The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid

As humanitarian crises become more protracted and aid budgets face unprecedented scrutiny, agencies could save millions by switching from diesel and oil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

Research paper Published 10 December 2018 Updated 6 October 2020

Owen Grafham

Former Assistant Director, Environment and Society Centre

A convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian assistance provided by the World Food Program (WFP) to Southern Sudanese refugees. Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images.

A convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian assistance provided by the World Food Program (WFP) to Southern Sudanese refugees. Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images.

Download the accompanying toolkit

Most refugee and internal displacement camps are in remote locations, so humanitarian agencies consume large amounts of fuel on the transport of staff, equipment, and goods such as food and water.

Operations tend to rely on on-site electricity generation to power reception centres, clinics, schools, food storage, water-pumping and street lighting. Despite the essential role of energy in humanitarian action, and the UN’s stated commitment to carbon neutrality by 2020, there is no concerted effort to move away from fossil fuel to date.

Summary points

  • Agencies are paying too much for the energy they consume. They are overwhelmingly dependent on oil fuel for electricity generation, even though renewable energy solutions are reducing costs for those deploying them in similar conditions. Well-below-optimum standards of efficiency in buildings, generator use and fleet management are also the norm.
  • Agencies typically have few incentives to do things better. There is rarely motivation to conserve fuel, nor performance indicators for energy or fuel use. In addition, energy spending and use lacks transparency.
  • Few agencies collect and report on energy use. Where numbers are available, they are usually partial and unverified. Energy costs are rarely transparent in budgets; and donors do not know how much is being spent.
  • We estimate that around 5 per cent of humanitarian agencies’ expenditure goes on diesel, petrol and associated costs such as fixing generators. That would mean that the sector spent some $1.2 billion on polluting fuel in 2017.
  • Based on current best-practice, the sector could save at least 10 per cent of fuel costs on ground transport, 37 per cent through behaviour change and more efficient technologies, and 60 per cent on generation – all using currently available, affordable and proven practice and technology changes.
  • At current prices, this could mean operational savings of over $517 million a year for the humanitarian sector, roughly equal to 5 per cent of UNHCR’s funding gap for 2017.
  • In Kenya, annual spending on diesel and petrol for the seven agencies surveyed was $6.7 million in 2017. Replacing gensets with solar systems could create significant savings due the costs of diesel, the likelihood of protracted camp situations, and the opportunities that off-grid solar would offer for extending electricity access to refugees and local populations in Garissa and Turkana counties.
  • In Jordan, solar energy now powers the majority of camp facilities and many households. However, the use of grid electricity by humanitarian agencies’ large head offices in Amman remains high and expensive. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a priority for savings.
  • In Burkina Faso’s Goudoubo camp, NGO offices are desperately short of power – they have no computers or air-conditioning. Investment in renewable forms of energy for this and other camp services such as street lighting and water pumping would enable better service provision, and could drive increased rural energy access among host populations across this area of the Sahel.


An accompanying toolkit, Powering Ahead: Improving How We Use and Account for Energy in Humanitarian Operations, provides practical guidance for humanitarian agencies that want to make energy cost savings and reduce their carbon and emissions footprint.