Top Picks: Subversive charities, the home of Zika, and Yemen explained

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:

Reviving Afghanistan’s economy

Afghanistan’s economy is in a shambles. The gradual withdrawal of international troops over the past couple of years has corresponded with a rapid decline in GDP. Adding to the country’s economic woes, foreign investors have become increasingly skittish as security deteriorates and infighting continues, even after a National Unity Government (NUG) was formed in 2014 to resolve the last political meltdown. As foreign investment leaves so do record numbers of Afghans, and those who stay have stashed their savings, totalling billions of dollars, overseas. What Can Be Done to Revive Afghanistan’s Economy? That’s the title of William Byrd’s report published this week by the United States Institute of Peace. The answers are predictably complex, but the first and most important step is simple: the government must end its perpetual dysfunction and unify in the face of a “national crisis”. That’s a tall order in any country, and even more challenging in factionalised Afghanistan. But Byrd argues that it’s essential for the politicians to start working together if the country is to extract itself from this deepening economic quagmire.

The emergence of subversive charities in China

Environmental pollution, food safety scandals, and migrant worker suicides are some of the growing social problems the Chinese government has been unable to tackle convincingly, shaking public trust. NGOs that deal with these issues in other countries are hardly more plausible. They’ve been criticized for being unresponsive and bureaucratic at best, corrupt and scandal-ridden at worst.

But in the past few years a new form of social media-driven charitable giving has emerged as an innovative and effective channel for Chinese citizens seeking to make a difference on social issues. A new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review argues that by basing themselves on the internet, “these new charities can more easily engage Chinese citizens, raise funds, and tackle politically sensitive issues”.

Hooray for Uganda

Foreign Policy magazine uses the Zika virus as an opportunity to tell the fascinating story of Uganda’s long-ignored success in viral research and epidemic control. The country is in a bad neighbourhood when it comes to diseases (Ebola, West Nile virus, Marburg – and Zika was discovered there in an eponymous forest in 1947). Undaunted, health experts in Uganda have continued to do groundbreaking work. Scientists “have discovered dozens of diseases and pioneered a viral surveillance system that has played a critical role in curbing potential epidemics”, the article says. And there’s room for a little dig too: “The Ugandan system contrasts sharply with the short-term thinking of the World Health Organization,” it says.

Yemen explained

With a devastating war showing no signs of stopping and a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, why does no one care about Yemen? This week, we went hunting for the answer to this question. One part of the problem is the complexity of the conflict. This timely report from the International Crisis Group offers some much-needed clarity. It explains the history leading up to the start of airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition last March, and provides a detailed description of the groups involved and their often-confusing alliances. You’ll also find an overview of the UN-led negotiations and where they’re headed (nowhere fast). This isn’t an uplifting read. The immediate future looks bleak for Yemen, ICG concludes. But that’s no reason not to care, and this report offers a rare opportunity to understand, too.

One from IRIN:

Humanitarian reform: What’s on – and off – the table

In just 100 days time, or less, depending on when you read this, the great and the good of the international aid community will be descending on Istanbul for the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit. The release this week of the UN secretary-general’s vision for reform marks one of the last stages in a multi-year process that has seen consultations with some 23,000 people around the world on how to improve crisis response. With hundreds of ideas floating around and thousands of pages of reports to wade through, IRIN has compiled this handy and exhaustive rundown of which ideas are gaining traction and which have fallen by the wayside. This is essential reading for anyone interested in aid reform. And for those of you who really want the inside track ahead of Istanbul, check out the accompanying analysis from IRIN Managing Editor Heba Aly.

One to note:

WHO’s circles of influence

Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (its blog is called Singapore SLING) has taken a look – with a nice graphic – at who is the Twitter big dog when it comes to Zika and microcephaly. Guess what: it’s the World Health Organization. After analysing tweets in early February, the Singaporean team discovered that the authoritative centre of information dissemination on Zika was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the WHO – “retweeted by a vast ‘halo’ of users”. Some consolation for an organisation that is constantly under the microscope and that was denigrated for its response to Ebola.

One to mourn:

Justine Masika Bihamba

There’s an awful lot of controversy over how the issue of rape is framed in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and the humanitarian industry it has spawned. But what is not in doubt is the courage and heart of Justine Masika Bihamba – the founder of the Women's Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence (SFVS) – and the tragedy of her far too early demise, aged just 49. This IRIN film tells only the tiniest part of her story, but it is one dominated by the triumph of the human spirit, despite the violence and despair.

Coming up:

Humanitarian Studies Conference

The World Conference on Humanitarian Studies takes place from 5 - 8 March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The theme is 'Changing Crises and the Quest for Adequate Solutions', making it a great forum to listen to the latest ideas and hear some of the different views ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit. How have today’s crises transformed emergency response? What can we do to better prevent them or be in a stronger position to respond? Here’s the full schedule of events. Check them out, and, if you can, go along and join in the discussion.