Partially due to our cultural misconceptions of poverty, and partially due to the complexity that defines the region, piracy must first be explained in order to understand its causes. Piracy, at least within the context of Somalia, is not a political statement. Explained in a paper published by the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, piracy in Somalia is purely a pursuit of wealth. The pirates who capture vessels in the Gulf of Aden (the waterway off the coast of Somalia) assign both the crew and cargo monetary value thus mitigating the risk of executions. Once a ransom is paid the crew along with the ship and cargo are almost always released. Anything else would be bad business.
Since one of the first documented cases of piracy in the Gulf of Aden in 2005, piracy has proven extremely lucrative for impoverished Somalis. The case in question, the hijacking of a Hong Kong ship owned by Feisty Gas resulted in a $315,000 ransom for the pirates. Ransoms then steadily increased to their all-time high in 2012 when a hijacked Greek Tanker, the Smyrni, paid off $9.5m for her captors. While lucrative for the pirates, it is extremely expensive for the international community. Estimates for how much piracy in the Gulf of Aden has cost the global economy range from $7b to $18b, the latter figure being quoted by the World Bank.
However, according to the Economist this drop in piracy represents the fruits of a temporary solution. Security measures are quoted as being the primary reason for the reduction in attacks, as 60% of vessels traveling through the area now carry armed guards. Faster ship speeds, razor wire entanglements on ship rails and higher-pressure hoses have also acted as major deterrents to would-be pirates.
Despite the success increased security measures seem to have, maritime experts fear that these solutions are not permanent. According to Jon Huggins, the director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, the gains we have had against piracy are “fragile and reversible” as reported in the Economist. The defensive measures taken by merchant vessels in the region are effective but expensive, with higher speeds and permanent armed guards unlikely to continue far into the future. The extensive presence of international war ships is also anything but permanent, with EU and NATO mandates expiring at the end of 2014. To truly eradicate the phenomenon of piracy, the problem has to be attacked at the core.
What then are the primary causes of piracy? Can they be eliminated or even mitigated?
On the surface, piracy appears to be caused purely by a lack of economic opportunity. This stands to reason as piracy, at least in the Gulf of Aden, is conducted purely for monetary reasons. This also holds with the statistics that come out of the country. According to the Guardian, seven out of ten people in Somalia are unemployed with 70% of the population below age 35. Even for those who manage to make it into the workforce, their prospects are not much better. The annual average income of Somalia is estimated to be US $650, meaning a little over $50 a month and under $2 daily. Alternatively, a single act of piracy can garner $10,000 for any given participant.
The political breakdown of a state results in negative economic consequences which include the breakdown of financial institutions and property rights. The poverty sparked by the phenomenon of state-failure therefore results in desperation which can then be exploited for profit. Moreover, with the breakdown of state control over a region comes the absence of law and order, meaning the cost of crime is substantially reduced. Without police or a functioning judicial system, conducting acts of piracy become a logical equation as the reward will out-weigh the risk.
State failure is therefore the obvious cause for the multitude of problems Somalia faces. According to the BBC, Somalia has been without a parliament since 1991 when warring clans overthrew President Barre but could not agree on a replacement government to fill the gap. A lack of centralized government made the country vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought and famine. While a foreign backed government was recently instated in 2012 the country still lies divided with semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland to the North and the ever growing threat of Islamist insurgents in the form of Al-Shabaab. In essence, there is little to no control over the country by a centralized government.
Therefore, to effectively eliminate piracy Somalia has to be rebuilt. Piracy cannot be compartmentalized and destroyed as it is the result of the lack of a functioning state. While security measures and the presence of foreign warships prove as effective short term solutions, the long term prevention of piracy rests on the international community’s ability to derive and implement a vast array of development strategies for Somalia. A stable Somalia is not only important for the welfare of Somalis, but for the world as a whole.