Joelle Hangi
David Kinzuzi

Delivering humanitarian energy for people and the planet

In the first post in a new blog mini-series highlighting how our alumni are researching and tackling climate change, we introduce a ground-breaking report that sheds valuable light on providing sustainable, life-changing energy to displaced people. 

Man cleaning solar panels in a refugee camp
Photo: © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

The vast majority of the world’s refugees and displaced people live with darkness, smoke and pollution. An estimated 94 percent of people in displacement camps lack electricity, and 81 percent rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking. Without access to electric power or sustainable cooking solutions, they face considerable challenges – limited livelihoods and educational opportunities, physical accidents in the dark, pollution from smoke in homes, and life without light. Lack of access to energy is an underlying cause of illness, extreme poverty, and mental trauma that affect displaced people in camps and within displacement settings. 

Unprecedented insight into humanitarian energy 

These are among the findings of a new report, The State of the Humanitarian Energy Sector (SOHES) 2022 – a first of its kind publication. Developed by academics based at the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC), alongside researchers from the Global Platform for Action in Sustainable Energy in Displacement Settings (GPA) and partners in humanitarian and development organisations, the report explores the major challenges, progress and issues associated with humanitarian energy and climate action in displacement contexts. It shares insights from academics, practitioners and sector leaders, providing case-study evidence and interview reflections from multiple humanitarian and development organisations, the private sector, governments and, importantly, displaced people themselves. 

Beyond uncovering the devastating impact of lack of energy on refugee lives, the report finds that without substantial investment and political action, the world won’t meet global climate aims in relation to humanitarian response. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 promotes access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, but is highly unlikely to be achieved in displacement contexts by 2030. Where energy is provided for humanitarian operations, it often contributes to greenhouse gas emissions driven by fossil fuel use. As a result of a lack of data and information on humanitarian energy needs and intervention impacts, actors and policymakers have been working in the dark when it comes to providing sustainable, low-carbon energy for displaced people. 

Policy and funding obstacles 

The report’s overview of the global, national and sectoral policies supporting clean energy deployment in displacement settings found that at global level, there has been some progress to embed humanitarian energy issues in institutional decision-making and global energy strategies. The report also identified substantive policy progress in theory within humanitarian organisations, yet practical energy provision for displaced people remains challenging in many national contexts – particularly in developing countries where nationwide energy availability, access and affordability remain obstacles. Integration of humanitarian energy needs into national government planning is slow or non-existent, while improvement in delivering energy to displaced people is glacial and measurement of progress remains challenging. In 2022, it is still not possible to accurately assess in detail how many people can access which types of energy, and there is no clear figure on progress towards SDG 7. 

Funding for clean energy investment also falls short. Research has shown that the total funding requirements for energy and environmental investment listed in current humanitarian response plans was estimated at US$300 million for 2021. This covered 28 percent of global refugee populations. Scaling this to all refugee populations would have cost over US$1 billion for 2021, while to cover all refugee energy needs globally between 2022 and 2030 would require over US$10 billion. 

Displaced people’s voices vital for solutions 

The SOHES 2022 report’s review of the practical learning essential for  progress and sustainability in the humanitarian energy sector highlights the importance of adopting effective solutions in areas including household cooking and electricity, energy for enterprises, community facilities, operations and institutions. Our findings also demonstrated clearly the value of inclusive research that includes the insights of displaced people themselves. Displaced people need to be involved in issues that affect them to ensure that solutions are sustainable and effective. For example, it was an important milestone for the sector to support people who have lived experience in forced displacement to contribute to the report as co-authors. Our findings demonstrate that humanitarian actors can achieve so much more when refugees are at the forefront of designing and implementing energy solutions in displacement settings. 

The analysis shows overwhelmingly that stakeholders must take bold, urgent action to achieve energy access for displaced populations, reviewing and redefining their programmes to fully address refugees’ real energy problems, and placing the voices and knowledge of displaced people at the heart of global and national decision-making. Although some displaced people demonstrate considerable knowledge on sustainable energy, policy-making and programming, they are not included in development of the humanitarian energy sector. Progressive action must be inclusive, working with displaced people at every stage of response, facilitating livelihoods, education and better security for refugees, internally displaced people, migrants and host communities. 

Transforming energy policy and delivery 

From governance and inclusive decision-making, to financial and technical innovation, the SOHES report offers a range of recommendations to help achieve sustainable energy access for displaced people. Highlights include: 

  • Develop new approaches to finance and investment 

To meet displaced people’s basic needs and help address the global climate crisis, the humanitarian sector must invest in renewable and low-carbon energy. This requires better funding mechanisms, and innovative and blended financial investments, including collaboration with the private sector. Actors must also address the critical funding deficit for staffing and expert technical capacity in the low-carbon energy sector at local, national and global levels. 

  • Support adoption of ambitious policy commitments 

Humanitarian actors need dedicated support for coordination and advocacy for policy change and increased resources, so countries can develop and implement the ambitious and inclusive policies needed to deliver sustainable energy to displaced populations. 

  • Establish new partnerships for energy delivery 

Stakeholders should develop alternative partnerships that collaborate beyond traditional humanitarian mechanisms for energy delivery, to harness practical solutions and expertise in delivering sustainable energy access and decarbonising infrastructure. 

  • Enable informed decision-making and innovation 

Actors must collect high-quality data to inform larger-scale energy policies and programming, and carry out inclusive, targeted research, working with displaced communities and their hosts to generate evidence to inform systemic change. Energy delivery also requires regulations that encourage innovation, and new research to facilitate more effective implementation. 

Through these recommendations and others, the SOHES report sheds clear light on the steps needed to provide sustainable, low-carbon energy for displaced people. By adopting these measures, humanitarian actors and policymakers can understand and optimise the impact of their energy projects. But together we need to act urgently – both to transform the lives of refugees and to meet the SDGs in displacement contexts. 

Dr Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen, a research fellow at the Refugee Study Centre, is lead author for the SOHES report. The report is co-authored by two refugee fellows on the RSC-BIEA Fellowship within the Refugee-Led Research Hub (RLRH) at the University of Oxford: Joelle Hangi is co-author for Chapter 1 on energy needs, and David Kinzuzi co-author for Chapter 7 on climate action. 

The report was launched by the Global Platform for Action in Sustainable Energy in Displacement Settings (GPA), based at the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in May 2022. Alongside the University of Oxford authors, it was developed by leading humanitarian energy institutions: UNITAR, Chatham House, IOM, SEforALL, GIZ, Practical Action, NORCAP, Mercy Corps, MECS, UNDP, Imperial College London, Selco Foundation, International Lifeline Fund, and UNHCR.  

Further resources on the report are available online here, and further academic research on the life of energy in refugee camps and a literature review of the sector has also been published. Researchers and practitioners wishing to contribute to this area of work are encouraged to contact Dr Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen or connect with the GPA Linkedin Group

This post draws on a presentation given by Dr Rosenberg-Jansen, who completed the DPhil in International Development at ODID in 2020, at our alumni event, "Climate Change and Development: Insights from the ODID community", in June 2022.