Energy for refugees and host communities

Inducing real change for displaced people

Lab debate
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
09:00 to 10:15

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 25.4 million refugees worldwide. Many live in camps where they lack access to energy services, some for many years. In these situations, the humanitarian response becomes a form of long-term development. Humanitarian organisations are committed to improving the living conditions in refugee camps. However, their financial and technical resources are limited. This panel will discuss the possibility of market-based approaches implemented by a variety of development partners, taking into account practical examples of successes. It will raise the question of how humanitarian organisations such as UNHCR can work through such alternative delivery models and how development and humanitarian sectors can learn from each other.

Key points

  • There are an estimated 70 million refugees worldwide with many in camps lacking access to basic facilities for cooking, heating and lighting

  • This presents significant potential for private-sector engagement which could benefit both refugees and host communities

  • There needs to be more productive use of energy, including renewables, on refugee camps

  • Cost-effective energy solutions are possible by working with the private sector and developing new markets


There are, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 70 million refugees worldwide with many living in camps without access to essential services. Humanitarian organisations help, but their financial and technical resources are limited. Until recently, most of the focus has understandably been on providing water, food and shelter with little attention given to energy supplies on camps. But this mindset is rapidly changing, not least by the adoption of a more market-based approach. Provision of adequate cooking fuel and fuel-efficient stoves to camps is one pressing challenge. Refugees generally have limited access to modern cooking facilities and most either depend on insufficient humanitarian agency handouts or have to travel long distances to collect firewood. There is significant potential for private-sector involvement in this context. It could result in win-win scenarios, most of all for refugees themselves. Refugee camps and other ‘displacement settings’ present opportunities for fuel companies in the private sector to expand their activities. One example is the Kakuma camp in Kenya, home to some 160,000 refugees, which has directly benefited from the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI). This innovative project has engaged with the private sector to expand sales and the distribution of cooking fuels in the camp. There are 2,000 registered businesses on the camp and 30 % of its residents are deemed able to afford to pay for the fuel they use. The initiative, launched 18 months ago, is considered a big success. Nearly 30,000 camp residents can now access clean energy. One of the lessons from the Kenyan project is that larger, longer-term investments by the private sector in infrastructure can reduce costs and support a gradual transition away from subsidies. The MEI also found that thousands of refugee families are prepared to pay for better energy supplies if it means taking control of their lives. Many said they would pay for cleaner and more efficient energy technologies, including better camp street lighting. The study also highlighted the fragmented and inefficient response to energy provision for displaced people from humanitarian organisations. The last five years has, though, seen a shift from ad-hoc handouts to projects that develop local markets. They show how better and more coordinated access to renewable energy could seriously cut energy costs every year, kick-starting economic activity and transforming camp culture away from one of dependency. More needs to be done. Conflict-driven migration as well as the prospect of increased climate-induced migration, will require new and sustainable modes of humanitarian aid and delivery.


As the number of displaced people in the world increases, and with aid budgets coming under further pressure, the imperative to identify cost-effective and sustainable solutions for delivering energy to refugees is more pressing than ever.

Organised by


Dean Cooper
Market Development Manager - Energy
SNV Netherlands Development Organisation
Tracy Tunge
Practical Action
Sixtus Odumbe
Project Lead Advisor - Renewable Energy (Refugees)
SNV Netherlands Development Organisation
Thomas Fohgrub
Head of the Coordination Unit for the Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Situations of Displacement
United Nations Institute for Training and Research
Glada Lahn
Senior Research Fellow
The Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House