After a trip to assess humanitarian crises in some of the world’s most troubled nations, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley said he concluded that a matrix of conflict, corruption and “climate chaos” is driving one of the biggest periods of displacement in modern history.

Senator Merkley at USIP on July 11, 2018

The combination of forces is different for each of the five countries in Africa he visited, Merkley said. But in each the United States needs to continue or increase its assistance to desperate populations, he said. Such aid advances U.S. national and security interests in promoting stability as well as simply confronting a humanitarian disaster. Merkley is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Multilateral International Development, Multilateral Institutions, and International Economic, Energy, and Environmental Policy.

A Democrat from Oregon, Merkley painted a grim picture of what he had seen on his nine-day visit in late March to Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya. These countries encompass part of what he called “The Four Famines” (which are in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen) that have put about 20 million people at risk of starvation yet receive scant attention in the U.S. The political and environmental problems driving the crises show few signs of resolution, Merkley said. Still, the U.S. can and should take various steps to strengthen its influence in the region and to alleviate the immediate suffering, he said.

“It is an issue of moral leadership,” Merkley said in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It is also a matter of national security, because hunger and the impact of climate chaos certainly drive instability and the growth of extremist groups.”

Merkley detailed a number of encounters that made a profound impression on him.

Conflict, Corruption and Climate Change

In a refugee camp in the DRC, he met a boy, cared for by his widowed mother, who was severely disabled by a machete chop that had left an inch and a half deep crease in his skull. Militias, some of which formed after the Rwanda civil conflict and genocide, are causing “complete chaos” in eastern Congo and creating a steady flow of refugees, Merkley said. United Nations and African peacekeepers can help residents secure towns, but no one is chasing the gunmen into the jungle.

At a camp in Kenya, he saw doctors measuring the biceps of South Sudanese children to quickly gauge their level of malnutrition—and observed that most were so skinny the readings fell in the “red zone” of danger. After five years of intermittent civil war, during seven years of independence, one million people have fled their homes and six million face life-threatening hunger. Ongoing peace talks to end the factional fighting “are not looking good,” he said.

In Somalia, the country’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who Merkley described as refreshingly immersed in policy, explained the impact deforestation is having on the country. Militants from al-Shabab, designated a terrorist group by the U.S., are cutting trees at a tremendous rate to manufacture and sell charcoal to fund their activities. The trade not only expands the desert as the dries faster than at any time in thousands of years, it also alters the microclimate of moisture and temperature in ways that harm agriculture, the president told Merkley. When climate chaos intersects with extremism, a flow of refugees will follow, he suggested.

Corruption exacerbates the effects of climate change and conflict, Merkley said. In South Sudan, government forces, as well as opposition ones, set up checkpoints and conduct shakedowns for delivery of vital food supplies. At a higher level, officials in the government and the resistance profit from the current state of chaos, he said. In the DRC, he learned about plans to import South Korea-made voting machines “at many multiples” of their normal price for use in rainy, rugged territory by people who have never before seen an electronic device.

“The election commissioner determined that is how it would happen,” the senator said.

Bright Spots from a Sobering Trip

Asked by USIP President Nancy Lindborg if he’d seen any bright spots on the trip, Merkley said Somalia’s president inspired some hope that the country could begin to move forward. Civil society leaders he met in the DRC also provided inspiration in their efforts to improve the country at great personal risk. Merkley said he was also encouraged by Kenya’s advances in employing renewable energy.

The U.S. should continue to support health centers for refugees, reintegration programs for child soldiers and nutrition assistance, Merkley said.

Related Publications

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

In South Sudan, the Hope and Pain of Nonviolence

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By: Yeng Lambo

After 3 a.m., my cellphone rang with the voices of relatives shouting that South Sudan’s spasms of violence had struck our family. In the night, armed youths of a rival community had ambushed a cattle camp of my clan, killing my cousins and other young cowherds as they slept, and stealing more than 400 cattle. Men from of my clan were gathering guns to race into the darkness to counterattack. If my country is ever to have peace, we must break such cycles of vengeance. So, I pleaded with my elder aunts and uncles to prevent that battle. I still do not know if we have truly succeeded.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

In South Sudan, Civic Activists Take On COVID

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

By: Nelson Kwaje; Nicholas Zaremba

For South Sudan, COVID-19 is simply the newest plague. The world’s youngest country already faces civil war, repression, displacement, economic collapse, climate change, hunger—even swarming locusts. South Sudan’s people enter the fight against COVID under nearly the worst conditions of human development, and with 39 percent of them displaced by warfare. With a government that has been unable to provide even basic services, South Sudanese must rely on their emerging civil society, and international partnerships, to organize much of their response to the pandemic. Yet COVID now threatens vital international help for such grassroots campaigns.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action; Global Health

An African Activist Builds Peace with Youth—and Refugees

An African Activist Builds Peace with Youth—and Refugees

Thursday, June 11, 2020

By: James Rupert

Gatwal Gatkuoth was about 11 years old when war in Sudan forced him to flee hundreds of miles, alone, to Uganda as a refugee. Now he works to end wars. When COVID struck Uganda, the nation’s sudden shutdown caught Gatkuoth touring remote refugee camps, seeking ways to help Africa’s largest refugee population survive the pandemic. So when the U.N. Security Council called him weeks ago to ask his advice on improving efforts to build peace, Gatkuoth’s briefing over an unstable cellphone line came straight from a fragile front line of human need.

Type: Blog

Global Health; Youth

COVID-19 and Conflict: Horn of Africa

COVID-19 and Conflict: Horn of Africa

Thursday, April 30, 2020

By: Susan Stigant

USIP is closely following the effects of the novel coronavirus around the world and we’re particularly concerned about its effects in fragile states and conflict zones, which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of outbreaks. This week, our Susan Stigant looks at what new challenges have emerged in the Horn of Africa since the outbreak began.

Type: Blog

Global Health

View All Publications