Top Picks: Sex, love and the Syria evaluation

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.


Five to read:


Transactional sex in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - understanding women's choices

Transactional sex is part of everyday urban life in South Kivu - taking place in situations as varied as marketplaces, offices and churches. A new study, based on a survey of 480 sex workers and focus group discussions, examines women's motivations and agency.

It finds an enormous and complex spectrum of sexual activity captured in the term "transactional sex" - with its upsurge related to conflict. While many women engage in transactional sex out of choice and in strategic ways to secure their future or expand their options in life, the majority of women are just coping with extreme poverty. Making transactional sex less exploitative "will entail a long, slow process of tackling deeply-embedded gender norms and social relations", the report says.


Love thy neighbour


Africa is often portrayed as an intolerant continent - one of “ancient, atavistic hatreds”. But an Afrobarometer survey in 33 countries shows instead high degrees of acceptance of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Large majorities of African citizens exhibit high tolerance (gauged by the question "would you like to have them as a neighbour?") for people from different ethnic groups (91%), people of different religions (87%), immigrants (81%), and people living with HIV/AIDS (68%). The survey found tolerance levels are particularly high in regions and countries that are ethnically and religiously diverse, "suggesting that experience is an important factor in inculcating an attitude of tolerance".

Where the love tends to curdle is over homosexuality. Across the 33 countries, an average of 78% of respondents said they would "somewhat dislike" or "strongly dislike" having a homosexual neighbour. But some countries buck that trend. Majorities in four countries (Cape Verde, South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia), and more than four in 10 citizens in three other countries, would like or not mind having gay neighbours. "This suggests attitudes and values are not immutable; instead, they can be learned and unlearned," says Afrobarometer.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Syria evaluation

This one we’re still reading - it was released this week, after some stormy behind-the-scenes debate. We heard on good authority that it was very nearly buried. Clearly written, fair but punchy all the same, it gives the former boss of OCHA, Valerie Amos, high marks for speaking out and attempting to mobilise the UN system towards a more urgent and ambitious humanitarian response in Syria while plugging away at the Security Council on expanding access. It is blunt, however, on some failings. There is “disquiet” inside OCHA about a highly centralised decision-making process in New York. There have been a series of rolling squabbles with UNHCR over turf (the two institutions have “fallen out badly”) and some reporting lines don’t make much sense; NGOs and other partners have “tended to be more critical than usual”; while the regional office in Amman lacks clear authority.

The atmosphere internally is so bad, the report says the new head of OCHA, Stephen O’Brien, “must tackle the divisions” within six months. The wider UN apparatus also comes in for criticism. The report says the pool of pre-qualified senior humanitarian managers on call for big emergencies “should be scrapped”. The “L3” measures introduced after reviews of the UN’s performance in Haiti and Pakistan are given short shrift. “Without further changes, this situation will stay the same: the UN will continue to ‘push the big red button’ only to see nothing (or very little) happen.”

Uncomfortable reading, but two cheers for transparency - except that OCHA failed to provide the evaluators with all the documents they wanted: “despite repeated requests, much material has not been forthcoming”. While the 51-page report is now published, OCHA confirmed the annexes would remain sealed.                                      

Salvaging Syria's economy

UN agencies and various NGOs marked the Syrian war’s grim five-year anniversary with reports detailing the conflict’s horrible humanitarian toll. This paper, from Chatham House’s David Butter, looks at a less headline-friendly, but still important, aspect of the war: its impact on Syria’s economy. Detailing the war’s devastating impact on agriculture and various other key sectors, Butter concludes that most Syrians still rely on Bashar al-Assad’s government in one way or another, through salaries, pensions or subsidies. The state, in turn, relies on UN agencies (as well as patronage from Russia and Iran) to do what it cannot. In the absence of a political solution – there’s no telling what will happen this time around in Geneva – Butter argues that livelihood support, including investment in education, training, and employment, should be a priority for the aid community. How to help those attempting to get by in Syria is an issue IRIN has covered in the past, and worth returning to as the conflict heads into its sixth year.

DPRK talks, but not about rights

The Koreas are talking. That’s the nugget of good news included in this otherwise damning report by the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Marzuki Darusman. There have been “increasing dialogue and interactions” between North and South Korea, but the DPRK has made no progress in halting crimes against humanity, which were first documented by the UN’s commission of inquiry two years ago. They include torture in political prison camps, persecution on the basis of religious belief, and even harsher treatment than before of people trying to leave the country. This is all gleaned by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights team based in Seoul. As for the special rapporteur visiting the DPRK capital of Pyongyang… well, at least they’re talking about it. The report notes: “discussions were held between the Government and OHCHR on a possible visit”.


One to read from us:

Afghanistan’s surprisingly predictable economic crash

Afghanistan’s economic collapse was sudden, surprising … and yet entirely predictable, IRIN’s Asia Editor Jared Ferrie reports. When the United States withdrew around 60,000 soldiers just over a year ago, much of the money propping up the crippled economy left with them. Although the mass withdrawal was scheduled years ago, nobody – neither the previous Afghan government nor international donors – came up with a comprehensive plan to ease the blow of the economic shock that would surely follow. Many Afghans have grown tired of waiting for things to get better. They are leaving the country in higher numbers than at any time since the Taliban.


Three to watch from us:

What’s it like to be a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon today?

Spend a week with Mohammad, Sara and Ali and find out. Immerse yourself in their world though WhatsApp chats, videos, photos and handwritten notes.


Coming up:




The annual Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference and Exhibition runs Monday through Wednesday next week. DIHAD brings together the usual suspects from the traditional multilateral aid system, as well as donors and NGOs from the Gulf region and less common faces at humanitarian conferences like the Gates Foundation, the French foreign ministry’s Crisis and Support Centre and World Toilet Organisation. In its 13th edition, DIHAD’s theme this year is innovation, described as “a survival strategy for an over-burdened system”. A special session on the importance of leadership in aid and another on organizational change look to be interesting. Our Managing Editor Heba Aly will be moderating a panel on Day 1 on bridging the divide between the humanitarian and development sectors. You can find the agenda here and follow the sessions on Twitter. Hashtag: #DIHAD