What can we learn?
It is difficult to read too much into the experience of just three camps. Even within Rwanda, contextual differences between the three sites are significant, and this alone should caution us about extrapolating too broadly beyond the observations outlined here. Nevertheless, the experiences being reported in Rwanda should lead to serious concerns for all those tracking the progress of the nascent humanitarian energy sector.
The additional vulnerabilities that have been created by the pandemic (loss of income, jobs, movement, remittances etc) and the high levels of difficulty reported with current payments, lead to uncomfortable questions about whether reduced ability to pay for energy services will lead to problematic coping strategies (for example reducing expenditure on food to keep up payments on energy products - something I will consider later in this series). The President of the World Bank has warned that an additional 60million people will probably be in “extreme poverty” as a result of the pandemic and those at the most vulnerable end of the spectrum are among the most likely to be hardest hit.
But for those who have access to energy in the camp, it is clear that there have been considerable benefits – and two particularly stand out. Firstly – refugees feel safer – something that is clearly important when concerns about safety and theft are on the rise and when movement is restricted and controlled. Secondly – access to energy has provided ‘connection’ - both expanding the time one is able to spend with the family – and improving the quality of that time, as well as allowing refugees to understand the context of current measures – how their own situation is echoed within wider society beyond the camp. Refugees inside the Rwandan refugee camps have continued to demonstrate resilience, fortitude and an enduring ability to find new ways to meet daily challenges. Access to energy has provided the means to contextualise the current challenges – and to meet these challenges head on.