The Bangladesh experience

Tahira Syed | Published at 04:13pm on January 22, 2017


CAN the further commodification of nature actually become a remedy to energy or environmental crisis? asked anthropologist Sian Sullivan (2009) when investigating the explosion of ‘green’ business opportunities for capitalist investors in current environmental crisis.

Similar questions are raised by political analyst Naomi Klein in her much acclaimed work The Shock Doctrine (2007) while critiquing the rise of disaster capitalism. Klein argues, in times of environmental or other crisis, new forms of capitalist value, new frontiers of accumulation, and new dispossessions are created. The observations Klein make are drawn from recent history. Although, the capitalist tendency to turn crisis into openings required for incursions of corporate capital investment goes further back in time. In this discussion on energy crisis, the conjoined history of atom bomb and nuclear energy is an extreme example of such tendency. In the aftermath of nuclear bombing of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki, among other things, the moral weakling of scientists, financiers and state representatives of US and Russia compelled them to transform their investment in atomic bomb into nuclear energy research.

Today, in response to the global warming, climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss wide ranges of institutions (governments, corporations, think tanks, charities, NGOs, international financial institutions) explicitly or inexplicitly attempting to enforce market mechanisms on nature. In doing so, the nature is transformed into provider of service for humans. Payment for Ecosystem services — the concept that captures this economic exchange is aptly defined by the Conversation International (2009),


…the payment for ecosystem services concept helps address the destruction of Earth’s habitats, landscapes and ecosystems by assigning a value to these services, and compensating the people, communities and countries whose actions enhance or protect ecosystem services and the costs that work incurs.


In way of pricing the nature’s assets/renewables and services, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market can then measure, trade and minimise environmental degradation. In other words, commodifying assets/renewables to protect it, the green capitalism insist on opening the door to someone willing and able to pay the price to destroy it.

In the context of Bangladesh, the development of green capitalism is rather odd. The renewable energy or energy security programmes that the government, NGOs and corporate bodies have jointly or independently initiated are not a response to the prevailing climate chaos or loss of habitat and biodiversity. Instead, environmental concerns are incorporated and addressed to meet the terms and conditions of foreign-aid agencies and environmental governance institutes of the global north. The national goal to produce 10 per cent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2030 is in alignment with the global Sustainable Development Goals. However, the history of renewable energy, particularly that of Solar Health System is much longer and interwoven with the history of micro-financing programmes in Bangladesh.

Drawing from Grameen Bank's experience in microfinance product development, their sister concern, Garmeen Shakti, had designed a SHS product coupled with loan product for ‘underprivileged rural people.’ With minor modifications this Grameen Shakti model was later replicated by other NGOs such as BRAC or Bangladesh Green Energy Foundation. They all claim to be pioneers in bringing green energy to rural Bangladesh and empowering women. I will now look more closely at the description Garmeen Shakti provided in their website to show the particularity of commodification of solar power in Bangladesh:


As of December 2012, Grameen Shakti has installed more than 1 million SHSs in rural areas with more than 22,250 SHSs installed per month. This success especially was the result of unique approach, blending market and social forces together to take world's most up to date technology to the rural people.

GS engineers paid monthly visits to households during instalment payment and ready to offer their services with a small fee, after a client signed an annual maintenance agreement with GS.

The way the success of this solar energy programme is described means that it is clearly a consumer commodity and nothing else. While the programme is promoted either as ‘powering our future,’ or ‘power to the people,’ it is merely a strategy to enforce market mechanism on solar power. Selling this green infrastructure, the Grameen Shakti becomes the broker, the middle men in providing access to solar energy, and creates a new frontier of dispossession. People in poverty are enrolled into this renewable energy programs as clients and consumers, but remain off-grid as citizens of Bangladesh. 


Echoing Sian Sullivan, I ask, can the commodification of solar power in Bangladesh actually become a remedy to its energy crisis?


Tahira Syed is a writer and green activist from Vermont, US.