The (Continuing) Problem of Piracy

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a four-point plan for dealing with the continuing problem of piracy off the coast of Somalia. After a recent increase in attacks, including the much-discussed kidnapping of the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Clinton’s plan is an attempt to develop a more compressive solution to the problem. The Clinton plan includes:

  1. Sending an envoy to the upcoming Somali donor’s conference to develop a plan to improve the situation in Somalia.
  2. Increasing the multilateral response to piracy by expanding U.S. cooperation with the Con tact Group on Piracy Off the Somali Coast (CGPCS).
  3. Encouraging greater criminal prosecution of pirates by the states of the international community.
  4. Eliminating the financial incentive for piracy by tracking and freezing pirates’ assets and by refusing make concessions or pay ransoms for captured prisoners or ships.

The solution to the problem of piracy depends largely on how the problem of piracy itself is framed. Blogging at FP, Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Somalia is quickly becoming one of the world’s largest hostage crises. But in framing the problem primarily as one of criminal activity, she advocates policing solutions. Chris Blattman highlights the problem of incentives—essentially, that piracy pays.  He’s right, but again, this frames the problem as one primarily of criminality, leading again to solutions of increased policing. And at least three of Clinton’s proposals also fall into this camp.

But if we think of piracy as not just an act of criminality but also as a rational decision in the context of the failed Somali state, then solutions to the crisis must extend beyond increasing patrols and prosecutions. Since 1991, Somalia has effectively been without a government, and has instead been ruled by local militias and which have essentially divided the country into their own private fiefdoms. In the absence of a central authority, the formal economy has similarly collapsed, cutting off options for gainful employment for Somalis. In the absence of other options, young men turn to the militias (or piracy) for employment. As long as there remains no other viable options, piracy will continue to be a problem in Somalia. The long-term solution to the problem of piracy thus rests not just in treating it as a simple criminal activity. Any pirates arrested and tried could quickly be replaced from a waiting pool of recruits. Instead, real effort must be made to establish a stable political economy in the country. Unfortunately, this is probably the hardest of Clinton’s four proposals; it is also the most necessary.

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