Interview: Bryan Walsh keeps electricity access on TIME readers’ radar

Interview: Bryan Walsh keeps electricity access on TIME readers’ radar


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This post is part of ONE’s “Reporter Perspectives: Covering Africa” blog series.

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Did you know that over a billion people worldwide are living without electricity? Bryan Walsh hopes you do.

The TIME Foreign Editor has been writing about electricity access in developing countries for years, long before many people had ever heard the term “energy poverty.”

Earlier this month, Walsh and I connected to talk about electricity access—why we should care who has it, why the issue doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and why electricity is important for modernization and economic growth in cities across Africa.

You’ve written several really great pieces on electricity access in developing countries. How did you come to write about this topic?

If you travel at all in the developing world, you very quickly learn that power is not something that’s guaranteed. I started looking into the huge impact that the lack of access to electricity makes, and basically it plays a huge role in keeping people poor.

This was something I felt was not getting anywhere near the attention that it deserved. We focus a lot on other issues of development, but this is something that doesn’t seem to be seen as a necessity in the way that food or medicine are.

But [electricity access] is a requirement to be part of the modern world and too many people—over a billion—are going without it.

How have people responded to the articles you’ve written about electricity access? Is this issue on people’s radar?

You know I think people, once they take the time to read about it, definitely understand that [lack of electricity] is a problem. But it’s tough because it doesn’t seem as pressing as an Ebola outbreak or a civil war.

As far as not being on people’s radar, that’s beginning to change, I think. But I still don’t feel like it gets the attention it deserves.

What do you think is the most compelling reason for expanding electricity access in the developing world?

I would say education is probably one of the most important ones; getting kids access to power just so they have electric lights at which to study at night.

I’ve seen pictures of kids in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa going to parking lots because there are street lights there, and they’re trying to study by that light. Without even getting into the idea of access to computers, basic electricity is necessary to education.

More broadly, energy is about basic economic development and joining the modern world. That’s really the difference; either you have power or you don’t. If you don’t have power, you’re going to remain poor.

In your writing, and on electricity access specifically, how do you find a balance between telling positive and negative stories?

It is a balance that has to be struck, but I think to me the idea of getting [electricity access] fixed is mostly a positive story. There is a lot of improvement that can be made without a lot of investment, and many African countries have been growing so quickly in recent years even despite this fact.

A country like Nigeria is growing really rapidly even though electricity access is still wanting for a huge number of people. It’s a positive story because if you can expand energy access, the payoff will be really great.

How can ONE interest other journalists in writing about this important topic?

It’s tricky because [electricity access] is hard to illustrate. It’s hard to show what’s being missed. With Ebola or a famine, the suffering is very clear and present. It’s right in front of you.

But with power, it’s more what you’re not getting. You’re literally in the dark, and it’s hard to illuminate what life would be like if you weren’t.

Personal stories are I think the best way to get people to understand what is life like in the dark, and also stories about how big of a difference it makes when you do get energy access.

Electricity access is a relatively new topic in the development space. What other issues do you think deserve more coverage than they’re currently getting?

Urbanization issues are big. I think a lot of people, when they think of Africa, think of a jungle or the Sahara or rural villages, things like that. They don’t realize the massive, massive growth that’s happening in cities like Lagos.

Africa is not just a place of rural villages; it’s a thriving, growing city culture. That’s the long term future of the world. Cities are where so much population growth is going to happen, and so much economic growth.  And helping people understand and focus on the problems created by this very rapid urbanization needs more attention.

As an editor, what is your role in ensuring balanced and accurate coverage of developing countries?

It’s a matter of making sure the right stories actually get done. Your resources in terms of money and time are limited so you need to spend them on the right kinds of stories—ones that are both rewarding for readers and valuable in that actually help the world in some way.

My role is also making sure that we don’t lose sight of some of those longer term stories and issues, like energy poverty or global health. There is so much going on in the world, and it seems like we go from one crisis to another.

It’s important to remember that that’s what’s happening day-to-day, but there are these mega trends over the long term that will really drive what our world will look like in 20 to 30 years. We don’t want to miss those.

Thanks again to Bryan Walsh for taking the time to talk to ONE. If you’re interested in reading more of his coverage on electricity access, you can see it here.

ONE members are working hard to pass a bill that will bring electricity to millions of people in Africa for the first time. Learn more about the issue, then take action with us.

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