IRIN's Top Picks: Neutral aid, women refugees, and unequal inequality

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:

An Economy for the 1% and why Oxfam may be wrong…

Almost as soon as Oxfam put out its annual report on income inequality, the criticism started pouring in. Just in time to target world leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam made a splash this week with a report that the world’s 62 richest people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the global population. The same year the United Nations launched – amid great fanfare – the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to “end all poverty… everywhere”, Oxfam pointed out that another development took place in 2015: one percent of the world’s population now owns more than the rest of the world combined. But Oxfam’s methodology came under fire almost immediately, from Financial Times Economics Editor Chris Giles to Time magazine, from financial journalist Felix Salmon to the (libertarian) Adam Smith Institute. Even the BBC took issue with the numbers. Critics accuse the charity of comparing apples and oranges by using statistics from different sources; and relying on a definition of net worth that treats “a recent US graduate on a huge income, but with student debt, as poorer than a subsistence farmer in China”. What’s more, the rise in the US dollar has led wealth in almost every other country to drop in comparison. No one can dispute global inequality, but as Salmon put it: “Wealth, and net worth, are useful metrics when you’re talking about the rich. But they tend to conceal more than they reveal when you’re talking about the poor.”

Women refugees need more support

As local authorities and aid agencies have struggled to respond to the mass movement of migrants and refugees through Europe last year, the vulnerabilities of the many women travelling alone or with small children have been largely forgotten. More than 55 percent of people arriving by boat in Greece are now women and children, compared to only 27 percent in June 2015. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, together with the Women’s Refugee Commission and the UN Population Fund published findings this week based on a field assessment of the risks migrant and refugee women are exposed to as they make their way through Greece and Macedonia – the first leg of the Western Balkan route to northern Europe. They found that women and girls, especially those travelling alone, faced high risks of sexual violence at the hands of smugglers, criminal groups, and individuals, and that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence rarely disclosed their experience or sought assistance for fear of delaying their journeys. The assessment team nevertheless interviewed women who’d experienced early and forced marriage, transactional sex, domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment. They also found a lack of well-lit, gender-segregated reception facilities or sexual and gender-based experts deployed along the route.

How neutral is aid delivery in Syria?

In questioning the role of the humanitarian organisations doling out emergency food aid in Syria, this hard-hitting academic article raises questions that many have been whispering about for years. The authors argue that despite claims of and attempts at neutrality by the distributors, this sort of aid has actually assisted the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Aid groups like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross have chosen to mostly operate inside Syria, meaning they have to operate under the regime’s rules, only delivering where and when they are given permission. The SARC, which does a large share of the distribution, has long been seen as a bit too cozy with Assad. There is a steady supply of aid to Assad-controlled areas, helping the regime show off an image of comparative calm and security. In contrast, areas under siege – see Madaya – or under rebel rule, appear to be more chaotic, in part because they are starving. There’s talk in this article of aid diversion by various groups, and of an instance when the so-called Islamic State confiscate Word Food Programme aid and distribute it under its own name. The takeaway: no one’s saying emergency food aid should be withdrawn from Syrians who need it but we should all be taking a much closer look and how it is distributed.

The Nexus of Evil

This article traces the long relationship between the CIA and Islamist militants – and it’s a long relationship indeed. The US decided to provide secret aid to those opposing Afghanistan’s communist government six months before the Soviets even invaded the country in 1979. In the ensuing war, the US backed some of Afghanistan’s most notorious and deadly extremists, and it supported the recruitment of young men from Arab countries as well as within the US itself. As Robert Oakley, ambassador to Pakistan from 1988 to 1991, observed: “If you mix Islam with politics, you have a much more potent explosive brew, and that was quite successful in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan.” Well, yes. But he probably didn’t figure on that explosive brew blowing back on America, especially in such a shocking way as the attacks September 11 attacks, which launched the US into major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is still attempting to disentangle itself from those wars, and with limited success. You’d think America would have learned its lesson, right? Apparently not. Writing in Harpers, the magazine’s Washington editor Andrew Cockburn explains how the relationship with Islamist militants continues, including an alliance last year with al-Qaeda as part of a proxy war against Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

One to listen to:

Should we solar panel the Sahara?

Solar paneling the Sahara – it’s got to be the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to a simple solution to climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. It’s not just because of the technical challenges – there are pricing, political, and ownership battles to contend with. Power for who? Listen to this BBC Inquiry podcast to get a flavour of the nicely complex issues around a low-carbon future.

One from IRIN:

When the war hits home

We learnt with great sadness this week that Yemeni journalist and IRIN contributor Almigdad Mojalli had been killed in an apparent Saudi airstrike near Sana’a. Almigdad, who also contributed to The Daily Telegraph and Voice of America, had been reporting on the human impact of Yemen’s civil war for our humanitarian news service since February 2015, often at high personal risk. Several times, he considered fleeing Yemen, but ultimately decided to stay and document the suffering of his people. As a tribute, we republished on Monday this diary entry from September in which Almigdad details the death of a relative, the challenge of raising his son in a warzone, and his attempts to protect his family from the fate that ultimately became him.

Something positive:


The Future Prowess Islamic School

It’s not often you get good news out of northeastern Nigeria, but here’s something we’re particularly pleased about, thanks to the good people of Scotland’s South Ayrshire Council. They have a thing called the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award, and in one of those wonderful examples of globalisation, they this week honoured Nigerian educationalist and philanthropist Zannah Mustapha as a finalist.

Why we are chuffed is because we’ve been following Mustapha’s work in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, for many years. The barrister runs a school for 400 children, many of them orphans from both sides of the conflict. He provides free education and meals (much of it from his own pocket); a self-help scheme for widows; an education placement programme to enroll as many students as possible in schools in safer parts of the country; and moreover, he has opened his home to scores of displaced. It’s laudable self-help, but also born of necessity – most international aid organisations fear to tread in Maiduguri.

Talking to IRIN from Scotland, Mustapha explained the purpose of his Future Prowess Islamic School. “The children are empty vessels, you have to fill them with something good to counter that radicalisation,” he said. It’s something that Robbie Burns, as father of the romantic movement, would have approved.

Coming up:

How corrupt is your public sector? On Wednesday, Transparency International will publish its annual Corruption Perceptions Index. On a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Denmark and New Zealand boasted the cleanest slates in 2014, with scores of 92 and 91 respectively. At the other end of the spectrum were Somalia and North Korea, managing just eight points apiece. Apart from sending a message to governments to clean up their act, the index underlines that living with no rule of law remains a daily reality for far too many people. 

eds/ag