The Moral Economy of Somali Piracy – Organised Criminal Business or Subsistence Activity?

Somali piracy is increasingly explained in terms of organised criminal business. This article argues that piracy does not constitute a business and the analogy with organised crime is misleading and can obstruct the search for a long term settlement. Dismissing the underlying grievance, the destruction of Somali fisheries by foreign trawlers, with literalist explanations such as ‘pirates are rarely fishermen’ and ‘most targets are cargo ships’, ignores its function as a ‘legitimating notion’. The concept of ‘moral economy’ is used to explain how along the coast but also within the diaspora the identity of Somalis as victims is used to legitimize pirate activities. International responses should therefore focus actively and symbolically on reconstructing livelihoods along the coast, instead of seeking security sector and criminal justice solution. This is possible and cost effective because Somali piracy is a subsistence activity driven by lack of employment and investment opportunities, and provides a limited economic stimulus for coastal micro economies.