The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid

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The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid - Introduction

Fuelling Humanitarian Aid.PNG

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.

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, to date there is no concerted effort to move away from fossil fuels. The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid, a new report by Chatham House for the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), offers the first ever assessment of energy use by humanitarian organizations.[1]

Key Findings

The report is based on a survey of 21 organizations operating in the humanitarian sector in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Jordan, complemented by interviews with key staff involved in setting energy policy. The following problems have been found:

  1. Humanitarian agencies are heavily dependent on oil fuel for electricity generation. This dependence could be radically reduced through the deployment of more efficient practices and renewable energy technologies, thereby reducing operational costs.
  2. The way in which fuel is distributed in camps, between agencies contracted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), does not usually motivate these agencies to conserve fuel. Hence, these agencies have very few -if any- incentives to perform better.
  3. There is little transparency over energy use and spending in the humanitarian sector, as few agencies effectively collect and report on energy use.
  • Due to the absence of reliable data from the majority of humanitarian agencies with regard to energy costs or potential savings, estimates will be highly flawed. Nonetheless, this research estimates that around 5% of humanitarian agencies global expenditure is on diesel, petrol, and associated costs (not including flights), indicating that around $1.2 billion have been spent on polluting fuel in 2017.
  • The paper examines cases and pilots with currently available and affordable technologies which are helping individual agencies to create savings and reduce environmental impact. Based on the results of these studies, the humanitarian aid sector could save at least 10% of fuel costs on ground transport, 37% through behaviour change and more efficient technologies, and 60% on generation; this could produce an operational saving of $517 million/year for the humanitarian sector (~5% of UNHCR's funding gap for 2017).
  • In addition to the financial gains, adopting energy strategies, which promote sustainable energy in countries of operation, would also help humanitarian agencies building positive relations with the host-country governments and societies. [2]

Country Key Findings

Country Key Findings
  • The 7 surveyed agencies showed annual spending on diesel and petrol in 2017 was approximately $6.7 million.
  • The high cost reflected the remoteness of locations of camps and the agencies' high reliance on diesel for electricity generation.
  • Solar off-grid systems could enable extension of electricity access to refugees and local populations in Garissa & Turkana counties.
  • The solar PV farms at the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps in Jordan are the first of their kind and represent innovative investments that align with national energy security goals.
  • Solar power is currently powering the majority of camp facilities and many households.
  • Huge cost savings are available through buildings efficiency measures in the country offices of humanitarian agencies in Amman, given the costs of grid electricity.
Burkina Faso
  • In Burkina Faso’s Goudoubo camp, NGO offices are desperately short of power – they have no computers or air-conditioning.
  • Investing in renewable energy technologies could enable better facilities as well providing street lighting and water pumping.
  • Investing in renewable energy technologies could also drive increased rural energy access among host populations across this area of the Sahel.

  • Fleet sharing and better fuel-management practices would make sense in the three countries in order to:
  1. Increase transport-fuel savings.
  2. Improve air quality.
    In some countries there may be opportunities for the humanitarian sector to negotiate for less polluting (i.e. lower  Sulphur) transport fuel from local refineries.
  • Currently, the lack of precise data on energy use, costs and alternatives means that humanitarian agencies are missing opportunities to do things differently[2]


Recommendations for Humanitarian Agencies

As part of their commitment to ‘do no harm’, humanitarian agencies should commit to reducing their emissions footprint in host countries and set targets for phasing out the use of diesel for electricity generation.

Furthermore, they should tell donors how important the transition to sustainable energy and efficiency is for agencies.

Begin rationalizing energy use by following a ‘3M’ strategy:

  • Measuring – Collecting energy and emissions data
  • Monitoring – Reporting on these data and identifying ‘low-hanging fruits’ where improvements would pay back an initial investment in a short period
  • Motivating – Introducing emissions reduction targets as key performance indicators and encouraging entrepreneurial activities by country teams such as partnerships with firms providing renewable energy services and cooperation with other agencies

In particular, strategy should include the following measures:

  • Identify where agencies are spending the most money across offices on logistics and operations.
  • Set targets for phasing out diesel for electricity generation across operations
  • Set a target and timeline for improving the efficiency of agency vehicle fleets, and for investigating how journeys can be reduced. Sharing procedures trialled by some agencies should be implemented at scale.
  • Investigate the potential for switching to cleaner fuels.
  • Consider setting incentive and disincentive schemes at headquarters that encourage good practice across the agencies
  • Make energy a priority at headquarters and work with field office staff to integrate a culture of efficiency.[1]

Recommendations for Donors

  1. Demand humanitarian agencies provide a breakdown of energy cost projections in budgets, and backing them up with assumptions about consumption and costs.
  2. Investigate what is actually being done by which agencies to reduce fuel costs and emissions in the country of operation.
  3. Offer support to projects that unlock system change, and that enable models that can be adapted for replication.
  4. Consider contributing to a multi-country fund to de-risk the larger investments to transform large displacement operation.[1]

Recommendations for Local Governments & Host Countries

  1. Ask humanitarian agencies what steps they are taking to reduce their emissions and impact on host-country resources.
  2. Where possible, include sustainable energy as a priority area in humanitarian response plans (HRPs) and encourage aid in energy projects that will leave a positive legacy in-country.
  3. In cases of prolonged displacement/humanitarian presence, consider enabling infrastructure investments that will reduce energy and water demand in camps and harness local market expertise.
  4. Consider partnerships with humanitarian agencies operating in remote locations to improve energy access for rural areas.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Owen Grafham and Glada Lah (December 2018): "The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid". Research Paper MEI Moving Energy Initiative.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Owen Grafham and Glada Lahn Department Manager and Senior Research Fellow, The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid, Chatham House Published on Dec 10, 2018.

Further Information