BARCELONA, July 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Grinding poverty and climate change are pushing communities in West Africa's Sahel region into the arms of extremist groups like Boko Haram, but providing people with clean energy could help slow that trend, said a top international official.
Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, set up by the United Nations, learned on a trip to Niger this month how women and girls are being recruited by Islamist militants who offer them work, food and other essentials.
Kyte, who serves as the U.N. Secretary-General's special representative on energy access, said Boko Haram "is moving into the provision of basic social services".
At the same time, in impoverished Niger, recurring and more intense drought "is absolutely punishing", she said.
The Islamist group is based in northeast Nigeria but active in other West African states.
Kyte said villagers needed better ways to grow crops to feed their families and boost incomes to make them less susceptible to the extremists targeting them.
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, who visited Niger with Kyte, last week spelled out the links between climate change stresses and regional insecurity in remarks to the U.N. Security Council.
In rural Niger, where only about 1 percent of people have access to electric power, supplying cheap and green energy - mainly from the sun - could make a difference, Kyte said.
For example, solar pumps could drive simple, efficient irrigation systems, and installing small-scale local grids could power cold storage, enabling villagers to process their crops and earn more money, she noted.
"It just became very, very clear that without energy, there's no way to improve incomes - without energy, it's going to be difficult to bring productivity into the rural economy," Kyte said in an interview from New York after the visit, organised by the United Nations and the African Union.
In addition, equipping hospitals and clinics with solar systems in both cities and rural areas could reduce patient infections and increase the number of operations for common problems like fistula by supplying reliable power, Kyte said.
Solar energy could be a way to "beat back and build the resilience of a community to climate change, but also beat back violent extremism", while "lifting up women and girls whose situation there is just dire", she added.
Kyte urged government donors and international development banks to think about how access to clean, modern energy enables people to get sufficient food and medical treatment, and earn a decent living.
In a place like Niger, having electricity can be a decisive factor in whether people leave their homes and head north to Europe seeking a better life, she added.
It can also reduce the financial need for poor families to marry their daughters off early.
"This is about using aid money and development finance... to start building a different value proposition for these people that is something that will allow them to stay where they come from, and would allow girls to be part of that economic future," she said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling, Editing by Claire Cozens.
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