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.

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