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A development response to Somali piracy

Written by Leni Wild


By Leni Wild and Timothy Othieno

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has been big news in recent months and is an issue that defies any neat classification. Pirates are not linked to any particular state. They operate in international waters, targeting ships owned by a wide variety of countries. They use shadowy international networks to plan their operations and bargain for the lives of their hostages. In the words of a recent Guardian article, this is ‘a regional phenomenon [turned] into a global criminal business’.

The recent rise in Somali-linked piracy attacks has been alarming. According to the ICC’s International Maritime Bureau’s 2008 report, there were more than 110 reported incidents in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia last year, almost double the number seen in 2007. The impact in terms of lost lives and livelihoods is obvious. But major commercial and developmental interests are also at stake, with both developed and developing countries affected.

The international community’s response has been ad hoc, with an overwhelming focus on security: from armed convoys to protect ships, to rescue missions launched by French or American security forces. But piracy is not only a security issue. It is a development challenge that requires a new development response. This response must address the impact and root causes of state collapse and fragmentation within Somalia itself, rather than symptoms such as piracy.

This collapse has its roots in recent history. Since 1991 Somalia has been seen as the archetypal failed state. There have been more than 15 attempts to achieve peace and constitute an effective government, but none has proved sustainable.  This has led to the rise of the warlords, who have divided Somali territory according to its economic potential. War economies have sprung up, contributing to further state fragmentation and loss of control of Somalia’s coast. According to the UN Environmental Programme, the lack of law enforcement along this coastline means that it has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. It is also targeted for illegal fishing: according to press reports, tuna, shrimp and lobster worth more than $300 million are stolen each year through illegal fishing.

Who then are the pirates? The majority are thought to come from Puntland, one of the poorest regions in Somalia and an area of contested sovereignty. Most are thought to be former fishermen, whose livelihoods were undermined by the environmental effects of dumping and excessive illegal fishing. Piracy has also been fuelled by ongoing insecurity, not least due to the inability of the Transitional Federal Government to unite the Somali state. Interestingly, during the six month rule of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, piracy attacks are reported to have dropped in response to some semblance of rule of law and the provision of some basic services.

What would an effective development response look like? In practice, a multi-faceted, multilateral approach is needed, guided by three principles:

  1. Ensure that strategies are driven locally: there is a history of hostility to external intervention in Somalia, reinforced by botched attempts by external actors to enforce transitional arrangements. Any response to piracy needs to respond to local demands and needs, and this means a focus on local security and regenerating livelihoods.
  1. Be careful who you support, and be ready to work with those you don’t: There is a history of backing some groups in Somalia over others, as shown by international support for the Transitional Federal Government, despite a lack of local support. As was the case with the previous president Abdillahi Yusuf, the current Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, seen as a moderate, has considerable international support. But this very support has also undermined his credibility within Somalia. Any successful strategy to combat piracy needs to reach out to all key players within Somalia. Here we might learn from experiences in Somaliland, where clan elders played a key role in negotiating a successful political settlement. In Somalia, the international community could support regional bodies like the African Union (AU), as well as Sheikh Sharif himself, to bring community and clan elders together to develop home grown solutions on Somalia’s security and development challenges, including piracy.

3.    Provide new opportunities and a reason to ‘invest’: One of the underlying motivations for piracy is economic. Criminal networks may find it easier to target young men in areas where livelihoods have been destroyed, and where there is hostility to outside actors. The international community, again working with regional bodies like the AU, could develop development programmes that focus on the regeneration of fishing communities – combined with concerted efforts to curtail illegal dumping and fishing.

These three principles would help development donors have more impact, not only on piracy, but on the development challenges facing Somalia. The media focus on piracy could be an opportunity to move its underlying causes up the international agenda, with growing awareness that they must be addressed if piracy in the Gulf of Aden is to be overcome. Until this happens, tackling piracy alone will only take us so far.