Top Picks: The Arab Spring, arms to Yemen and why Myanmar wins

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.

Six to read:

2015’s Most Improved Country? 

Few are happier at the end of December than those who like lists and rankings. Journalists have found thousands of imaginative ways to turn the past year into listicle format. The latest upbeat addition from the Economist magazine: most improved country. It’s a reminder that for all the horrors and upheavals, some places have seen remarkable positive change. America, for example, broke decades of political deadlock to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Nigeria held its first peaceful democratic presidential election and has made inroads against Boko Haram. Guatemala began tackling its corruption problem, arresting a swathe of political figures. And China relaxed its one child policy, changing the futures of millions of families. Jordan and Lebanon both receive honourable mentions for their extraordinary hosting of Syrian refugees. But the overall winner is the small Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, which not only held its first meaningful elections in a generation but saw them won by a woman whose very image was illegal just a few years ago. It may all still go wrong, but: “The country’s transition to something resembling democracy has come faster than anyone dared expect,” says the magazine. “For that, Myanmar wins the prize.”

American Red Cross: financial struggles?

The American Red Cross took another hit this week from reporters at ProPublica. Following the online magazine’s much-discussed dissection of ARC’s response programme in Haiti, it has now produced a damning critique of the leadership of President and CEO Gail McGovern, recruited in 2008 and formerly a senior executive at American telecoms giant AT&T. The focus is on ARC’s domestic programme and most seriously the organisation’s financial management, presenting evidence that despite an ambitious plan to increase income to over $500 million by 2015, received funds have decreased since 2011 and are currently below $150 million. The article says ARC remains dependent on major disasters such as the Haiti earthquake or Hurricane Sandy to drive fundraising. ARC published a short response, detailing McGovern’s achievements and pointing to success stories such as a home fires prevention campaign. Notably, however, it did not address the specific allegations regarding the organisation’s finances. 

COP21: What to think

Enough has now been written about the COP21 climate talks in Paris and the subsequent deal on carbon emissions to require a decent-sized forest to publish. Was it a success or did it fail the planet? Did a typo really come close to derailing the entire negotiation? And what sage advice should we offer to the table at our next dinner party? Well, we can’t tell you what to think, but we can direct you towards a comprehensive guide to everyone else’s opinion, courtesy of, which has compiled op-eds from Sudan to Australia. Enthusiastic support from the pro-government China Daily, for example, speaks to China’s focus not just on alternative energy sources but also a country-by-country approach to setting targets. The Australian coverage sees the agreement as a framework for pushing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull towards meaningful change. And, if you really want to make up your own mind, has an excellent guide to the content of the agreement, including where the sticking points were and who wanted what.

Refugee coverage: must try harder

From the “floating coffins” used by people smugglers to transport desperate Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, to the heart-rending images of Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans collapsing on the beaches of Lesvos, the stories of refugees have been a media constant in 2015. Alas, this does not mean the story is always told well. Indeed, according to a new report (Moving Stories) from the Ethnical Journalism Network, which analyses this year’s coverage in the EU and 14 countries across the globe, much of the coverage has been characterised by careless use of language, overt politicisation and at times hyperbole, intolerance and distortion – interspersed with some powerful and extremely influential reporting. The report singles out the failure of the European media to register the Syrian refugee influx until months after it began, and the lack of basic knowledge of many journalists of migration issues and context. Its recommendations are sound: dedicated migration reporters, in-house training in migration issues, and improved links with those who represent migrants and refugees. But, in today’s cash-strapped media environment, it’s sadly hard to see major news organisations making these kinds of investments. 

Syrian refugees: what helps? 

In this exhaustive report, a group of researchers jointly reviews the evidence concerning Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and the impact of efforts to help them. Some findings are familiar: Syrian refugees are younger, more traumatised and poorer than their host populations; a full nine out of 10 meet the host country’s definition of poverty. The analysis of the programmes supporting them, however, is less known and more interesting. Poverty reduction programmes are found to be very effective – able to bring poverty down to less than 10% if administered completely and effectively. However, they are not financially viable in the long-term and they can’t help people transition to self-reliance. Given this, the report concludes that the current approach to managing Syrian displacement – which focuses on daily needs and protection – is unsustainable and ultimately traps all in a network of dependency. It needs to shift to one that explicitly prioritises economic growth. This, the researchers argue, is the best way to help host communities, countries, and the refugees they support share in progress and build a more stable and independent future. 

Untangling Congo’s armed groups

While refugees and the war in Syria have dominated the headlines this year, other conflicts continue to rumble on. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a recent count identified 70 armed groups in one province alone. Why are there so many and what is behind the fiendishly complex and endlessly shifting alliances and breakaway factions? A new report from the Rift Valley Institute says many are, ironically, the product of recent stabilisation strategies. It identifies a need for policies that focus specifically on armed groups and convincing them to lay down weapons. It also urges policymakers to consider the wider social and economic networks that are creating an environment in which violence is so often seen as the only option.

One from IRIN:

From the outside, the meeting in Geneva last week looked very much like a large conference filled with diplomats in suits. But the ICRC Conference delivered a major blow to efforts to boost compliance with the Geneva Conventions. After four years of consultation, a proposal – regarded by many as mild – to establish a regular forum to discuss and share information on implementing international humanitarian law was flatly rejected by a number of states, led primarily by Russia. IRIN was there, tracking negotiations as they happened, breaking the story of the resolution’s failure, and interviewing the head of the ICRC afterwards to hear his reaction.

Eleven weeks after a US airstrike on MSF’s facility in Kunduz killed 14 staff, 24 patients, and four family members, the UN is still calling for a proper independent investigation to be carried out. Hospitals continue to be bombed in Syria and Yemen with alarming regularity. IRIN will pursue a story that is critical to not just every humanitarian – and solider – working today, but to every civilian as well.

One to watch:

UK arms sales to Yemen

Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen conflict has long been a source of serious concern, not least because of its dual position as key protagonist and key donor to the humanitarian response. From the BBC this week, however, a investigative film throws light on the role of other governments also implicated, most notably the British, whose weapons are being sold to and used by the Saudis in Yemen. The UK government’s legal regime requires them to withdraw arms export licenses if there is a clear risk that the weapons are being used to target civilians. The film cites legal opinions that say investigations into the use of British weaponry in Yemen, particularly evidence of the targeting of civilians, are insufficient. It reports that pressure group Campaign Against The Arms Trade is preparing legal action. While the British government continues to cite Saudi assurances that the use of all weapons is in line with international law, sources told the BBC that behind the scenes they are “very worried indeed” about the possibility of a legal challenge.

Coming Up:

Fifth Anniversary of the Arab Spring

Five years ago this week, a young Tunisian fruit seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in desperation and despair at his treatment at the hands of the local police. The protests that followed, quickly and optimistically dubbed the Arab Spring, have redrawn the landscape of the Middle East – in some ways for the better, in other ways for the unimaginably worse. While the changes sparked five years ago continue to reverberate around the region, as the Wall Street Journal writes, every Arab Spring country is unhappy in its own way. Expect much to be written on the hope and the horror, the initial euphoria and the sliding sense of unstoppable change, and the regret and loss felt now by so many, like these bitter reflections from another Tunisian who survived self-immolation.