Energy and Forced Displacement: A Qualitative Approach to Light, Heat and Power in Refugee Camps

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


The application of humanitarian principles of protection and assistance in contexts of forced displacement have, historically, focused on the provision of shelter, food, water, and sanitation and health. Yet people forcibly displaced by conflict, humanitarian emergency, natural disasters and environmental change are also often left without access to modern energy services. Access to energy has often been a missing pillar in the humanitarian response to forced displacement.

In 2015 the UNHCR, the Department for International Development, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, alongside Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, and international non-governmental organisations Practical Action and the Global Village Energy Partnership sought to address this gap by launching the Moving Energy Initiative. The Moving Energy Initiative aims to make sustainable energy provision a key part of responses to forced displacement and humanitarian emergency, by designing and piloting new approaches and models for sustainable energy provision among displaced populations.

As the Moving Energy Initiative lays the ground for future interventions it has identified the collection and analysis of qualitative data on energy use as an urgent research priority.

This project - through a 15 month collaboration with the Moving Energy Initiative, its implementation partner Practical Action, and research teams in Kenya and Burkina Faso - aims to improve access to sustainable energy for displaced people by bringing traditions of qualitative research in the arts and social sciences to bear on the way that the humanitarian community understands and responds to their needs for light, heat and power.

The research is driven by two questions: 1) What can approaches to qualitative research in social anthropology and design tell us about energy needs and demands in contexts of displacement? 2) What can qualitative data on the energy practices of displaced people tell us about the design of energy policies, products and services?

Led by specialists in social anthropology and design at the University of Edinburgh, the project will assemble two teams of energy researchers, provide training in ethnographic, human-centred research methods; and collect 50 situated case studies of everyday energy practices in the Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya, and the Goudoubo camp, Burkina Faso.

Key outputs include 1) a review of qualitative methods in anthropology and design for research on energy practices; 2) a report on the lived experience of Energy in Dadaab and 3) Goudoubo, to be published in conjecture with Practical Action and the Moving Energy Initiative; 4) a qualitative methods toolkit, with example techniques, strategies and references for use by energy researchers and humanitarian organisations involved in future studies of energy practice in contexts of forced displacement; 5) a commissioned non-academic essay on 'design for displacement'; 6) a 'design for displacement' protocol (code of best practice, procedures and conventions) for use in the procurement and design of products for sustainable lighting, cooking and off grid energy systems; and 7), 8), 9) three academic research articles that contribute new empirical data and analytical perspectives on energy and displacement to scholarly debates across the arts and social sciences.

The project lays out a pathway to impact on humanitarian policy makers through its partnership with the Moving Energy Initiative and its international consortium; on humanitarian or 'pro-poor' designers in sub Saharan Africa through a programme of impact and knowledge exchange activities during Nairobi Design Week 2017; and on academic knowledge in refugee studies, migration studies, development studies, geography, and science/technology studies, fostering future research collaborations through a workshop and publications.

Planned Impact

The project sets out to increase the access of displaced people to affordable and sustainable energy by developing an ethnographic and human-centred approach to knowledge about energy demands in contexts of displacement, by informing future energy policy and practice in the humanitarian sector, and by establishing new principals for the design and procurement of energy products and services.

This project lays out a pathway to impact primarily through its partnership with the Moving Energy Initiative and its international consortium. The project was developed in close consultation with Chatham House, the Global Village Energy Partnership and Practical Action and their involvement, from the outset, significantly enhances the capacity of this project to improve the provision of sustainable energy for refugees and those forcibly displaced by conflict, humanitarian emergency and and environmental change in Kenya, Burkina Faso.

In addition, the project lays out pathway to impact on Sub Saharan Africa's 'pro-poor' or 'humanitarian' design community through a series of 'design for displacement' events (seminars, discussions and a design hack) to be held in the iHub, Nairobi, as part of Nairobi Design Week 2017.


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