10/19/2010 04:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Energy: The Ugly Duckling of the Development World?

Is energy finally getting the attention it deserves?

In the year 2000, the United Nations (UN) announced eight Millennium Development Goals. Achieving these goals would put an end to the most serious development issues of our time, ranging from eradicating extreme poverty to eliminating gender inequality.

Clearly, energy was not seen as important. It didn't get a mention.

The fact that energy was overlooked is strange because of the vital role it plays in almost all development outcomes. Elizabeth Rosenthal's piece in the New York Times does a great job of highlighting this:

Some 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity... Hospitals without electricity have a hard time keeping vaccines and medicines cold enough or sterilizing equipment properly. If a village lacks electricity to light schools and homes, it is hard for children to do their homework.

Peter DiCampo's video on MSNBC also provides a great overview of the effects of life without energy.

There are signs, however, that energy is emerging from the wilderness. Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency, recently suggested that energy should be considered as a ninth Millennium Development Goal because providing people with electricity is often a precondition for solving other development issues.

Research is also increasingly highlighting this same finding. Recent studies from the World Bank estimate that "...780 million women and children breathing particulate laden kerosene fumes inhale the equivalent of smoke from two packets of cigarettes a day." A similar study by WHO identified this type of indoor air pollution to be one of the world's leading causes of death -- killing far more people every year than Malaria.

A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton committed $50 million to a project known as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. As Clinton herself noted, it's not enough -- and it certainly doesn't put a dent into the International Energy Agency's estimate that $36 billion a year over the next 20 years is needed to achieve "universal access to modern energy" by 2030. However, the important thing is that this is a good start. In addition, a growing number of bloggers are starting to write about energy as a development issue, most notably Andrew Revkin's New York Times blog Dot Earth.

It will clearly be a while before this ugly duckling turns into a swan, but the kind of high profile attention energy is starting to receive is exactly what is needed to jumpstart one of the biggest development challenges of our era.