Orlando's picture

    Pirates? Are you kidding me?

    There are still pirates? I mean, I figured there must still be a few if them around because every so often there would be a really stupid movie about modern-day psychos terrorizing some perfectly nice couple on their private yacht. But the news this month has brought attention to the fact that there’s a whole culture of piracy alive and well, centered in Somalia.

    …the new generation of pirates [have] turned the Gulf of Aden into the most dangerous shipping lane in the world. The success of their rough and ready tactics has been such that insurers are warning that ship owners may have to use alternative routes, which would have tremendous ramifications for global trade and commodity prices.

    International governments are committing millions of pounds to fighting the pirates. The Royal Navy's HMS Cumberland joined forces with a Russian frigate to kill three pirates as they attempted to seize a Danish vessel in the latest incident on Tuesday.

    In Somalia, there is at least one entire town that runs on revenue from piracy. It used to be a fishing village, but after the overthrow of the Somali government in 1991, large international trawlers moved in on Somali waters and drove the local fisherman away. Since 1991, their country has been pretty much ravaged by way, like much of Africa.

    They are engaging in criminal activity that is unacceptable in an interdependent world, that’s for sure. But guess how many people have lost their lives this year due to Somali piracy (not including pirates).


    To be fair, nine more are missing and probably dead. So eighteen.

    Now, I hardly mean to minimize these nine lives. Every death is tragic to someone. But I only mention it so that I can ask this: how many children do you think died in Africa last year?

    Really. I mean it. Take a wild guess. I am taking one now, as I write this, before I go looking for the answer. I’m guessing 2 million. Does that sound reasonable? Sounds pretty fucking horrific to me, but let’s see how close I got. Just a minute...





    Wow, was I off.

    Worldwide in 2007, more than 9 million children died before they reached the age of 5. Almost half of them were from sub-Saharan Africa. So, that’s 4 and a half million kids, under 5, that died in part of Africa last year.

    So, let’s review. The news media and governments and corporations are all up in arms because of an increase in Somali pirates seizing ships in the Gulf of Aden, demanding millions in ransom payments for crew and cargo.

    Piracy is pretty outrageous. You know what else is outrageous?

    Four and a half million children under five dying from starvation, preventable diseases, and savage wars, that’s what.

    Maybe, if the world paid some attention to what is causing so much poverty, illness, death and destruction in Africa, pirates could go back to being villains in bad movies.


    Solution: Enroll all African children under the age of five in elite pirate fighting programs with free food and health care.

    PS Pirates are high drama. Dying children without names and faces are boring.

    Funny, I'm not feeling much outrage from you two.

    So you're outraged that we're not outraged by the lack of outrage about dying children.

    It's just that disproportionate interest in matters of emotional significance is an old, old story which goes to the heart of human psychology. Why did media obsess over O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey and ignore millions of other murders? Why do we care when a few western tourists are kidnapped in Algeria while millions are dying in Congo.

    People react to narratives, particularly narratives that they can relate to. That's why the micro-loan program you wrote about directed your money to a specific individual and told you her story. The most efficient way to do it would been just to put your money in a fund, but then you would have been less likely to donate.

    As for the media, they just report on what interests us. If you were to title this post "Malnourishment and disease kill African children" instead of "Pirates? Are you kidding me?" I expect that you would not receive as many clicks.

    So my advice to you, fellow member of the media, if you want to generate interest in issues of social justice, is to tell good stories.

    Yeah, I know it's the narrative that matters. It's an old fundraising technique. But it still bugs me.

    I'm as guilty as anyone else in responding to emotional stimuli--the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina--if it shows the face of human suffering, it's compelling. But Africa has a face too--a few hundred million faces, actually. And their stories are getting told and there are people who are out there working hard to make a difference but there are more people who just feel bad and never do anything about it. 

    And still, I don't think that's as bad as policymakers and government officials who blow pirate ships out of the water, but do nothing to improve the conditions that led to the piracy in the first place. Who wants to be a pirate? Seriously. I know it might sound and swashbuckling, but would you really choose a job where you might get horribly burned in a fire before the ship sank and you drowned over a slightly less romantic option like running a shop or being a farmer? People gotta feed their kids. When their kids are starving, they have to make even more difficult choices. I think spending a little time and money alleviating the root causes of crime--in this case, piracy--might cut down on the problem.

    These pirates are not desperate fisherman trying to feed their families. They are mostly young men who are attracted by the money, as happens with organized crime everywhere. And there is quite a lot of money to be had in pirating, especially relative to per capita incomes in Somalia.

    The reason that pirating has flourished in Somalia is not its poverty but rather its anarchy. The pirates can operate there unhindered by prosecuting authorities. Moreover, pouring money into Somalia won't even solve its endemic poverty. Somalia's problems are structural. Without an end to the war and a functioning government and institutions, the people will never be able to climb out of poverty. The best we can do is to provide food aid to the starving--that is when it's possible to get it to them rather than to the warlords who run the country.

    If you have ideas for ending the war and anarchy, I welcome them, but that's one of the toughest problems in the world right now. I would like the U.S. to put pressure on Ethopia, which backs the dysfunctional "government" there, to negotiate with the Islamists. I have deep concerns about what the Islamists will do to the country, but they can't be worse than the warlords. That said, I felt the same way about Afganistan before the Taliban, and we know how that turned out.

    Ok, I'm not really suggesting that the current Somali pirates are desparately poor and trying to feed their families. Obviously, they are quite wealthy based on the money that they are making. But had they been given another choice, I believe that many of them would have taken it. There will always be organized crime. There will always be gang crime. But where there are other options available, and examples to follow of men who have taken those options, most young men would make the safer choice, don't you think?  

    If only I had an idea, or better yet a magic wand, for fixing a large part of Africa. The governments are beligerent or non-existent, and the people can't exert social pressure because they are too busy trying to keep themselves and their children alive. There are plenty of NGOs trying to provide food and water and services, but it seems like an uphill battle short a huge influx of cash AND the pressure that you talk about. 

    Add to all the expected problems that in many places an entire generation is just dead, from AIDS, and you have kids growing up without an adult presence in some kind twisted Never Never Land. Oh, and the fact that genocide doesn't seem to be any sort of moral barrier for some of the countries.

    Jesus. I'm depressed. 

    I thought Somanila was a disease you got for eating raw eggs, not a country where pirates hideout.

    Why so much attention to piracy off Somalia and so little to Africa's horrendous record of child poverty and death? Because only the first impacts other countries' trade and bottom lines.

    But that attention is potentially a great thing, since the two problems have the same roots: bad or non-existent governance, corruption, and swings between western neglect and misguided interference.

    Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean has reached the point where about two vessels are attacked each week. As the pirates grow bolder, it's clear a co-ordinated international response is needed. A multilateral effort.

    The Indian, Russian, U.S., British, Canadian and other NATO navies already patrol the shipping lane from Suez. Other countries that have seen their ships or cargos hijacked -- including China and Iran -- could no doubt be enlisted in a mission to clear the coast of pirate mother ships.

    The ad-hoc coalition could then mount a diplomatic effort toward helping Somalia create a stable national government, instead of the warlord kleptocracy it has now. And yes, that implies negotiating a major role for the Islamic movement that the U.S. and its Ethiopian ally militarily pushed from power.

    I realize this sounds like pie in the sky. But failed states fuel Africa's grinding poverty and conflicts over land and resources. Somalia would be a good place to try turning that around. 

    Nothing like attacking Western interests to get the world to pay attention to you.

    Agree about negotiating with the Islamic movement. Unfortunately, the movement is more extreme than it once was, and I'm sure how open to negotiation they are or how well they'd be able to work with secular interests. I fear that the only available alternative to anarchy is a Talibanesque regime. That would improve stability, as Taliban did for Afghanistan, but at the expense of women and could offer a safe haven for militant jihadists.

    In case Hugh Bartling doesn't cross-post this to TPM, Daewoo has contracted to lease half the arable land on Madagascar, where they will grow food to ship back to S Korea. The catch is that 65% of the locals are already facing, "chronic food insecurity."

    Korean Concern Leases Half of Madagascar

    So just as we pay Nigerian strongmen for their oil rights, Korea will be paying Malagasy strongmen for their nutrient rights. And the people will either starve, steal or become revolutionaries.

    That's fascinating and troubling, Donal. Thanks for the link. I wonder if this kind of arrangement will become more common. I don't think that the problems are quite as clear cut as you suggest. Madagascar is more democratic and less corrupt than many other African nations. Neither Madagascar nor Nigeria has a "strongman" like Mugabe. Conflating them belittles the real successes that these nations have had. But there is a ruling class that will reap most of the benefits, as has happened in Latin America. Still the deal will provide much needed capital to the country, and assuming that Korea hires locals, some compensation will go directly to the farmers. Finally, with a true democratic government and international stature, Korea may be more responsive to human rights pressure than Madagascar itself.

    There are serious issues of concern though. You're right about the threat to the environment. Furthermore, the price of food is likely to go up locally, so even if the Malagasians have more money, they may be able to buy less with it. Moreover, if Malagasians are excluded from management, they won't develop local expertise, and the arrangement will truly be nouveau colonial, or even nouveau feudal. Furthermore, the system may be replicated by undemocratic powers like China and Russia who could cut deals with third world regimes that are much more corrupt and totalitarian than Madagascar.

    I was hasty with Madagascar, but I sit next to a Nigerian national at work, who is going back for a Xmas/family visit. He is concerned about his safety, saying that now it isn't just foreign oil workers that are kidnapped by the rebels, but anyone that seems prosperous enough to afford the ransom. The current Nigerian President may not be as heavy-handed as the military junta that ruled in the 90s, but his election, and that of his predecessor, were certainly suspicious.

    Mexico used to have suspicious elections too, but it wasn't ruled by strongman. The ultimate difference between a strongman and a president is that a strongman never leaves. Time will tell.

    I would define a strongman as wielding more power than his position grants him. Cheney, for instance.

    I'm guilty of conflating many of the conflicts/problems in Africa. Or misappropriating them to the wrong country. With so much craziness, it is truly hard to keep up. And also, even for the countries that are doing okay, it all seems very precarious, like they could topple pretty fast if the right (or wrong) combination of factors intruded.

    You and Sarah P.

    Geez, New Yorkers are mean.

    And also.


    Hey, LisB - I love your new avatar.

    Thanks, Donnie!!  Amazing what happens when I take off my glasses in front of a mirror and take a picture of myself with a shaky hand, ain't it?


    To nitpick, Genghis, a native of Madagascar is a Malagasy (plural: Malagasies), not a Malagasian. Malagasian can be a scientific term for the flora, fauna and geology of the island, but not its people or its language.

    The French form of Malagasy is "Malgache," and the English equivalent -- prior to independence in 1960 -- used to be "Malagasque" or "Madagasque."

    Now that the official name of the country is Republic of Madagascar, rather than Malagasy Republic, you sometimes hear the adjective "Madagascan." But you never hear "Malagasian." Except on Dagblog.

    Malagasian on occasion only.

    And I suppose that the Asians are Asies?

    One more nitpick, and you're banned for EVER!

    You know.....you're starting to sound a lot like my nemesis Sarah Palin Grrrrllll.  I'm surprised you didn't spell it:  4Evah!


    I believe East Villagers are known as Assies....

    According to this Telegraph article, Daewoo Logistics expects to pay nothing for the land. Even worse, they only intend to grow maize and raw ingredients for biofuels. All the locals will get out of it are jobs, roads and "expertise."

    I don't see that explicitly in the article. According to Bloomberg, there's a price of up to $5 per hectare per year and a total expected cost, including infrastructure development, of $6B over 20 years. That's a third of Madagascar's GDP or 2% annualized (not accounting for inflation). I'll be posting on this soon.

    "That" was said here:

    The Madagascar deal is striking by its size and, according to some reports, its financing. Daewoo Logistics, one of a new breed of Korean companies born from the break-up of its traditional, huge conglomerates after the Asian financial crisis, says it may have to pay nothing for the land.

    And in the Bloomberg article, note that Shin said the $5 per hectare was, "... negotiable, so we are in talks with Madagascar officials hopefully to cut it down before finalizing the rental fee."

    Also, Bartling just added that Daewoo intends to import South African laborers.

    Amazing how fast an international coalition is shaping up to suppress the Somali pirates. Yesterday, Egypt convened its Arab neighbors dependent on the Suez-Indian Ocean sea lanes to co-ordinate their response.

    India, South Korea, Russia and the Europeans are all boosting their naval presences. UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon has signed off on concerted action, and so apparently has the transitional government in Mogadishu. (The pirates operate out of the breakaway region of Puntland, which Mogadishu wouldn't mind reintegrating.)

    So we'll see some military fireworks. The big question is whether the countries affected will also see the urgency of co-operating to rebuild Somalia. One good sign: Somali parliamentarians and the main Islamist militia have both denounced the pirates.

    Yes, Genghis is right that when economic interest or heartstrings are involved, the world pays attention and moves fast. Look at the tsunami relief effort. That was a huge amount of money raised in such a short time. It's good, in that the opportunity and possibility exists to address problems quickly. I just wish that we wouldn't give up on the more desperate-seeming problems.

    Object lessons like this are what it takes. If the desperation of Somali fishermen and sailors translates into an extra dollar or two per barrel of oil in India and China, attention gets paid to the plight of Somalia.

    A lot of Somalis see the pirates as Robin Hoods, much like Bonnie, Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd during the American Depression. I read somewhere that ship ransoms now pour more money into the Somali economy than international aid does.

    John Oliver feels the outrage.


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