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The Pirates are Back

“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.” We owe much of our imagery about pirates to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book Treasure Island, and to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean theme park attraction and movie franchise. But these pirates are not my focus.

A few weeks ago as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, a headline captured my eye about Somali pirates making a comeback. I first became interested in Somali piracy several years ago as the issue was gaining attention in the mainstream media for both the number of pirate attacks and the brazenness with which they carried out their attacks, even so much as hijacking large oil tankers. In fact, I recall including the following in a piece on violence I wrote back in 2009:

This past week America was tuned in to the nefarious actions of some pirates, including the highjacking of a cargo ship and hostage holding of the captain. These hijackings are not uncommon by a few rogue Somalis, but this time they picked the wrong ship with which to get involved. This ship flew the American colors, and even though our armed forces are busy with other conflicts, we still can muster a few destroyers that can take out most navies of other countries. So to say the pirates were outmanned is an understatement. A HUGE understatement.

I awoke the other morning to discover that US navy snipers killed three of the Somali pirates, arrested another one, and thus freed the ship’s captain who had been held captive at gunpoint. I couldn’t help but wonder the reason for such violent means. Don’t get me wrong; I am glad the ship’s captain was freed unharmed. But should the US have used violence to do the freeing? As evidenced the following days, the ordeal did nothing to stop pirate activities: four more ships were hijacked.

The point I am trying to make is that our violent outburst did nothing to help relieve the area of pirate attacks. It did nothing to help people who feel that the only way to achieve economic prosperity is through piracy.

The fact that this issue has resurfaced is compelling in itself. But for me – an American located thousands of miles from these occurrences – some may ask, ‘Why do you care?’ At the foundational level, I care because human lives are endangered and I don’t want to see anyone succumb to violence to solve their issues. Beyond that, though, piracy is important for this reason: Conflict and instability anywhere is a threat to peace and security everywhere.

Revisiting the Somali Piracy Problem of 2008-2012

To be fair, the problems leading to the intense upswing of piracy started way before 2008. Somalia struggled through decades of civil war between the various clans of the country, eventually ending in a complete collapse of the government in 1991. As a failed state with trust in a central government at an all-time low, there really was no hope for bringing Somalia back. Outside parties, such as the UN, made multiple attempts at reviving the state, but nothing was sticking.

The impoverishment of Somalia was more than just economic; they were institutionally impoverished. This instability, lawlessness, and lack of effective governance all contributed to the increase in piracy. Compounding these root causes were missed opportunities by international endeavors to assist the country, particularly by the US. After 2001, the focus by the US on terrorism placed several restrictions on their financial aid so that security became more important than economic necessity. While the restrictions may have slowed the rise and impact of terror groups like al-Shabaab, they did not stop the rise of piracy and probably contributed to it.

To give an idea of the amount of damages done during this time period, at the peak of piracy in 2011, it is estimated that the economic cost of piracy was between $6.6-$6.9 billion due to increased insurance premiums, longer routes, private security, ransom payments, and higher labor costs (One Earth Future Foundation). While most of those costs were paid by the shipping companies, we can assume that those costs made their way down to the consumer by way of higher prices.

Interestingly, the amount of pirate attacks considerably dropped to near zero after 2012. How was the problem “solved”? Sure, the increase of both private security and other entity navies contributed to more secure waters. But I believe that the hard work of the international community over the years to build the state institutions, leading eventually to the approval of a provisional constitution in 2012, did more to stop the pirates than the navies. Somalia’s move from a failed state to a fragile state helped to build confidence in the government and reassured people that their government would look after their economic needs.

The Pirates are Back

So what happened? Why have the pirates returned? I think there are at least four reasons for their return to the seas.

  1. Slow statebuilding. While Somalia is on the move toward improving their status in the international system, they are by no means a booming success story. The economy and overall health of the nation’s institutions still rank toward the bottom of most global indicators. Even though they have had successful and peaceful elections, they have not achieved a full-fledged one-person-one-vote democracy, instead relying on a representative election system. Somalia is proof that when a government undergoes a complete and catastrophic collapse, it takes much hard work and years of effort to rebuild it.
  2. Return of poaching. One of the initial driving factors for piracy in the first place was the raiding of Somalia’s abundant marine life. For a country in such dire economic adversity, fishing is not just a way of life; it is a way of survival. When foreign entities make their way into the teeming waters of Somalia to take fish, they are encroaching on the livelihood for many people, who are willing to stand up and protect what is theirs.
  3. Drought and famine. Once again, Somalia has been plagued by drought, and they are one of four countries on the verge of famine. The UN estimates that there are currently 6 million Somalis in need of humanitarian assistance. Such conditions would be taxing anywhere and at anytime; but when you add the complexities of a nation still recovering and building state institutions, the devastation is made even worse.
  4. Climate change. Like many places around the world, Somalia’s climate is changing. When vegetation and the traditional landscape diverges from its usual pattern, folks are forced to change their historical way of life. For a clannish population like Somalia, such change exacerbates the clan conflicts. Again, these changes are difficult under normal circumstances. For Somalia, that difficulty is dramatically heightened.

How to Stop a Pirate

Like my story above illustrates, getting to the root of the issues causing piracy is more helpful than sending in the navy to take out suspected pirates. While the issues are difficult and complex, solving those will create a more sustainable environment for the country’s health to flourish. Thankfully, several reputable organizations are working in Somalia to do just that.

To assist Somalis in the rebuilding of their institutions and in the recovery from drought, you can donate to one of the non-government organizations below. Specific projects on which they are working can be found at their website or on the NGO Aid Map.

If you cannot donate, or in addition to donating, you can contact Congress to ensure they fund USAID and the Department of State. The proposed drastic cuts to these agencies’ budgets will severely impact the progress that has already occurred. With countries like Somalia experiencing drought and on the verge of famine, we know that building of state institutions and providing relief through development will significantly reduce potential conflict. Congress needs to fully fund the vital programs of the Department of State and USAID, rather than accepting the proposed cuts to those programs. Those programs attest to the validity of the axiom, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Or in this case, providing aid and resources to combat drought and build Somalia’s institutions will assist in stopping piracy.

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