Top Picks: Unfashionable men, unpopular Sahel, and imperfect science

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:

"A perfect sandstorm" - humanitarian challenges in the Sahel

Until the early 2000s, the Sahel was on the margins of geopolitical interest and humanitarian action. Migration, cyclical food crises, the rise of al-Qaeda and global warming has changed that. But the region presents a range of challenges that questions the model of humanitarian action. This new report by the Feinstein Centre unpacks some of those issues.

In spite of the heightened interests of donors, the Sahel remains a relatively neglected region for the aid system. It's peripheral in terms of budget allocations; it's not considered by aid staff as a "prestigious" posting; it's further marginalised by being regarded as a "francophone pocket"; and it's an area where the development versus humanitarian tangle is far from being resolved.

Conflict and migration are the key determinants of how the Sahel is viewed by donors and to some extent mainstream aid agencies. That has far-reaching implications for how (and what kind of) aid is delivered - and how humanitarians are perceived by local populations. The humanitarian aid system "has still not found its footing", the report notes. It lays out a series of important discussion points to help chart a way forward.

Counting attacks on healthcare - a very imperfect science

The issue of attacks on healthcare facilities in war zones is a hot humanitarian topic. It has been ever since the US airstrike on a Medecins Sans FrontiAres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan last October. The highly-publicised incident highlighted a growing problem and the discussion that followed led to a UN resolution condemning such attacks and urging greater respect for the rules of war (although it's unlikely to work without further measures). But how big, exactly, is the problem? Following a raft of recent statements and reports, the World Health Organization has attempted to quantify the number of attacks. As there is no comprehensive database, it looked only at publicly available information and found there were 594 attacks that killed 959 people from January 2014 to December 2015. The true numbers are almost certainly higher. As the report says, "the limitations of available information highlight the need for more and better data collection".

For more, read our Q&A with Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Maurer suggests that governments may finally be starting to realise the hidden costs of not respecting international humanitarian law.

What about the men?

"In short, women symbolise innocence and deserve our compassion. Men, on the other hand, depict danger." The unfairness of this base thought underpins this fascinating blog from Thea Hilhorst, a professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Wageningen University, and a researcher for the Secure Livelihood Research Consortium. After researching refugee responses in Turkey, Lebanon and Greece, Hilhorst is convinced that gender stereotyping is leaving male refugees out of the loop. Psycho-social assistance is almost always for women, she points out, and this over-concentration on women as a vulnerable category negates their importance as social actors and has a negative impact on them too. "There are countless male refugees who are vulnerable, reject violence, and are sincere in their intention to protect their loved ones," Hilhorst says. "It is time to put the spotlight on our gender-biases."

The UN says Yemen's peace talks are back on track, but those who have been watching the country's descent into war and humanitarian crisis could be forgiven a bit of scepticism. The complex conflict has deep roots, and this paper from Chatham House's Peter Salisbury goes a great way towards explaining the history, who's involved, and why dividing the civil war into two broad sides - as we often do for the sake of simplicity - is both wrong and possibly dangerous for those negotiating the country's future. Maps showing the maze of frontlines and areas of control help to complete the picture. Even if Yemen's "big war" ends, Salisbury argues, ignoring local grievances and dynamics risks leaving Yemen in a series of "small wars" that will do no good for the local population, who have suffered enough.

One to listen to:

Venezuela is collapsing, and fast

Rampant violent crime, outrageous corruption, political instability, commodity shortages, a growing healthcare emergency - all signs are that Venezuela's decline has accelerated precipitously. In this UN Dispatch podcast, journalist Fransisco Toro explains why the once middle-income country has been falling apart of late. Dropping oil prices precipitated the latest plunge, he explains, but that didn't cause the crisis. Other petro-states have had to deal with the loss of oil revenue too, but they have not fallen nearly as far or as fast as Venezuela. The root problem is the country's "catatonic" government trying to run a country in the 21st century under a regime of "Bolshevik economics". The effects on the population are all too real; for example, the healthcare system is in shambles (as IRIN reported recently). "I know people who have died of diseases that could be treated," says Toro.

One to watch:

The Journey from Syria

Don't miss the chance to watch Matthew Cassel's immersive six-part documentary "The Journey From Syria" (the first five episodes of which are now available on the New Yorker's website). The film records the 1,700-mile trek from Istanbul to northern Europe made by Syrian jeweller Aboud Shalhoub and his brother, along with various other refugees they travel with along the way. It was shot early last summer, shortly before countries along the Balkan route gave in to the sheer numbers of migrants and refugees transiting through and started laying on trains and buses. Shalhoub and his group, which includes women with small children, have to trudge on foot through much of Macedonia and parts of Serbia. Meanwhile, Shalhoub's wife and two small children are in Damascus waiting for news that he has arrived safely in the EU and can begin the long process of applying for asylum, and then family reunion.

Parts one to four are in the top link. Part 5 is available here.

One from IRIN:

Winners and Losers of the World Humanitarian Summit

After a three-year consultation process that engaged more than 23,000 people in 153 countries, the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit finally got down to business last Monday and Tuesday in Istanbul. It was a nightmare to cover. Two days of roundtables, side events and special sessions on hundreds of different topics, featuring a dizzying array of aid officials and government representatives from around the globe; thousands of statements, pledges and initiatives. Add to that a labyrinthine complex of five floors at the Istanbul Congress Centre, seven at the neighbouring Lufti Kirdar building, and a constantly changing schedule and you get well you get chaos! Fortunately, IRIN Managing Editor Heba Aly was navigating the halls on your behalf, tapping those in the know for the inside scoop. Her exhaustive rundown of what was actually achieved, and what wasn't, is essential reading, both for those who didn't make it to Istanbul AND for those who did.

Looking at the summit through a wider lens, this commentary from Richard Gowan, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, suggests European governments are better off strengthening key UN agencies than striking dodgy migration deals.

Source: IRIN