IRIN's Top Picks: Starvation, combustible IKEA shelters, and the end of the world as we know it

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates. 


Five to read:

20 years and counting…

The Guardian interviews James Lovelock, one of Britain’s most influential scientists. Lovelock is perhaps best known for his Gaia hypothesis, which posits the earth as an organism. The theory was initially dismissed before being eventually embraced by the scientific community. That’s been a pattern throughout much of Lovelock’s career – making inconvenient observations about our seemingly unstoppable path to environmental destruction, which are rejected and later accepted once the evidence is too strong to deny any longer. So what does he have to say about our current state of environmental affairs? Let’s just say he’s not an optimist. He thinks we have 20 good years left on earth. Read it if you dare.

Destination: Europe

Europe has largely been immune to mass migration in recent decades. The year 2015 changed all that. Forced Migration Review’s bumper January issue delves into the intersecting issues of pan-European politics, xenophobia, and humanitarian response unearthed by the migration crisis, with dozens of articles by academics, aid workers, volunteers and journalists. Their responses range from a suggestion from François Crépeau (UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants) to stop trying to resist migration and instead try to organise it – echoed by several of the authors who emphasize the need for more legal migration channels – to lessons learned in various countries along the main migration routes into Europe. There are also plenty of calls for more cooperation among EU member states, and even a recommendation by Volker Turk of the UN’s refugee agency to develop “supranational” EU institutions for determining asylum claims and equitably distributing asylum seekers. There are more than 40 articles to browse through, but most are brief and many offer valuable insights.

Hunger games

Few had heard of the besieged Syrian village of Madaya, straddling the border with Lebanon, before this week. Now they’re unlikely to forget the images of emaciated children that circulated rapidly online and brought attention to the village, where aid last arrived in October and 42,000 people (some estimates put the current population at half that) have been surviving on grass and tree leaves or perishing. Médecins Sans Frontières says 23 patients have died of starvation at its clinic there since 1 December. The civilians – and fighters from a rebel Sunni militant group – are surrounded by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Hezbollah fighters.

On Thursday night, the UN issued a statement calling for “unimpeded humanitarian access to reach those in need in hard-to-reach and besieged areas in Syria.” It’s an official statement that's worth a read as it rightly points out that Madaya is not the only spot besieged by the conflict: the UN counts 400,000 people living under 15 sieges in the country. The statement also highlights the startling statistic that in 2015, only 10 percent of its requests to bring aid convoys into such areas resulted in approval and delivery. Madaya is a rare case in which appeals for help and UN intervention seem to have been heeded. Seem because the UN now says Assad’s regime will also allow aid into Fua and Kefraya (two northern villages encircled by the very same militant group surrounded by Assad’s forces in Madaya). The moves amount to more of a strategic barter by warring parties than any genuine humanitarian gesture. The other sieges continue – civilians stuck in the middle, waiting for the impossible uncertainty of another mutually beneficial deal being struck.

Great design, shame about the fire risk

There’s been lots of excitement over the Swedish furniture giant IKEA providing ready-to-assemble shelters for refugees – a project, in conjunction with the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, that’s been five years in the making. It’s been touted as an example of great design meeting humanitarian need, and the private sector’s ability to lend its considerable muscle to the aid enterprise. After 18-months of trialling a prototype in Ethiopia and Iraq – suitable for a family of six, with lockable doors and solar panels – UNHCR deemed them ready for deployment and ordered 10,000 units. The Swiss, however, seem more picky. The city of Zurich, which bought 62 units from IKEA to house asylum seekers, has deemed them “easily combustible,” and will not be using them. However, according to this Guardian article, it’s not quite over yet: regional authorities have requested a new test after a German report questioned the fire-risk verdict.

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Thatcherite’ prince?

When a journalist claims to have an exclusive interview, it is often neither exclusive nor particularly interesting. However, when the Economist touted the first on-the-record interview with the most powerful man in Saudi Arabia in the midst of his country’s diplomatic showdown with Iran, it got our attention. Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is only 30, but he is said to be the power behind the throne of his 80-year-old (and reportedly ailing) father. He took the mantle of defense minister just before a Saudi-led coalition began raining bombs on Yemen last March, in an as-yet-unsuccessful bid to oust Houthi rebels from power.

In this wide-ranging and fascinating interview, the prince denies he’s the architect of a war that by the UN’s last count has claimed nearly 2,100 civilians lives and left much of Yemen in ruins. Instead, he strikes an upbeat tone, saying the “legitimate government” of deposed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi controls more than 80 percent of the country. This optimistic estimate conveniently fails to mention the Houthi’s firm grip on the capital, Sana’a. Importantly, Prince Muhammad also stands by the move to break off diplomatic relations with Iran, but much of the interview focuses on the Saudi economy and includes some real gems. He promises privatisation, and is enthusiastic about the possibility of selling shares in Saudi Aramco, which we figure would make it the world’s largest publicly listed company. “Is this a Thatcher revolution for Saudi Arabia?” the Economist asks the prince. “Most certainly,” he replies.

(For full transcript)

One to listen to:

Who will be the next UN secretary-general?

Geopolitics, international intrigue, backroom deals! It’s going to be an exciting year for the United Nations, which will choose its next secretary general, to replace Ban Ki-moon in 2017. Will we see the first female SG? Will the traditionally secretive process be more transparent this year? What region will the new SG hail from? The Global Dispatch podcast kicks off the year with a look at what we should expect during the campaign, beginning with the “Bulgarian Primary”. The two early front-runners are both Bulgarian women, and there is widespread agreement that it’s time for a woman to head the UN. But why Bulgaria? You guessed it – politics. Russia wants the next SG to be from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is seen as the country closest to Russia, and there is an unofficial assumption that it’s Eastern Europe’s turn to lead. But don’t rule out Australia, New Zealand and Chile, say the experts.

One from IRIN:

A different sort of aid for Syria?

“You cannot have an entire population that is dependent on humanitarian aid. That doesn’t make any sense.” So says the Danish Refugee Council’s Peter Klanso near the start of this intriguing look into the aid situation in Syria. What good is food aid if the economy of a country is in ruins, especially if there are no other viable options for young men but to join an armed group? Reporter Charlotte Bailey explores the efforts being undertaken to promote job creation, unearthing training programmes in Damascus, Homs, and Daraa, and even an unlikely poultry entrepreneur in Aleppo. But Kathryn Striffolino of the International Rescue Committee offers a sharp reminder of the limitations of operating in a war zone: “You can’t successfully implement quality livelihoods programming when there are bombs dropping from the sky or bullets flying.” Despite the popularity in policy circles of boosting livelihood aid, it seems the reality on the ground is that only incremental moves are possible.