the things you see on the on the sides of roads, the things that you see in people’s homes, the the kinds of daily shortages they have to cope with, whether it be food shortages, or power shortages. in Sub Saharan Africa, the hum of generators is ever present in big cities. And in smaller towns, you know, there are many households, millions of households where you cannot switch on a light bulb. I think these kinds of things you don’t forget. And I think this is what’s very hard to explain to rich country constituencies that you know, what it’s like to not have electricity for several hours a day. You know, Jennifer was saying that the analogy I should use is try to get people to think about not being able to use your phone for several hours a day. You know, she said, people are just so dependent on their phones, right? Oh, take away their phones for four or five hours and see what that feels like. I think that’s the experience that’s lacking in these conversations about how Africans should not be using fossil fuels or that they, you know, the degrowth conversation, for example, that we know we’re growing too much we consume too much, we should consume much less. I think these are informed by kind of the rich world luxuries that we take for granted. That’s a
Robert Bryce 27:43
key point. I think that and I’ve written that some of that is something that rhymes with some of the thoughts I’ve had in some of the writing that I’ve done just that, you know, if you’re rich, and you, you know, never experience shortage, then there’s just this kind of assumption, well, we can just use less well, I don’t waste energy, right? That’s my joke. I’m you know, I don’t waste any energy. I’m sure everyone else wastes energy. And you know, a lot of it that I use the right amount. I don’t I don’t ever waste it. But but let’s let’s shift gears, because I was also attracted to a piece that you wrote in 2015, about Haiti. And then I want to talk about Africa. But I wrote a piece that I published in Forbes just a few days ago about the fact that it was December 12, there were 95 people in Haiti who were burned alive, while trying to collect just a little fuel that had been from an overturned fuel tanker and cap at the end. And that in the United States, the idea that we would go and try and collect gasoline from a wrecked fuel tanker, in fact, last year alone, over 260, human beings around the world died burned alive. In for in Sierra Leone, in Lebanon, in Kenya, it was in Kenya, and then in Haiti. So this idea of extreme energy poverty is unknown in the United States. And yet, so back to your piece, called the deal you’re doing for me to talk.
Vijaya Ramachandran 28:59
Very good. Very good point, Robert. And I think that the I saw your piece, I think the example you used are people trying to collect gas. That’s not something Americans have seen that most Americans have seen
Robert Bryce 29:10
ever think of doing that. The police would be on the scene in a moment saying Get the hell away from here.
Vijaya Ramachandran 29:16
Exactly. And we as individuals will be thinking about our own safety. And you know, the fact that people are willing to risk their lives to collect some some fuel for their families should really demonstrate the extent to which energy is so short and poverty is so great in these countries. I’m glad you use that as an example because it is such a stark contrast to what an American would do if they saw a fuel tanker overturning.
Robert Bryce 29:40
Yeah. And it’s the word that I keep coming back to is this idea. Oh, well, everyone should use less that you know, with these people. How quaint that you say this is how quaint that you’re so comfortable that you think everyone else should use it, buddy. Okay, so back to your piece in 2015. You you the headline was Haiti, where has all the money gone? Well, Where has all the money gone? Then you’re talking about all the development money that has gone into Haiti. Where did it go?
Vijaya Ramachandran 30:05
I think Haiti is, you know, is an example where our development dollars have really just not been spent wisely at all. And we have little to show for it. I think it’s a, it’s a great tragedy all around, I looked at what happened to the money that was sent to Haiti after the 2010 quake, that was the subject of the paper. Haiti’s GDP at the time was about $9 billion. And the amount of money that was allocated after the quake was about $9 billion, about the same as 80s. GDP. 3 billion of it was, I think, US funds, 3 billion was private money. And there was another 3 billion from other sources. And I was trying to track what happened, you know, here’s a country that got the equivalent of its GDP in a day after the quake. And what I found was that basically, there was a sort of a network of international NGOs that absorbed the money. And Haiti is sometimes called the Republic of NGOs, because it is just so filled with international players setting up shop in AD, and they were the first recipients of this money. And they then had subcontractors who then had another set of subcontractors, sometimes three, or four, or five sets of subcontractors. And we I lost track of the money. I simply couldn’t figure out what happened after the first or maybe second level. So a large NGO would get, say 30 million, or 50 million or $100 million. And then they would subcontract to somebody to do the work, who would then maybe subcontract to someone else. But as that money got diluted, you know, each, each player would take some overhead, I could not tell how much money actually got spent on projects. And my sense was that, you know, very little of this was actually reaching the Haitian people, it was sort of getting disbursed in overhead in cars, and drivers and rental homes. And,
Robert Bryce 32:07
you know, not enough people and not enough people building houses. Or they’re actually doing work
Vijaya Ramachandran 32:13
doing work. And certainly not enough locals doing work. You know, it was getting dispersed among sort of this international bureaucracy that had landed in the country. So I was trying to make a plea in that paper to move to local financing, and to move to better tracking. You know, USA ID at the time was not able to track what was happening to all this money that they were sending. They could track the first level they couldn’t track after that. I think they’ve improved their tracking systems. And the current head of USA ID Samantha Power is very keen to do more local procurement. And she has made some statements about engaging locals more if they can pull that off. That would be a huge improvement over what happened and what has been happening in Haiti for decades. But as long as they rely on this international bureaucracy, I think very little change will occur.
Robert Bryce 33:06
Well, I want to follow that up because one of the things and we’ll I’ll ask the question directly. So you’ve also written about Nigeria, in 2020, you wrote a piece about Nigeria and you and it’s in its electric grid, and you wrote this, you said Nigeria’s blossoming tech sector could provide quality jobs for the country’s burgeoning youth population. However, like most industries in Nigeria, it is hamstrung by consistently poor power supply. This will be a first order problem to solve if Nigeria is to reach some ambitions in this space. Well, just a quick personal note, decades ago, I saw a piece on 60 minutes about Nigeria’s power problems. And I saw another piece in 2016, which led to me writing my latest book a question of power. That was the motive. I mean, that was the motivation, I thought, well, what is going on in Nigeria? So here’s the question, how, how closely related is the issue of corruption and poor power systems? But if our electric are bad electric grids caused by poor corruption and poor corruption mean bad power grids? How is that how do you connect those issues?
Vijaya Ramachandran 34:09
Yeah, that’s a that’s an interesting question. And not one that I I’ve done a lot of work on, I will say the Nigeria context. Cost Recovery is a big problem in Nigeria, so the distribution companies do not operate profitably. And so
Robert Bryce 34:26
because so many people steal electricity, that yes, there’s
Vijaya Ramachandran 34:29
like there’s theft of electricity, that is a significant problem. There’s also issues with sort of not being able to price electricity appropriately, and not being able to supply it kind of cheaply enough. That can be I think, some investments made in infrastructure that would enable electricity to be produced more efficiently, and there needs to be a lot of investment in the on the distribution side, including reduction of theft, including tariff setting, you know, better Advice and better guidance on tariff setting, and then improving the capacity of distribution companies to operate efficiently and to be able to build properly. I mean, it’s a very complex story, corruption is a part of it. But I do think that the cost recovery angle is what, you know, external agencies should be helping Nigeria to figure out. I think this these problems are solvable, they have been going on for a long time. That is frustrating. You mentioned yet that you’ve been working on this for a long time, and Nigeria has had a power problem for a very long time. But I do think these problems can be unpacked and can be addressed one by one. But you we do need the external players involved in Nigeria, amongst other things, to be focused on improving the energy infrastructure of Nigeria. Also, we need the governments, the state governments in Nigeria, to to think about distribution carefully and to try to figure out the various problems that plagued the distribution companies discoms. In the Nigerian setting, it’s there’s a whole bunch of things, tapping of lines, you know, not not setting pricing properly, not being able to build companies properly. I remember one time when I was serving some Nigerian companies, everybody was paying a different rate, you know, so these sorts of things need to be need to be sorted out. But it is something that that I think external players can help with, including the US government.
Robert Bryce 36:27
Well, it’s interesting you say that, because I guess I have a different view, which is that for these countries, that they’re going to have to solve these some of these issues themselves, right, that there’s not that foreign countries are not going to be able to solve the corruption problems or go in there and say, No, you have to do it this way that there’s going to have to be some reform within these countries themselves. I mean, was a similar situation we saw in Lebanon, am I? Does that make
Vijaya Ramachandran 36:50
sense? Yeah, I know that you’re right. You’re right. I didn’t I didn’t mean that. I think what what I was thinking was that, you know, if there is an infrastructure program in Nigeria, by these external players, which there is almost everybody has something going on, it would be nice if they could focus on sort of helping the locals unpack these distribution companies. But I do agree with you that these are problems that have to be solved locally, I think there are efforts underway across Sub Saharan Africa to address the profitability, many of these distribution companies are not profitable across the African continent, and there are efforts being made by governments to address these concerns. But these are the concerns that need to be addressed not, you know, not banning fossil fuels, we need to be kind of getting the energy infrastructure to become more solid, more robust, and be up and functioning. That’s really where I would like to see everybody focus their attention.
Robert Bryce 37:43
So well, I just asked that. But if you’re not. So my direct question would be so how big of a problem is corruption in general? I mean, you’ve been working in Africa, yourself, or you said for now, a long time, how big of a problem is corruption in getting more power to the people?
Vijaya Ramachandran 38:03
So you know, I think that that one view is that it’s sort of an overwhelming problem. And that it’s, it’s sort of cross cutting, and it kind of it sort of pervades everything, and then makes problems very difficult to solve. But my own view is that from, you know, from going back and forth to Africa now for three decades, we have seen tremendous improvements across the board. In every aspect of life, Africa is very different now than it was when I first started to do fieldwork, many countries have seen significant progress. My view about corruption is that it’s yes, you do see a lot of corruption in very poor countries. But you do also gradually see over time, improvements in governance, and improvements in state capacity. From a personal point of view, I found it very difficult to identify how that happens. But I do think it happens, I do think state capacity improves and as as incomes go up, and those two reinforce each other. And so we have seen for example, in across many countries in Africa, including in Nigeria, the emergence of a technocratic class, that’s very good. So Africa, Central bankers, for example, now are world class. And in you know, the 2008 financial crisis, they managed it better, I would say that many central bankers in other places. We are we are seeing in governments now, and have for a while now, this technocratic class that has become established that is trying to solve problems that is trying to make countries more democratic. I mean, we do have setbacks. You know, we have currently in Ethiopia and Sudan and so on. A lot of unrest, a lot of conflict, there are setbacks, and there are some states that are stubbornly poor, where we haven’t seen much progress, but in a lot of countries, we have seen improvement in state capacity. So I don’t see corruption as a fixed thing. I don’t see it as something that just will never change, and will always be the overwhelming problem that Africans face I think that state capacity does improve corruption does become less as a rising middle class or an emerging middle class wants more from its government. I think, developments in E government, for example, you know, there’s more information available on websites, you can go to African government websites now and download all kinds of data about service delivery, about tax revenues, all sorts of things. So I think there are improvements. I think we should be. This is,
Robert Bryce 40:29
this is good to hear. Because I think that that, you know, you’re much more familiar, obviously, than I am. But But yeah, I think that these reforms, then what I hear, you’re saying, the zebra formers are happening. They’re coming internally from their own governments that this is, this is, this is a process of development, that’s just going to take time. Well, so let me ask them so you’ve been in Africa what which countries are the up and comers then? If you handicap Africa, I hear a lot of friends of mines. I think, you know, Steve brick, he’s been to Ghana, Priscilla. Priscilla, she was at the dialog way she’s in juice, I forgot. agyepong, I think is her last name. She Anyway, she’s in my, in my documentary, her last name, but she’s from God, but God has often mentioned is a country in Africa that is on the rise, what are the countries? Is that true? And what other countries would you say are, are really leading the pack in terms of Development and Reform and, and, and emerging as as as viable and sustainable growth economies?
Vijaya Ramachandran 41:29
Yeah, it is interesting to think about, you know, who the who the emerging leaders are, and what some of the trade offs are, as they have expanded their economies. So Ghana has a very interesting case, I think, because it has grown its economy, and it has strengthened its democracy. So Ghana has had several peaceful transitions of power now, and democracy has become very embedded in the, you know, in the country, in in the civic discourse. And as well, as it has enjoyed some economic growth. And, you know, Accra has become a very sort of bustling city, it’s kind of the hub of a lot of activity. And so I think that is a good candidate. Similarly, I would say Kenya has had, you know, quite a lot of progress. But there are other countries where the where there are, there is some, there’s progress on some dimensions, but perhaps not on others. And that are sort of complex cases. And I think Ethiopia is a good case of that. So Ethiopia has invested in its food sector very significantly over a number of decades, investing in agriculture, investing in urban food subsidies to keep food cheap in cities, and as enjoyed some degree of industrialization as a result of factories have emerged. Foreign investors have come in to assemble garments, for example, or do light manufacturing. China has put a lot of money into infrastructure in Ethiopia, but at the same time, Ethiopia is plagued by ethnic conflict. And there is a bloody an awful war going on right now, you know, between different factions, including the government, which has, you know, become quite, quite the aggressor in terms of trying to suppress various groups that are opposed to it. So Ethiopia is both right, it’s, it’s on the one hand, it’s kind of it’s had all this economic growth. On the other hand, everybody’s terrified about what’s happening right now. And everyone’s trying to end this conflict that has caused a lot of deaths and a lot of suffering. So there’s that example. The other one that I think is a complex story is Rwanda. You know, Rwanda looks like a developed country, it looks beautiful. The city or the capital city is extremely clean, it’s extremely well organized. Rwanda government is really well functioning. It has turned around from the dreadful genocide in the mid 90s, into becoming this kind of module country, in some sense, with, you know, all sorts of investments in in development is a developmental state, its President talks about economic development every day, at the same time, it is not a democratic place, and people in the opposition have found themselves in jail or have had worse outcomes. And so that’s an interesting complex story of a state that has invested very heavily in economic development that has seen real gains in incomes and livelihoods but has not you know, is troubling from a political perspective is not seen improvements I think in the in its democratic outcomes. South Africa remains a challenge I think, you know, South Africa despite its its really terrible past has come together and has tried to kind of come out of you know, centuries of apartheid type rule. But you know, we do see South Africa struggling to grow unemployment particularly in its with its black population is really high. At the same time, you know, there have been some some some developments. There’s been some progress. I think it’s kind of trying to move forward in some positive ways. So it’s a I think it’s a complex story. But I would say overall, that Eastern Southern Africa, I think, has seen substantial progress. The West African States, many are moving to middle income status or are in middle income status. So Senegal, for example, or the states of West Africa doing quite well. It’s the middle part where we’re struggling. So Congo still really poor, you know, Sierra Leone, poor, but growing from our very poor base, also dealing, you know, coming out of post conflict, but I think dealing quite well with its challenges. So, you know, there’s a
Robert Bryce 45:38
maybe, maybe it’s not a fair question, I mean, with their 70, some odd countries. And so it’s a big place. But so let me let me shift gears there for a moment. Because, you, you talked about, we talked about Africa, we talked about development. And I hear this dialogue over these these claims over and over that we’re going to, we’re going to find some new technologies. But is we’ve talked about gas and renewables. But I mean, is that where the money should be spent? I mean, Todd has done great work on saying how much more investment in gas will do for the broad population and investment in renewables. Is that where in terms of on the energy and power front, it just want to read, maybe repeat what we talked about before? Is that where investment should be made now in Africa and other countries is in gas infrastructure? Is that where the money is best spent? Now, do you think
Vijaya Ramachandran 46:28
I think the money is very well spent in building out its gas infrastructure, you know, Africa sits on a huge amount of gas 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, of which a third is in Nigeria. So 200 of the 600 is in Nigeria, and Africa can really use those natural gas reserves, they can use it for export, they can use it for domestic production, they can use it for downstream uses, you know, various types of uses. We talked about fertilizer, we talked about cement and steel production, about roads, about fuels, I think, I think they could enjoy a very significant increase in the rate of growth, if there was a concerted effort to build out that infrastructure. At the same time, Africa, many African countries are developing geothermal, they’re developing hydro, they’re developing wind, they’re developing solar, you know, the middle part of Africa, a huge amount of solar, the north coast of Africa, a lot of wind energy. So a number of countries are developing renewables. That’s also very promising. And I think there are five or six countries now that are majority renewable in terms of their energy use. And that’s also very promising. I think the I think we need to take a reasonable approach, you know, these are very poor countries that need to solve poverty. That is their first goal of poverty alleviation, lifting millions of people out of poverty, out of, you know, earning below $2 a day, and barely surviving, we need to lift all of those people out of poverty to do that. Africa’s energy infrastructure needs to vastly increase. It’s not a question of minor developments of the side, we really need massive investments across a range of energy sources and natural gas is critical to that. We can think about it as a bridge fuel, we can think about it as a transition fuel, but we will need natural gas sources probably for several decades, before, you know more cleaner things come along. And by all means a cleaner things come along, by all means we should, you know, help people to use those and finance them or whatever. But until such time, we cannot ask Africans to not develop and to remain poor, because we don’t like the production of natural gas. That’s not okay.
Robert Bryce 48:47
Well, I think that’s the key point. Right, is that poverty alleviation and something I’ve seen with my own eyes, right, that people may be concerned in developing world, they may be concerned about climate change, but their first concern is getting the lights on that exactly that there know that climate change? I mean, I remember asking in Puerto Rico Ed sorties about Yeah, she said, Yeah, I believe in climate change. But you know, we have to run our generator. I got to get my kids they have to do their homework. And you know, we need lights we got the refrigerator has to run where the where the weather was the food goes bad. So I think that this priority, I think you’ve got it rhymes. Exactly. And I think you’re hitting the issue. Exactly. Right. And this idea about poverty alleviation has to be the first priority. And one of the key ways you do that is make sure that they have electricity.
Vijaya Ramachandran 49:31
Yes, it is central, you know, energy and electricity is central, whether it be electricity in homes, electricity in hospitals or schools. You know, the other thing that I think energy is very central for is building more resilient infrastructure. You know, Africa is being buffeted by more weather events due to climate change that we have caused in rich countries. And to cope with that we need better roads, better buildings, buildings that don’t collapse in typhoons or hurricanes. Those are the kinds of things that need more energy. And I think we need to think about this from a logical perspective rather than trying to just impose blanket bans to you know, make ourselves look better.
Robert Bryce 50:12
So, just a quick station break. So I’m interviewing vagina Ramachandran, she is the Director for energy and development at the breakthrough Institute. Vagi. We’ve been talking almost an hour here. So I don’t want to take too much more of your time. But whose work in this field do you admire? I know you’ve worked with Todd moss. He’s been on the podcast. But when you think about these broader issues around energy development, and really a humanist approach, because I think that that’s ultimately if I was gonna argue for how I would, how I see your work, you’re an energy humanist, right? Like, no, we’re gonna think about People First. Right. And I think that’s exactly right. Who’s working in this field? Do you admire that you follow?
Vijaya Ramachandran 50:54
You know, you mentioned Arvind Subramanian. He’s been writing about this for a long time. I think that that’s somebody for for people to follow. He just has so much experience in India. uzodinma EB Allah who runs the Africa Policy Center, is also someone I think, worth following in this space. Zainab uzman. At the Carnegie Center, she leads the Africa program at Carnegie has written extensively on energy in Africa has published a book on energy use in African countries, and is has thought deeply about these issues, including, you know, the various challenges around resource extraction. So that’s somebody you were following. Todd Moss, as you mentioned, his colleague, Katie Orth, also at the energy for Growth Hub, worked a lot on on US energy issues. In the US government, anti Herskowitz, really, very deep thinker and careful thinker on energy issues, I think, also worth following. There are a number of people trying to make this conversation more logical. My boss, Ted Nordhaus at the breakthrough Institute has been writing about eco modernism, as you know, for decades and, you know, trying to remind people that it is really about people, and it’s about balancing priorities, not just becoming focused on one particular thing, but really trying to understand how to better people’s lives. So I think there is a core group of people, you yourself, have written and spoken about this topic. So I think we all need to just kind of keep pushing forward. You know, the momentum now very much is that there is a sense of urgency around the problem of climate change. I understand that I’m sympathetic to that. But I think we cannot forget that there are millions of poor people for whom energy is very, very critical. And that’s something we cannot lose sight of.
Robert Bryce 52:42
So what are you reading what I this the other question, I asked nearly all of my guests what’s what’s on your nightstand or what’s on your top of your bookshelves that you’re reading now at hand?
Vijaya Ramachandran 52:53
Well, I recommend for everybody, Bill Gates, his book on climate change. And the title, of course, I am not good about remembering titles. But I think that’s a good place to start, you know, for people trying to understand the complexities of these issues, trying to reduce carbon emissions, while also trying to alleviate poverty, while also trying to make countries more adaptable and more resilient. It’s a really complex mix of things. And I think we need to understand them in a kind of multi dimensional sense. And I really feel like Bill Gates, his book accomplished that, you know, in very clear prose, he tries to make it very clear what the challenges are, for rich countries for the development of technology, but then also for poor countries that are trying to adapt, and also trying to grow and grow out of poverty and so on. So that’s something I recommend.
Robert Bryce 53:40
Well, so you mentioned gates, and it made me realize we haven’t yet mentioned the word nuclear. And there are some, you know, there are people saying, Oh, well, this would be perfect for Africa. And there’s been a lot of reports that have been written and so on. I’m skeptical for several reasons. One is just because I know that from my own experience, and looking at the nuclear industry, you need a very strong government, you need strong civil society for you to have a strong nuclear sector. But you haven’t mentioned nuclear at all in Africa. Do you think it’s going to play any role there in the next next decade or two? If so, where?
Vijaya Ramachandran 54:13
I, you know, I think it’s down the road, I don’t see an immediate investment in nuclear, there is some interest. And you know, you know, Cape Town has a nuclear power plant. So there are a couple of nuclear facilities, I think, across the continent, but I don’t see policymakers demanding that much yet from nuclear. I think the attention is much more on natural gas right now.
Robert Bryce 54:36
But India is pushing forward very aggressively on nuclear. Yes. And, of course, of course, is China.
Vijaya Ramachandran 54:43
Yes, absolutely. India, I think has the state capacity, as does China and it has the money, you know, to finance the stuff. That’s the that’s the other thing. I think for Africa. That’s that’s an issue. I think we will see India push into nuclear more in the coming decade and certainly the next several decades. There are a handful of nuclear power plants currently in here. But I think there is an interest to push forward on nuclear, particularly on the next generation, you know, the more modern
Robert Bryce 55:10
in the near term, but in the near term, India is going to continue being a heavy a big coal user. I mean, that’s been very clear in the wake of COVID, that they they’re going to use a lot of coal. And because there’s, of course, the Indian railroad depends is heavily dependent on the coal trade. I mean, this is in very much embedded in the Indian society as the key to their power grid is the way I’ve seen it, you see it the same way?
Vijaya Ramachandran 55:32
Absolutely, Robert, and I think it’s important to understand coal in India from that perspective, that it’s very embedded into the economy and into, you know, various sectors. So Coal India alone employs 4 million people. And across the coal sector, millions more are employed. There are 700 Plus districts in India that are dependent on coal revenues, to finance public service delivery, you know, there are cash transfers given to poor people that are based on coal revenues, there are several states that have a sort of income transfer mechanism, the way Alaska does, to transfer incomes to poor households, there are people who are dependent directly for employment. Coal is a very critical input in India, and it will take some time for India to exit from coal, it does want to at least phase down if not phase out completely, it does want to reduce its coal use. But I think rather than sort of being hyped up and being, you know, completely focused on wording and cop statements, and so on the, you know, external partners that want to work with India, need to really fully understand the complexity of coal. And the fact that this reduction in coal use so called dependence is going to take time, it’s going to be a while and it’s going to have to, you know, India’s going to have to figure out how to find replacements for these income transfers, like, where is the revenue going to come from? If we’re doing public service delivery from
Robert Bryce 57:02
revenue? Where are the jobs I did jobs? I knew that the the coal, the Indian railway had something like a million a million employees. And it’s it’s one of the course coal is one of its biggest, biggest customers, coal, India’s but I had no idea Coal India employed 4 million people. It’s an enormous number.
Vijaya Ramachandran 57:20
It’s an enormous number. You know, there’s a lot of people in India dependent on coal, and there are a handful of states that are extremely cold dependent, where the mines are, you know, they’re dependent on those revenues for everything. And so I think any conversation about coal in India has to take that into account. It cannot just be, you know, we don’t like coal, you have to shut it down immediately. That that’s just that that’s a non starter. It’s a non starter for the Indians, and the Indians have pushed back heavily on that narrative.
Robert Bryce 57:49
Sure. So last question, what gives you hope,
Vijaya Ramachandran 57:55
I have hope on several fronts, I think that there are new technologies that are coming on board that will make energy sources cleaner, and that’s helpful, whether it be making natural gas cleaner or making, you know, new forms of energy, that are coming on board. I think anything that comes on board in rich countries, rich countries should be focused on helping poor countries use new technologies and provide financing for that and adaptation money for for new technology. So that’s one thing that that gives me hope. I think some of that is going on. But I think also poorer countries are finding their voice on this, they are becoming a stronger voice, I think they were a much stronger voice at COP 26 and previous cops, I think India has a significant role to play in that in bringing all the poor countries together to say, look, you know, our priorities to make people live better lives, and that that’s something that we cannot ignore in this push to reduce emissions. So I’m hopeful that various coalition’s of so called Developing countries are coming together to be more forceful about that. And you know, for the first time, for example, we have language about loss and damage included at a cop. So I think these are positive things, next year’s cop, or rather, this year’s cop is going to be in Africa. So I’m really hoping that African governments can change the conversation to make it a more positive conversation, you know, where where we are looking at goals of poverty alleviation alongside emissions targets. And I think, you know, more broadly, we need to sort of stay hopeful that we can solve both problems. We don’t need to solve climate change at the cost of keeping people poor. I don’t think we need to do that. I think if we put our minds to it, we can really come up with technological solutions, whether it be advanced nuclear, whether it be cleaner sources of energy, whether it be improving natural gas production, you know, whatever it might be, I think we can sort of address both goals and we have to address both goals. If we just address climate To change and ignore poverty, that is completely immoral. And that’s not a path that we should go down. And I don’t think that we can allow that to happen. I don’t think poor countries will allow that to happen.
Robert Bryce 1:00:13
I think that’s a good summary and a good place to stop. The Jaya Ramachandran. Many thanks for being on the power hungry podcast. I didn’t mention that you can find vagina I meant to mention this. On Twitter at vich Ramachandran vi J. Ramachandran at Vigeant Ramchandran on Twitter. You can also follow her on the breakthrough Institute website at which is www breakthrough.org. Any last thoughts there? Virginia you did summarize very well. I thought what you just said on what gives you hope.
Vijaya Ramachandran 1:00:46
Thanks so much for having me on this podcast. Robert, I really enjoyed speaking with you. And I hope that, you know, together we and others can influence this conversation so that it sort of goes to a more productive place where, you know, concerns around poverty and around energy, poverty and income poverty, rise to the forefront and influence the conversation around climate change. I’m really hoping that can happen in 2022 and be up.
Robert Bryce 1:01:12
I do as well. Well, listen, thanks again to DJI it’s been a great pleasure. And thanks to all of you in podcast land for listening to this episode of the power hungry podcast tune in next time, you have a chance give us a positive rating on those podcast outlets, 510 20 stars, whatever they allow you. But until then, we’ll see you on the next episode of the power hungry podcasts.