The pilot Citizens' Assembly on energy justice and electricity was a conceptual and a methodological experiment conducted over five sessions in Beirut in October 2020.
Problems and Purpose
The Citizens' Assembly Pilot (CA) on energy justice and electricity took place over three days in the neighbourhood of Hamra and Beirut in October and November 2020. The CA aimed at exploring meanings, dimensions, and priorities of energy justice in a deliberative democratic setting.
The CA tackled five main questions:
- How did we get to where we are? Setting the scene of the electricity challenge: history, current state and future challenges
- What is energy justice to us?
- What is the energy-mix we would like to have? What are the pros and cons of how we generate electricity?
- What do we need to be doing as individuals and communities to achieve a better energy future?
- How should we move forward with our decisions on the above questions?
Background History and Context
The CA took place at a time of breakdown in political governance in Lebanon (no government was in place during the CA) and the withering out of the protest movement had left people feeling dejected and disillusioned.
The thematic aim was to develop energy justice narratives that are publicly accessible and that can bridge the scientific, technical, economic, and political dimensions of a just energy transition. This is to facilitate the co-production of electricity generation systems that serve the public interest and deliver tangible community benefits, such as better health outcomes, decent and stable employment, public space and transportation, and new public, private, and civic institutions.
The CA was a small-scale localised experiment that includes the adaptation and translation elements required to run any future full-scale citizen assembly in the region. The pilot therefore is more concerned with the method than the outcome per se given the scale, with some indicative results that may be of interest to specialists in the field of energy.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Citizens' assembly pilot project in Lebanon was organised by The RELIEF Centre—a partnership between University College London and American University of Beirut supported by a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Economic and Science Research Council’s RELIEF Centre. Last but not least, this invaluable financial support is due to the vision and leadership of Professor Henrietta Moore, the Principal Investigator of both projects.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The organizers' original pre-Covid plan was to include 50 members, but a Covid-secure re-design could only accommodate 33 members. In order to aim for a diversity of participants within Hamra, criteria for recruitment was set to reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood population based on a previous household survey’s demographic data. Stratified random sampling was used, around gender, nationality, age, marital status, whether they live or work in Hamra, profession, education, whether they had generators or were only subscribed to public electricity (EDL).
Methods and Tools Used
The Citizens' Assembly was designed through a deep process of community stakeholder engagement, subjecting all pre-Covid original plans (deliberation questions, logistical matters) to closer review by these stakeholders. It was agreed that physical meetings would be essential for the success of the CA. A hybrid model in which digital tools were used in ways to enhance delivery of information and communication would reduce contact time, but would allow in-person meetings that focused solely on deliberation to take place in shorter durations. Overall a much better version of the CA was produced, with digital resources that could be used in the future.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The deliberation method produced new knowledge on energy justice principles and narratives within each session:
Session 1: How did we get to where we are? This opening session was critical in cementing the interest of members. The presentation on history and the role colonialism and the civil war played on the institutional development of the main electricity utility was very well received as per member’s evaluation feedback and demonstrates the power of stories in the delivery of key information that can demystify a complex technical subject.
Session 2: What is energy justice to us? Participants consistently ranked Affordability, Accessibility, Accountability and Sustainability as key priorities.
Session 3: What is the energy-mix we would like to have? What are the pros and cons of how we generate electricity? Members voted for an average renewable energy target of 26.2%. This is lower than the optimistic target of 40-50% and seems to be driven by a lack of trust in government to deliver rather on the technical feasibility of this target as presented by an expert.
Session 4: What do we need to be doing as individuals and communities to achieve a better energy future? Members decided that raising awareness and energy literacy was an important starting point. This was based on the learning they had had during the CA which they felt should be part of a wider public campaign.
Session 5: How should we move forward with our decisions on the above questions? In the final session, members came up with a set of recommendations.
The organizing team worked with a group of professional facilitators with particular experience of grassroots and community engagement and deliberation methods. During sessions, facilitation techniques helped ensure everyone had a voice, particularly under-represented groups such as women and refugees/migrant workers. If they took longer to engage in discussions, the facilitators provided encouragement and space for them to participate. Each facilitator worked to ensure that everyone in their group understood the task at hand and felt able to speak and contribute, and that all the perspectives around the table were genuinely considered.
The principles of “Learning, Deliberating and Deciding” are key to the process of a CA. The task was to balance all three elements within the limited time available for each session. Deliberation questions were in two forms—either voting questions with pre-prepared options (rankings/prioritization or scales), or brainstorming questions in which assembly members drafted options themselves and prioritized collectively their group preferences.
The former provides a guided approach within given parameters and also allows members to explore key tradeoffs that decision-makers face. In terms of time, it enabled the assembly to cover a broader range of topics and issues in the time available. In contrast, the brainstorming and collective prioritization questions encourage bottom-up thinking without organisers setting parameters.
The voting took place via Mentimeter and the results were viewed immediately.
The assembly team worked hard to ensure that the information presented to assembly members was balanced, accurate, and comprehensive. The most challenging elements were the tradeoffs between depth and time. This trade-off was eased by offering members pre-recorded video presentations and asking them to share their questions via WhatsApp ahead of the session.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Please see the full report in the link below.
The citizen assembly pilot managed to achieve the following more specific impacts:
- Introduced the concept of a citizen assembly as a deliberation process and research method to the region. This was not an easy process and required a lot of thought into the adaptation process.
- Built a set of useful narratives around energy justice in a region where energy resources are at the core of many political conflicts.
- Produced resources to guide others in organising a citizen assembly – this includes translation of key terms, infographics, and an animated video
- The citizen assembly produced a set of recommendations that can be used to improve energy services in Lebanon around a set of energy justice principles
- The pilot highlighted the challenges of breaking down the boundaries between state and society on energy matters and the importance of more work that needs to go into this
- RELIEF Centres extensive data sets were successfully used in the area to empower citizens in their decision-making.
Overall, the survey results for the citizen assembly members suggest that the assembly pilot had positively impacted assembly members’ appetite and confidence to engage in political decision-making. 88% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that they ‘feel more confident to engage in political decision-making as a result of being involved in his citizens’ assembly.’ The same percentage ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that ‘taking part in this citizens’ assembly has made me want to be more involved in other aspects of decision-making.’
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Key lessons for future CAs on translation and adaptation of citizen assembly method in the Global South include:
- If presented in a clear and digestible way, engaging the general public on a highly technical topic such as energy does not need to be an obstacle, and it is a good way to improve energy literacy. Energy literacy therefore is one of the positive outcomes of the CAP and the use of digital videos may have been more effective than in-person presentation given the ability to review content at members’ own pace and to organize thoughts and questions ahead of time rather than on the spot
- Lessons for overcoming the distrust in government which mired the ability of members to think at the national or macro levels: At the government level, there was a distrust in citizens and their involvement. This requires more work on breaking down the high barrier between the state and citizen and to convince them that citizen participation in planning and decision-making can happen on matters related to energy.
- In the future, exploring new concepts like energy justice require new pedagogy and methods and more space for members to express their lived experience of a multi-scalar problem: to zoom into the micro-dimension of individuals, households and communities and to zoom out on the macro dimensions of energy justice to evaluate questions like utility scale energy production decisions, regulations etc.
The original submission of this case entry was adapted from Shehabi, A; Al-Masri, M; Obeid, J; Ayoub, M; Jallad, M; Daher, M; (2021) A pilot Citizens' Assembly on Electricity and Energy Justice in Hamra, Lebanon. RELIEF Centre, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity: London, UK. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10129878/
English website for the Citizen Assembly on Energy Justice - This is the main interface used for the general public to follow the proceedings of the citizen assembly
Arabic dedicated website for the citizen assembly on energy justice - This is the main website interface that the citizen assembly members used to access all the material for each session
Expert videos made for the citizen assembly on energy justice - These eleven videos with arabic and English subtitles were sent to the CA members to view at home before attending deliberation sessions
Blogs on the outcomes of Stakeholder consultation workshops - Two stakeholder consultations with approximately 30 experts, members from local civil society and policymakers took place in June and July 2020. The results were published in these blogposts:
Press releases on the launch and conclusion of the citizen assembly on energy justice - In order to maintain engagement with the media and stakeholders who could not attend, the following press releases on the launch and conclusion of the citizen assembly were published and sent out:
News features in Lebanon's leading daily newspapers
Al-Akhbar newspaper "Electricity threatens 4% of Hamra buildings" - This was a thorough and long feature covering the data that the research team collected and presented at the citizen assembly
New Arab magazine "After the failure of the government – civil society seeks to solve the energy crisis" - The article covered the CA as a national news item so reached a large audience. The research team have received several emails from people interested in the project and who would like to participate in future CAs.