Andrew Gully

Chief Editor

While Brexit and a certain Donald J. Trump featured high on our round-up of most-read articles last year, the list for 2017 is a little more eclectic.

Alongside early warning on South Sudan, deep analysis on Syria, and investigative pieces from Iraq and Myanmar, there is space too for UN funding, for cash transfers, for hurricanes, and for famine.

See also: IRIN's top 2017 photos

Here’s the rundown:

Martyn Aim/IRIN

This special report from Erbil by regular contributor Tom Westcott was part of an extensive package exploring the challenges facing Kurdish people throughout the Middle East as Iraqi Kurds voted on independence.

Early, in-depth reporting on a complex story pays dividends, and IRIN was out in front of the pack on this important event. Backed up by stunning photos, brought alive in wonderful cinemagraphs by Tim Webster, Westcott expertly unpicks the tangled mess of ardent nationalism, local politicking, and regional interfering, giving voice as well to ordinary Kurds, some of whom didn’t even realise a referendum was about to happen.

 

Since the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, IRIN has been keeping an especially close eye on the major promises made on aid reform.

Chief among those is the use of cash-based assistance, which the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, pledged to double by 2020. After reporting on a pioneering project in Lebanon, Senior Editor Ben Parker uncovered some serious squabbling over a new cash-based system being proposed there by the EU and Britain. Some UN agencies and NGOs saw it as a major threat. With insider sources on the aid policy beat, Parker deftly weighs the pros and the cons of a potentially game-changing approach, but one that was (and still is) meeting predictable resistance from the aid establishment.

Marco Dormino/UN Photo

If one fear resonated along the corridors of UN agencies (and certain US government departments for that matter) in 2017, it was that Trump might take a mighty US axe to their budgets.

But even if he could get Congress to approve his plans, what power did the populist US president actually have – how vulnerable was each individual organisation? Senior Editor Ben Parker doesn’t like leaving such a conundrum unanswered. He conducted a line-by-line review of US spending on international relations, aid, and multilateral affairs, and it wasn’t good news for UNHCR or the World Food Programme. Top data research combined with clear takeaway graphs made this unsurprisingly one of our most-read stories of the year.

This months-long investigation was one of the first to reveal the extrajudicial killings of so-called Islamic State captives.

It showed how commanders were at least turning a blind eye to frontline Iraqi troops taking justice into their own hands and committing serial violations of international law on the treatment of prisoners. As IRIN looks to expand its investigative offering in 2018, these are the stories we will increasingly be looking to uncover: timely and important, from the ground as well as from the data. The story shines a light on a murky part of the conflict against IS in Iraq and Syria that few in the West want to dwell on, but it also exposes the brutality of war and the mental toll it inevitably takes.

IRIN was born out of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, so it would be strange if we weren’t ahead on this story, while it was also a little awkward for us to be so.

Regular contributor Samuel Oakford, however, was scrupulously fair and balanced with his reporting, which featured leaks from and interviews with a dozen diplomats, UN staff, and aid workers. The result is a compelling stock-take of this vital UN department at a critical time for crisis response when unprecedented humanitarian needs and funding gaps form a circle that is increasingly impossible to square. In December, OCHA’s new boss wouldn’t say exactly where the axe will fall in 2018, but the multimillion dollar cuts continue.

Jason Patinkin/IRIN

First-hand reporting from inside South Sudan is rare, let alone of a new and volatile front.

Equatoria used to be the breadbasket of this conflict-torn nation; not so when regular IRIN contributor Jason Patinkin and videographer Simona Foltyn managed to gain access to rebel-held areas of the region and found mass depopulation, atrocities, and a land now enveloped by war. The transformation of Equatoria’s Kajo Keji county from a haven of peace to a place of killing and torture is well told by Patinkin, who has spent years covering the brutal conflict, but it is perhaps Foltyn’s simple, character-led films that live longest in the memory. An unforgettable time capsule of an interminable conflict.

For many people, news of the UN in Myanmar’s alleged attempts to downplay the Rohingya rights issue and the situation in northern Rakhine State with the government came when the BBC reported in September.

However, IRIN readers would have learned the majority of the information on 17 July, when regular contributor Poppy McPherson reported on the “glaringly dysfunctional” tenure of the soon-to-be-recalled top UN official Renata Lok-Dessallien. Not just your average scoop for, as things turned out, the subsequent exodus of some 650,000 Rohingya refugees over the last four months of 2017 turned out to be one of the biggest and grimmest stories of the year.

2017 will go down as an “annus horribilis” in the Caribbean.

While Texas and the mainland United States were still coming to terms with the effects of Hurricane Harvey (the costliest storm of all time), hurricanes Irma and Maria were battering a long swathe of the Caribbean, leaving a death toll in Puerto Rico alone of anywhere between 64 and 1,052. What was in no doubt was the utter devastation wrought upon the small islands of Dominica and Barbuda. As part of IRIN’s in-depth coverage of the hurricane and recovery efforts, Senior Editor Ben Parker visited both, but in Barbuda he found a different kind of storm brewing, one with a flavour of disaster capitalism. Robert De Niro, an Australian media mogul, slavery, and a “land grab” all in the same story. It’s worth a read: the land laws may yet be changed despite protests from Barbudans.

 
© UNICEF/UN046880/Al-Issa

The fall of eastern Aleppo in December 2016 after a drawn-out siege was a major turning point in the Syrian conflict.

In the Western media, the latter stages – especially repeated bombing of hospitals and civilian targets – were reported as war crimes and compared to the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war of the 1990s. For supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, however, it was about “liberation” and a step closer to victory. Four months later, the mainstream media had largely moved on, but regular contributor and Syria specialist Aron Lund wanted to assess the situation after the fog of war had cleared. His analysis, as ever, is lucid, piercing the mythologies created on both sides, and revealing instead a shattered populace that just wants to get by, to find a way to survive

Mohammed Awadh/Save the Children

Towards the end of March, the world belatedly began to wake up to the risk of famine, not just in one country where it had already been declared (South Sudan), but in three others too: northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen.

#4famines started trending as a hashtag, a few heartfelt celebrity pleas rang out, but it wasn’t on the scale of 1984, of Bob Geldof and Live Aid. Posing the question “What will it take now?”, IRIN’s specialist editors used this in-depth report to explain the different origins, different trajectories, and therefore different needs in each country. Helping means understanding that local factors are at play, and that each country is prone to its own combination of flaring conflict, weak governance, poor infrastructure, and failing markets.


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