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Alicia Welland

Rural Electrification and Democratic Engagement

"Energy provision and democratic engagement is not about changing the expectations we have of citizens, but giving them access to information so that they can then exert their free will about how they consume and interpret that informa-tion. Reforming voter competence is of course a positive goal as part of electrification efforts, but not to the extent that it could be interpreted as restrictive of freedoms or wielding unrealistic or oppressive expectations. We are not saying here that for democracy to be achieved all voters need to be perfectly informed. However, by expand-ing access to information we are expanding the opportunity for voters to become more informed and as such have a positive impact on the working of the democratic system.

The concern here, as I have argued, is actually less about increasing democratic participation and more about providing equality of opportunity to access political information in order to inform people’s vote in line with their own preferences. Electricity and the Internet enable substantially enhanced mechanisms for informing voters about not just a narrow spectrum of issues but politics and government across the board. Indeed, in an age where social media is so prevalent, it is not even necessary to actively seek out infor-mation, with people we know or follow posting about it and providing links to articles. It is also important to bear in mind that while there are concerns about judging the reliability of sources and people’s ability to do so, the solution to this is unclear due to the paternalistic and problem-atic undertones that education on political information specifically (tied up in government) could present. We should also not underestimate a voter’s ability to vote correctly for their choice of candidate as an individual based on multiple informational streams.

This report is not implying that rural voters are politically and democratically better informed to vote post-electrification; there is not yet enough evidence to suggest this to be definitively the case. Rather, on principle, access to information and communication technology in the modern age is intrinsically tied up with the working of democracy—the lack of such access could even impact the validity of election results. If there is no access in rural areas, a profound disparity of opportunity exists: people are left unable to choose to inform themselves in the same way and to the same degree that others can, which can result in voting contrary to their interests and principles due to lack of information. Ultimately what they do with the information and what information interests them is their prerogative as a free citi-zen—but it is the access to a range of information that is important in order for a democracy to be fair and mandates to govern to be legitimate in terms of an informed and representative vote.

Electricity, it seems, is not only essential for quality of life in terms of economic empowerment, health, and education (amongst others), but its implications go beyond this; through enabling access to information for the rural poor, electricity arguably becomes essential to the positive working of modern democracy."

 

Excerpt of: Alicia Welland, Rural Electrification and Democratic Engagement = Technical report 14, Smart Villages 2017

 

Download the full report here.