It’s hard not to get caught up in the calculated train wreck President Trump created by urging U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and three other new, progressive women in Congress to “go home” and fix “broken” societies.
But since he brought it up, let’s look beyond the rhetoric at a crisis looming in one of those countries — and at what the president’s approach is.
Trump probably doesn’t think Omar, the only one of the four who had a home other than the United States, really ought to go back to Somalia, where she was born. Maybe he didn’t think it though at all. In any case, that’s not the point. While the president does prefer his immigrants white and wealthy, this was all about stirring the pot.
The ensuing uproar has focused on race and domestic politics, and it provides a preview of Trump’s reelection campaign. In addition to feeding the “incredible patriots” who chanted “Send her back!” about Omar, Politico reports that the administration is weighing a plan to drop legal immigration next year to zero.
So the controversy, even though it has a foreign angle, is almost totally domestic. While Omar’s native land has been far more important for Americans — and Minnesotans in particular — than most African countries of 15 million people, it still tends to get lost. In the rare moment when everything’s not all about Trump, however, this also is an opportunity to focus on the fact that hunger, worsened by climate change that this White House won’t acknowledge, is once again stalking Somalia.
The U.N. said last month that Somalia’s spring rainy season was one of the driest of the last 35 years. The terminology can be hard to grasp, but the maps and the statistics are pretty clear: By midsummer (i.e. now) 5 million people would be facing some level of “food insecurity,” and almost half of those would be dealing with a crisis, a situation that can easily tip into famine. The U.N.’s aid chief spoke of an impending “horror.”
From the outside, it can be easy to get fatigued with Somalia’s seemingly endless violence and bouts of hunger, of which there have been three just in the past decade. The worst was a famine in 2010-2012 killed an estimated quarter-million people.
If Omar had never left Somalia, World Bank statistics indicate her life would be something like this: She could expect to live 57 years. She would have six children, one of whom would die before the age of 5. She would have less than a one in three chance of having access to clean water, and a one in two chance of not having enough to eat.
According to the Borgen Project, there is only a one in four chance that she would be able to read.
But if you dig into those statistics, you find a number of them actually have been heading in the right direction. For instance, just since 2010, infant mortality has dropped from 96.9 per 1,000 births to 79.7. Life expectancy increased three years.
Yet climate change can help undo the gains in short order. Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, Mustafa Tahir, the acting country director for the aid agency Islamic Relief, said two-thirds of Somalis live in rural areas and are completely dependent on seasonal rains, and that the frequency and duration of dry spells was increasing. A report by the Institute for Security Studies said climate change feeds armed conflict in Somalia by increasing pressure for scarce resources, driving young men with few other prospects to join militant groups and vastly increasing internal migration.
In attacking Omar and the other members of Congress, Trump said they ought to focus on fixing foreign governments that are among “the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” He almost certainly had Somalia in mind.
The Trump administration is far from cutting Somalia loose. Under Trump, U.S. policy is a variant of what it has long been – providing aid and killing militants.
The U.S. has been a major donor to Somalia for many years, providing more than $3 billion in humanitarian aid since 2006, according to the State Department. As the Washington Post reported last month, it sent another $400 million last year, and it just reopened an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, that had been closed since 1991.
Under Trump, the U.S. also has loosened rules of military engagement, and drone strikes against the Shabab militant group have increased steadily. After launching 47 strikes in 2018, there were 44 in the first six months of this year, attacks that have killed nearly 300 people so far. In addition, the U.S. has about 500 troops on the ground in Somalia. So despite the “America first” rhetoric, Trump hasn’t exactly disengaged. And he apparently hasn’t come up with any better ideas.
Another hungry season appears to be coming to Somalia. One better idea would be to acknowledge the role that climate change has in creating the misery, and work urgently to address it. That wouldn’t make everything better, and in the long run it might be nothing more than a Band-Aid. It’s one thing, however, this White House won’t do.