Monthly Archives: July 2012

Power outages and the basics of development

HQ during the outage

I’m sitting at Starbucks on a quest for electricity.

Now national news, a storm on Friday night did great damage to the DC area, destroying many trees, tearing apart some houses and, of course, downing power lines. PEPCO, the power utility company for the region, says that over 400,000 out of its approximately 700,000 customers are without electricity. That number is staggering: it represents single account holders rather than each individual affected, so it’s predicted that 1.5 million people are without power, perhaps more.

This weekend also happens to be one of the hottest DC has seen in some time, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees. The amount of humidity is equally taxing, as news stations report that it feels like 110 outside. They are not kidding. On Twitter, some are using the hashtag #DCApocalypse to describe what’s going on. As of today, PEPCO expects most customers to have power by July 6 at 11 pm, almost a week after the outages began.

I could go on to complain about how miserable not having AC is right now (which, according to Gawker, would make me weak…) or into a diatribe about how this is a sign of our overdependence on electronic devices (I just waited 2 hours scoping out an outlet…), but I’ll leave those for another time.

Instead, I want to highlight a lesson from this power outage about the realities of development.

We all know electricity is important. Whether it is keeping life support equipment running at a hospital or refrigerating food, one cannot overstate the importance of having a functioning power grid. Sure, people like me clamoring to Starbucks for our iDevices is petty, but just watching the overall breakdown during a power outage shows how far a loss of electricity takes us back. It is not that a society cannot function without electricity: human beings did okay without it for a long time. However, when a country does go through development, the reliance shifts to an expected presence of the basics.

No matter how developed a country says it is, infrastructure always matters. Without solid food, water, and power systems, there cannot be societal progression or success.

Nothing about this is groundbreaking or innovative. I know it’s a very standard point, but it is one worth remembering. Organizations, agencies, and development professionals spend far too much time on highly technical or micro development issues when they need to spend more time working on the basics.

Our first goal should always be to sustainably serve local communities with the things that they need. Development often devolves into dictating to communities instead of empowering them for the long-term.

Sweltering as it is, I’m thankful of this reminder to what we should work towards. In a commercialized and globalizing world, our first step must be getting everyone the basics. Without them, we’re stuck.

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