Of Lights & Hearts

Energy is today at the center of the public debate about poverty and development. A Vienna-based international organization helped put it on the map

“When I was a little boy, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we didn’t have electricity in the house. We didn’t even know what electricity meant.” It is an anecdote that encapsulates what drives Suleiman Al-Herbish, 77, for the last 15 years the Director-General of OFID, the international development finance institution of OPEC based in Vienna.

OPEC, founded 1960, is mainly known to the public as an association of oil and gas producing states; even fewer people may know what the mission of OFID, its development fund established in 1976. And in fact, when Al-Herbish took over the organization in 2003, it was well set-up financially and a provider of loans and development financing in areas ranging from agriculture to healthcare, telecommunications to transportation. Yet it was also a quite traditional international organization, dominated by a rather bureaucratic and hierarchic work culture and struggling to set a mark as an expert on a specific field.

Al-Herbish, in his term as General Director, changed that quite radically to, in his own words, “put our name on the international map.”

He transformed OFID from a loan bank to an initiative with a goal and put energy front and center, launching the Energy for the Poor Initative (EPI) in 2007. “Energy is the thriving power behind the eradication of poverty,” insists Al-Herbish. It is a fundamental prerequisite for development and was, in his opinion “the missing ninth Millennium Development Goal (MDG).”

Without access to reliable and affordable energy services – on all levels of income and all areas of society – substantial social and economic development cannot occur and poverty therefore ensues. The MDGs were followed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and there, Al-Herbish maintains, his and OFID’s work made the biggest impact: To reduce extreme poverty and its many manifestations – from hunger to diseases, gender inequality, lack of education and access to basic infrastructure, and environmental degradation – the access to energy is key.

And so he pushed, explained, made plans and initiatives, until “ensuring access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for” was made stand-alone goal No. 7 of the 17 SDGs. As a recognition of OFID’s role and advocacy, he was invited to become a key partner of Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL), an international organization established by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon in 2008.

Meanwhile, Al-Herbish continued to change the game also within his own organization. He turned OFID into a “gender neutral” employer, increasing the number of women employed by 50% since 2003 and of female professionals by 145%. Simultaneously, the critique arose of women having predominantly lower-ranking positions. Al-Herbish prides himself on having done no dealings under the table or having ever been part of illicit business practices while working on the international level. He sought to make the most impact globally while believing in the trickle-down effect, strengthening local initiatives.

Reforming OFID

In his role at OFID, Al-Herbish has constantly insisted on working with the “cleanest” people. He invested his authority also in young professionals programs and public activism on areas ranging from Palestinian and refugees rights to women empowerment, particularly in the framework of international organizations and UN bodies while bringing closer together South-South partnerships. In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, funded cases were more brought to light concerning harassment and other harmful scandals, such as corruption, favourism and mismanagement.

As OFID sets sail – or rather, changes the gear – for the next stage of its existence and are preparing for changes in July 2019, the world is also adjusting to a new era of energy politics and novel technological possibilities. The story of energy might change with every telling, yet at the core always remains the same. Al-Herbish advocates to keep the issue of energy poverty, especially in the Global South, at the center of attention. It is the motto of the organization he led for the past 15 years – Uniting Against Poverty – but for him, it is more than that.

“At night,” Al-Herbish recalls. “My mother would light a kerosene lantern and stay with me until I finished my homework.”

If his initiatives keeps prospering, the little boys and their mothers may have light enough in decades to come.

Fausia Abdoel
Fausia Abdoel lives in Vienna and is a marketing manager, writer and translator who holds several degrees and has worked for companies and organizations such as Fairfood International and the Egyptian Tourism Authority. She speaks and writes in six different languages and is currently working on a book.

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