Author Jessica Obeid
Academy Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources Department
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You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup - Jessica

You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup: Sustainable Energy for Community Buildings

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ is a phrase often said of a person too stressed or poor to give more. Today it also resonates with nations struggling to meet the needs of large influxes of refugees.

Over 80 percent of people displaced by conflict now live in developing regions, each struggling to meet their own budget and resource pressures.

Humanitarian aid is mostly treated as if it is destined for one purpose: giving to refugees. Yet with 60 per cent of refugees intermingled with host communities, it can be difficult and even counter-productive to give to one group and not their neighbour.

This is especially important in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan which are dealing with a large number of Syrian arrivals relative to their national population. I recall the line I used to hear the most in my former job with the UNDP when on field trips to the Lebanese-Syrian border we were asked, ‘Why do humanitarian agencies assume we locals live in good conditions'? And it left me speechless, acknowledging that while humanitarians may not assume so, for lack of resources, their crisis response is often blind to local poverty.

The cry was the loudest in public facilities: schools, community centres, health clinics etc. All these facilities that had to respond to the crisis by increasing their working hours, number of staff, amount of equipment, higher operation costs and the lowest attention in return.

The experience I have in taking renewable energy to these communities in Lebanon, as one way to help reduce the pressures, showed me how investment in these facilities could bring tremendous savings in operation costs as well as benefits for local air quality. Due to electricity supply shortage in Lebanon, most people are dependent on expensive diesel generator subscriptions. Investing in energy - and water - efficiency as well as renewable technologies for public facilities does not look like humanitarian aid but it would assist governments in meeting their national sustainable energy and crisis response plan targets.

Solar panels on the roof of a school in South Lebanon.

Source: UNDP Lebanon

This is an area of great interest to the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) which I’m working on at Chatham House. In September 2017, I took part in an MEI working group meeting co-chaired in Amman by the WANA Institute, EDAMA and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to discuss scaling up sustainable energy for community buildings in refugee-hosting areas.

Participants - including government, local NGO, humanitarian and private sector experts - shared their experience, project work and several distressing stories such as hospital rooms without hot water or air conditioning in the summer, pupils unable to do after school clubs for lack of electricity and lack of public lighting around sports grounds and places of worship.

A number of humanitarian actors have already worked in, or were making plans to work in, this space which is flagged as a priority for aid in the Jordan Response Plan. The challenge is ensuring long-term sustainability, decreasing reliance on grants and involving different actors from the local community and private sector. As one of the participants put it, ‘Grants quickly come and quickly go yet enabling people to contribute brings dignity and sustainability’. Another pointed out that energy is not always the priority - chairs, materials or sanitation refurbishment may be much more urgent.

Participants of the working group agreed that with current electricity tariffs in Jordan and Lebanon, energy bill savings could pay for many of these needs. We heard that the NRC’s project solarizing 23 schools had ‘saved’ over 93,516 JD ($131,905) over nine months. The problem is that no one gets this money. The Jordanian Ministry of Finance provides the budget to relevant ministries for utilities bills so savings resulting from energy interventions ultimately accrue to government and are not available to reinvest. As a result, even if more financing for sustainable energy improvements were available, schools and hospitals may see little benefit in applying. Participants put forward ways to tackle this, the most practical option being a mechanism between the Jordanian Ministry of Finance who is in charge of the facility’s management which in turn would allow for the accounting and reallocation of electricity bill savings. As a first step, people in the working group agreed on the need for more information over how bills are paid and how savings are accumulated before an in-depth discussion with the relevant ministries and government officials.

My personal take-away from the meeting is if savings from efficiency retrofitting and solar can help communities gain what they need most, then aid can go further in mitigating one of the biggest crises in modern history. It could also show a new way forward for humanitarian aid which helps fill the cup for both host countries and refugees.


Find out more about the work of the MEI here