IRIN's Top Picks: Syrian sieges, social media, and space oddity

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.

Four to read:

Debunking the digital aid revolution

Interactive technologies such as mobile phones and social media empower people in disaster zones to play a greater role in their own recovery and to hold governments and aid agencies to account. This may be a popular school of thought in certain humanitarian circles, but is it actually the case? The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded an 18-month “ethnography” of the response after Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 to answer this exact question, and the results are in.

After observing and interviewing more than 100 participants and talking to dozens of experts, the Humanitarian Technologies Project found a “disconnect” between the optimistic premise and the reality on the ground. “Communication technologies do not give people a ‘voice’. Technologies can facilitate voice but only as long as other factors, such as social capital and a strong civil society, are present,” the report says. Researchers also found that those most in need often lacked the technologies or the skills to use them. The most telling conclusions: a strong civil society with effective community organisers empowers people more than their mobile phones, and listening, that helps too.

Boom time for smugglers

This is one we missed when it came out in December, but well worth a read if you want to know more about how the migrant smuggling industry has been able to proliferate and profit from “a perfect storm of events” that has created an ever-growing demand for their services. Tuesday Reitano and Peter Tinti of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime did 200 interviews with migrants in six countries along the main routes to Europe to understand the motivations and modus operandi of both migrants and smugglers. The resulting paper covers the role of smugglers in the Horn of Africa and North Africa (the route used by the majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean between 2011 and early 2015) and the more recent rise of smuggling networks in Turkey and the Balkans, as the Aegean route has taken precedence. The authors point out that “the smuggling market is highly responsive to the changing policies of European states”. When new security measures are introduced, prices and routes are hastily changed and shared by migrants on social media. The lack of legal migration channels to Europe and soaring spending on border controls serve only to increase the demand for smugglers even more.

The desert blues

Writing in the Atavist Magazine, Joshua Hammer recounts how an imported, ultra-fundamentalist version of Islam destroyed West Africa’s most successful music festival – and plunged Mali into a war with Islamist militants who have carried out attacks on civilians, including the November assault on the Radisson Blu in Bamako. At its heart, the story is about two friends, both members of the Tuareg ethnic minority, who started the Festival in the Desert near Timbuktu. Swearing off a violence-filled youth spent in Muammar Gaddafi’s training camps and foreign wars, followed by rebellion in his homeland, one man makes peace with the government and protects the festival that his friend continues to organise each year from attacks. But his personal journey mirrors that of a nation falling further under the grip of extremism: he adopts a harsh version of Islam and starts an armed group aligned with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He declares war on musicians; a decades-long friendship unravels, as does the world-renowned music festival, and the entire country.

Abuse enshrined in law in Lebanon

In November, we reported that Lebanon’s laws had made obtaining legal status so tough that two thirds of the country’s 1.1 million Syrian refugees lacked the proper papers. It’s now been a year since these regulations came into force and Human Rights Watch has come out with an important and disturbing report detailing how the loss of residency has made an already vulnerable group even more susceptible to abuse. Raids on refugee settlements and arrests of those without proper status have become commonplace, the watchdog tells us. Ninety percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are in debt, and some 70 percent fall under the poverty line. This means extremely low wages and long hours are hard to turn down, and HRW has spoken with children working under these conditions too. Sexual harassment is also encountered alarmingly often by female refugees, and without papers there’s simply no option for redress. One path to legalisation is through a Lebanese guarantor. But this, refugees recount, can become “a form of slavery”. It’s a business now too – $1,000 a person is said to be the going rate.

One from IRIN:

Sieges: a macabre game of strategy in Syria

As cable TV stations around the world showed the harrowing images of starving children in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, IRIN’s Middle East editor Annie Slemrod was hard at work trying to piece together the wider picture. How do these deals work? How many people are living under similar sieges? Does aid ever get in? This thorough briefing answers those questions in detail but also pours light on the zero-sum game playing out across Syria: civilians under siege are simply pawns in a strategic duel, at the mercy of political and military leaders striking a mutually expedient deal.

One to read and watch:

African space oddity? (No, not another homage to Bowie)

Thanks to this video that went viral (at least among some aid workers), we now know that communication is aid. But seeing as the technology we use to connect, to map, to geo-locate, depends on satellites, it’s not such a leap to suggest space is the new humanitarian frontier. Nick Perkins at Scidev.net certainly seems to agree. In his article on African space policy, he asks whether the solar system might offer some fresh answers to Earth-based development needs.

Perkins acknowledges the furious debate around whether Western taxpayers should, for example, provide aid to India. After all, the country recently demonstrated it can put a spacecraft into Martian orbit (and at a fraction of the cost of NASA). But, he argues, it's not a binary question of aid OR the space programme. What if an interstellar capacity actually boosts development? And, in an important twist, he suggests a commitment to homegrown space science is suggestive of states “that want advice and technical know-how, not money or handouts”.

At the end of this month, the African Union summit will ratify the continent’s first space policy. It’s goal is “the sustainable use of our natural resources and the creation of a high-tech industrial sector” – building a regional capacity to manage, among other things, natural disasters, weather forecasting, and climate-change mitigation. And it’s not pie in the sky. Nigeria has launched five satellites since 2003, and now it has now won a 15-year contract to manage a European satellite (the first time for an African country) with the launch of Belintersat-1 on Saturday.

One to listen to:

Is Myanmar ruled by tyranny of the majority?

Myanmar’s November election was heralded internationally as a major step forward in the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party trounced the military-linked party that has thus far steered the country through the transition. When the new parliament convenes at the beginning of next month, most seats will (for the first time in half a century) be held by a party that is truly supported by the majority of voters. Sounds like things are moving in the right direction, right? One group has its doubts – Myanmar’s persecuted ethnic and religious Rohingya Muslim minority, which is denied citizenship and lives under virtual apartheid. Attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims have only increased during the transition period, which has been accompanied by widespread and growing Buddhist nationalism. Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members have been criticised for failing to speak out strongly against the violence. In Foreign Policy’s podcast, Rohingya activist and former political prisoner Wai Wai Nu, and Fortify Rights executive director Matt Smith, speak about their hopes and fears for Muslims in a country where the incoming government and its supporters have done little to defend them. “Is it a kind of majority dictatorship?” wonders Wai Wai Nu.

Coming up:

UN panel to deliver report on humanitarian financing

The UN’s High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing launches its eagerly awaited recommendations on how to fill the gap between needs and resources. IRIN will attend the event this Sunday in Dubai to find out how it is ruffling feathers and framing the discussion ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

See: It’s all about the money

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