May 1, 2017

What’s Behind the Resurgence of Somali Pirates, Why it Matters

By Sean Hansen

Last week, the Pentagon issued a security warning to commercial shipping companies regarding international piracy—following a recent spike in attacks off the coast of Somalia. While this should cause American shipping companies to be on high alert with nearly one-third of the world’s commercial ships passing through this region, it is perhaps more indicative of how closely tied global security is to the world’s current humanitarian emergencies.

Yet today’s crises are unfolding amidst a backdrop in which the White House seeks to slash funding for critical foreign assistance programs designed to alleviate these crises. The administration’s Skinny Budget proposes disproportionate cuts of up to 31% for the State Department and USAID—cuts that would leave Americans more vulnerable and undercut our military’s most critical partners.

Somalia is one example of how a failed state or humanitarian emergency can destabilize American interests even beyond our borders. When asked about the recent surge in piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia, U.S. Africa Commander General Thomas Waldhauser pointed to the devastating famine that Somalia is currently facing. Speaking alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis in neighboring Djibouti, Gen. Waldhauser said: “The reasons we see for that have to do with the drought and the famine.” U.S. troops closely monitoring the surge of piracy in the region have also pointed out that it has impacted their ability to focus on counterterrorism efforts in East Africa, where terrorist groups like Al Shabaab and ISIS compete for influence. Gen. Waldhauser noted that the mass movement of Somalis due to the drought has complicated intelligence efforts in the region.

With more than half of its population in need of food assistance, Somalia’s sudden spike in piracy – in which pirates have seized food and oil from commercial ships—appears closely tied to its devastating famine. But Somalia’s crisis is just one of many complex humanitarian disasters occurring today throughout Africa and the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are also facing the most-severe level-three humanitarian emergencies, while Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen are also facing deadly famines.

U.S. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) recently visited the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda to get a closer look at how the global food and refugee crises are impacting East Africa. In a display of bipartisan support, Senator Corker— chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee— stressed that continuing to provide “life-sustaining food to those in need [is] an urgent priority that only grows by the day.” Senator Coons similarly highlighted the importance of America’s leadership in these crises, and issued a “call for maintaining U.S. funding for humanitarian assistance.”

We know that American diplomacy and development can show success.  In Ethiopia, in spite of this year’s devastating drought, USAID reports that among households which experienced the most severe conditions, the ones reached by the full range of USAID’s resilience programs – including efforts to diversify livelihoods, increase financial services, and expand access to new markets—experienced an insignificant decline (4%) in their food security, compared with households that didn’t receive USAID assistance, which saw their food security decline considerably (by 30%).

The numbers are staggering. In addition to the 65 million global refugees and displaced persons, the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria have placed a total of 20 million people at risk of starvation, including 1.4 million children. In both South Sudan and Somalia, nearly half of the country is estimated to be food insecure. In Yemen, severe conflict has led to a staggering 19 million who are in need of immediate assistance—including more than 14 million who are facing food shortages.  The United Nations humanitarian coordinator recently declared that “we are at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN.”

America’s top military leaders and combatant commanders have weighed in, and agree that the proposed budget cuts would make their jobs more difficult.  While it may be the greatest fighting force in the world, the military alone cannot win battles against humanitarian disasters, political instability, or economic collapse—all of which fuel global instability. For these challenges, America needs a different set of tools that can complement the capability of our military to address these crises. America’s civilian development and diplomacy agencies, including the State Department and USAID, are critical in these efforts.

As the White House seeks to release its full budget in the coming months, America should not be pulling away from its global leadership – it should be stepping up to the plate. With the world facing its largest humanitarian crisis ever, let’s remember that our strategic investments in diplomacy and development help keep America safe and strong.

Photo Source: Flickr / CC