1 December 2014

This paper looks at the incorporation of energy issues into global humanitarian responses, examining the factors that are inhibiting system-wide changes and the diffused uptake of sustainable energy solutions.


Raffaella Bellanca

Access to Energy Consultant


Photo: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com
Photo: arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com


By the end of 2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations, reaching levels unseen for the past 20 years (UNHCR, 2013). The humanitarian response to this sizeable challenge must be to increase funding but also to contain costs and to maintain or to improve operations’ standards. The scaling up of sustainable energy solutions, by increasing efficiency and ‘greening’ procurement and project implementation, has the potential to contribute to the achievement of these objectives.

During the past two decades, energy issues have steadily been incorporated into global humanitarian responses. Initially they were considered as a corollary of environmental concern but they soon started to figure as part of protection strategies. More recent efforts have examined market dynamics and innovation patterns of energy in displaced populations and humanitarian operators’ camps. Although energy does not yet have an institutional presence within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Clusters Leads system, the creation of the Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) initiative has signalled a turning point by catalysing the participation of many UN agencies and NGOs in energy issues. While the SAFE coalition chiefly seeks to address energy access, other trends have been emerging in recent years that focus on how best to ‘green’ procurement and operations in the UN. Available examples come mainly from the experiences of peacekeeping forces. 

This study has used examples of field projects implemented by both not-for-profit actors and the private sector to identify progress and persistent weaknesses. A first consideration emerging from the cases analysed is that the implementation of energy projects requires specific capacity and expertise but that very few organizations can afford to employ personnel with an energy background dedicated to the issue. Also, coordination among relief actors and with local authorities on the ground appears to lack a robust structure. Moreover, preliminary observations suggest that the current focus of interventions, implemented by humanitarian agencies and their partners, is mostly based on meeting energy needs via the distribution of products. This approach seems narrow because satisfying energy demands often requires consideration of value chains both in the surrounding environment and in the socio-cultural context (the energy delivery model).

The distribution paradigm leads to a number of negative indirect impacts, including market disruption, the reselling of products, a top-down approach addressing needs with products from unsustainable value chains, tensions with hosting communities and, in protracted situations, the creation of a receiving mindset among beneficiaries (dependency syndrome). In contrast, experiences from market-led solutions (e.g. pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar, micro-enterprising, cash aid, cash for work and outsourcing labour from camps) appear to offer a stronger basis for sustainability. But relief agencies seem reluctant, and often face constraints (ranging from a lack of customers’ purchasing power to adverse government regulations), to engage and support the development of market dynamics in their projects.

Some of the drawbacks encountered in the field are linked to the absence of an institutionalized presence for energy in humanitarian responses. First, energy funding is not automatically budgeted in relief operations; it generally comes from ad hoc projects or as part of bigger programmes. Secondly, no particular agency has the mandate to advocate for energy interventions or the responsibility to ensure their success. In addition, reporting formats focused on other priorities, and lack of energy indicators, make it difficult to measure the sustainability of energy activities and thus to improve their outcomes. The SAFE initiative is working to ensure an energy reference point in humanitarian responses.

Other issues emerging from the field – such as the preference for distributing products rather than robust market-based approaches towards products and services, weak interaction with the private sector, typically short-term humanitarian funding mechanisms and the disconnect between humanitarian and development budget lines – appear to be linked to humanitarian agencies’ operational structures. Innovative trends in the humanitarian system could offer opportunities to tackle these challenges. For example, the ongoing reform process of the management and reporting system could be influenced to include information that measures the impacts of sustainable energy adoption. Also, the upscaling of innovations such as cash grants, could, with the right support from government and camp managers, pave the way to a flourishing ecosystem of micro-energy enterprises in camps. Further innovation efforts will be needed in order to increase collaboration with the private sector and to encourage the adoption of market-like operational models.