Top Picks: Meteo sexism, menstrual stigma, and myopic aid apps

Welcome to IRIN's weekly top picks of must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises.

Five to read:

Maybe there isn’t an app for that

The "refugee crisis" in Europe has mobilised public sympathy, antipathy and angst. The shocking situation makes many want to help. Where do techies take this impulse? Often to hackathons, apps and innovation labs. Dozens of initiatives have sprung up, covering anything from language learning to digital money. Geeks bent over laptop screens donate their time and skills for free, building prototype tools that could eventually make their way onto refugees' or volunteers' smartphones. They use the power of open data, ingenuity and imagination to tackle tough problems. What's not to like? Tech volunteers have made widely-praised humanitarian contributions, notably in open-source maps. However, critics warn that the trend of rapid prototyping of apps for social good can suffer from "solutionism": attempting to find the answer without asking – or knowing to ask – the right questions. Not only misguided, the harshest critiques say the effort is self-indulgent: "People feel good about shiny ideas that never have impact".  An article by Mark Latonero in Foreign Affairs (free registration required) offers a measured rebuke to those who rush to embrace inappropriate educational apps for refugee children and calls for a rethink: "The well-meaning tech community should at minimum adopt a do-no-further-harm approach", he writes.

Southern Pakistan, where extremism thrives

Once known for the tolerance of its people, Southern Punjab has over the past couple of decades become a centre for Islamist groups that have carried out attacks in Pakistan as well as India. These include Jaish-e-Mohammed, which India accuses of carrying out a 2 January assault on its air force base, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is held responsible for the 27 March attack that killed more than 70 people in the Punjabi capital of Lahore. The groups have been able to thrive thanks in part to a decades-long infusion of cash from Gulf countries, support from elements of the state, and a climate of impunity, according to this report by the International Crisis Group. This could change, however: the ICG points out that most residents in Punjab practise moderate and syncretic forms of Islam, which are considered heretical by the extremists. The report urges Pakistani authorities to take measures against extremists, including ending the current selective approach, and instead targeting all jihadist groups, enforcing laws against hate speech, and protecting religious minorities.

One doctor’s fight against Ebola

In a town that was at the epicentre of Guinea’s Ebola outbreak, Dr. Sadou Diallo is trying to ensure the disease doesn’t return. Much of the battle involves training health workers in what one may assume would be very basic hygiene: hand washing. It’s actually harder than it sounds. There is a technique that involves meticulous cleaning and disposing of surgical gloves. Those working to stamp out Ebola face another challenge that contributed to Guinea’s fatality rate (66 percent), higher than neighbours Sierra Leone (30 percent) and Liberia (45 percent). In Guinea, where the state has forfeited much of its legitimacy over decades, distrust in the authorities is so high that rumours spread that Ebola treatment centres were being used by the government to experiment on humans. In the town where Diallo works, residents attacked one centre, destroying equipment and setting fire to a Médecins Sans Frontières vehicle. This New York Times Magazine profile documents Diallo’s fight to prevent another Ebola outbreak (although the country has been certified Ebola-free, new cases continue to appear). “The concern I have is this: This will not stop repeating,” he says. “It is endemic here now, like malaria.” The doctor has intimate knowledge of the horrors of Ebola: he survived the disease himself.

Meteorological sexism

Here’s one for the ‘stupid humans’ file: hurricanes with female names kill more people than those with male names, because they aren’t taken as seriously. The higher death toll from storms of feminine persuasion is “apparently because they lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness”, according to this study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Researchers examined death rates from hurricanes that struck the United States over the course of six decades. In the case of the 47 most deadly storms, they found that an average of 45 people were killed by storms with women’s names, while only 23 people were killed by storms named after men. The paper’s authors said the findings highlight “important implications for policymakers, media practitioners, and the general public concerning hurricane communication and preparedness”. The findings may also highlight how dumb people are.

Periods – the next humanitarian frontier

Menstruation is a stigma in pretty much every society, and it affects the humanitarian response as well, notes this SciDev article. Cultural taboos prevent women coming forward for support, and aid organisations have been slow to integrate menstrual health into their programmes. The fact that water and sanitation (WASH) camp engineers tend to be men doesn’t help: they often just don’t know what is needed in terms of safe, dignified and accessible hygiene management.

The result is WASH facilities and camp layouts that neglect women’s needs and even put their lives in danger. In some camps, for example, bins for pad disposal are far from toilets, in full view of the camp. So women opt to change pads after nightfall, a time that puts them at risk of violence.

Nicole Klaesener-Metzner of the International Rescue Committee says five simple changes in water and sanitation facilities would improve the situation in camps: having cubicles with enough space to change pads and wash; having water inside cubicles, not just outside; somewhere discreet to dispose of pads; having a designated area to wash and dry reusable cloth out of sight; and ensuring access to underwear that pads fit securely into.

One to listen to:


What is it like to be one of two doctors working at a hospital that serves more than 120,000 people who have fled South Sudan’s brutal civil? NPR’s podcast, Embedded, takes you inside the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital compound at the UN’s Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu, South Sudan. Journalists Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers spent five days and nights following MSF doctors Jiske Steensma and Navpreet Sahsi as they make their rounds and try to treat an overwhelming volume of patients – malnourished children, adults with gunshot and stab wounds, women and girls who have been raped and countless cases of malaria and tuberculosis. MSF staff spend three to six months working and living in tents in the hospital compound, which they rarely leave because of security concerns. They deal with death on a daily basis and each find their own ways of dealing with the cumulative emotional toll. “It’s hard work,” says Steensma. “It has really high highs and deep lows, but I’m happy to be here.”

One from IRIN:

A long way from home: Syrians in unexpected places

Eyad Abuharb, a 26-year-old former head chef from Damascus, now runs his own kebab restaurant in Sao Paulo. Twenty-two-year-old Abdul-Raheem Riyadh works at a Syrian restaurant in the Kafory district of Khartoum, Sudan. Abdelaziz Abderzak, a doctor from Darah in southern Syria met his wife, another Syrian, after they both fled to far-off Nouakchott, Mauritania. Mouna Khalil made it even further, to Mali, but she wishes she could be in Morocco, Algeria, or even back in Syria. Our in-depth feature gives a voice to these interesting characters and reveals how the exodus from Syria and the vagaries of the visa regulations have thrown up some highly unlikely diaspora destinations, from Sudan to Brazil. As other options narrow for those fleeing the war, will these far-off refuges become more popular?

Coming up:

It’s all about the implementation

Brookings Institution, Washington, DC

7 June: 4pm-5:30pm (EST)

On 12 December 2015, 195 states and the European Union promised to reduce their carbon output as soon as possible and to do their best to keep global warming “to well below 2 degrees C” (3.6 degrees F). But six months on, what will it actually take to see countries deliver on the Paris agreement. This is what’s up for discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. The high-level panel includes climate expert Nicholas Stern and World Bank Managing Director Sri Mulyani Indrawati, co-chair and global commissioner respectively of the Global Commission on the New Climate Economy.

Register to attend here.