Tag Archives: Africa

Piracy and Poverty in Somalia, part II

I’ve received a lot of hits from people googling “piracy poverty Somalia” and stumbling upon this MediaScout entry of mine from November. This was no doubt triggered by the high-profile hostage-taking of an American captain off the coast of Somalia, but the act of typing those three words into a search engine, I think, is heartening: people want to go beyond the war talk and Navy SEAL firefights (and, hopefully, the done-to-death “argh, matey” jokes) to probe the root causes of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. My MediaScout piece is months old now, but some of it is still relevant, especially since piracy isn’t going anywhere – three more ships were hijacked yesterday and today. If you’re interested, here it is:

Piracy and Poverty in Somalia

November 19, 2008

What do you do with a Somali pirate? Well, nobody knows. Following the hijacking of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star this weekend — the largest ship ever hijacked — and pirates’ seizure of two more ships off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden yesterday, modern-day buccaneering is all over the Big Seven. Somali piracy has been occurring for years now, but the numbers are getting too big to ignore: Seven hijackings in twelve days; ninety-two attacks so far this year; fourteen ships and 243 crew still in pirate custody, with the 318,000-ton Sirius Star carrying $100 million in oil cargo. Turning piracy into a numbers game may seem cold, but money is what this issue is all about; Somalia has been without a functioning government for some two decades, and The National (video link) reports that pirates have landed $20 million this year. Piracy means employment for young gangs and income for an embattled country — trickle-down economics on the high seas.

For an issue that the Big Seven seem to think came out of nowhere, there is some surprisingly insightful analysis. Mostly, though, it points out just how daunting the task of fighting piracy is. Striking pirate bases would kill civilians; Canadian naval forces capturing pirates for prosecution would require gathering evidence admissible under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; extra security or taking different shipping routes is expensive. Just today, the Indian navy said it sank a suspected pirate vessel, with the pirates getting away. But as journalist and piracy expert Daniel Sekulich tells The National, the only way to fix Somali piracy is to address the wrenching poverty and crisis of governance underlying it. It may be tough for the Canadian media to wrap their heads around twenty-first-century sea dogs, but this is no joke. “It looks like a deliberate two fingers from some very bright Somalis,” an unnamed analyst tells Reuters of the Star capture. “Anyone who describes them as a bunch of camel herders needs to think again.”

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Computers from Sierra Leone

Last year, in one of my classes, we discussed witchcraft beliefs in Sierra Leone, where some hold that there exists an invisible city populated by cannibalistic elites who prey on ordinary people and enjoy the finest in luxury goods and technology. Our discussion focused on how closely the modern-day witch city mirrors popular perceptions of Westerners and corrupt local leaders – they hoard money, exploit the poor, and offer only the most rudimentary of technological advances while keeping the best for themselves. One of the examples of this, perhaps surprisingly, was the One Laptop Per Child program, which aims to provide children in the developing world with extremely basic computers – the critique being that the West is only willing to provide the barest trappings of laptop technology.

Walrus blogger Jon Evans has a good post on OLPC, turning its latest organizational woes into a broader critique of the idea itself. His best point:

Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone. Tiny villages in Africa have GSM coverage and cell-phone stalls run by local entrepeneurs. You can bank by phone from the Colombian jungle, or get market prices texted to you while fishing off the Indian coast. Mobile phones have permeated the developing world to such an amazing degree that it makes no sense to try and reproduce that existing cultural and technical infrastructure from scratch.

Also, for your amusement.

Finally, in response to my irrefutable charge that Vanderbilt is a sloppy, non-fact-checky “citizen journalist,” the accused writes:

Rather, I was simply referring to the fact that finding free internet in Montreal, let alone ANY URBAN CENTER, is ridiculously easy, and Nelles’ inability to do so may not be as valid an excuse as he made it out to be earlier in the week.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Vanderbilt would write something so classist, since he’s an elitist Eagle Scout from San Francisco. I was not in an “urban center” at the time. I was in my hometown, a place that could be reasonably described, if I may borrow phrasing without attribution, as “a hellhole. An absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn’t stand to spend a weekend there. It’s just an awful, awful sad place, filled with sad, desperate people with no ambition. Nobody, and I mean nobody, but me has ever come out of that place. It’s a genetic cesspool.” So no, I wasn’t able to run out the door, MacBook in hand, in search of some ironically-named wannabe Algonquin Round Table, you cheese-eating West Coast Democrat.

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African energy, European opportunity

An article from Wednesday’s Guardian outlines a European Union proposal that would see vast solar farms in North Africa power all of Europe with clean energy. From the article:

The scientists are calling for the creation of a series of huge solar farms – producing electricity either through photovoltaic cells, or by concentrating the sun’s heat to boil water and drive turbines – as part of a plan to share Europe’s renewable energy resources across the continent.

…The grid proposal, which has won political support from both Nicholas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, answers the perennial criticism that renewable power will never be economic because the weather is not sufficiently predictable. Its supporters argue that even if the wind is not blowing hard enough in the North Sea, it will be blowing somewhere else in Europe, or the sun will be shining on a solar farm somewhere.

Scientists argue that harnessing the Sahara would be particularly effective because the sunlight in this area is more intense: solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in northern Africa could generate up to three times the electricity compared with similar panels in northern Europe.

Exciting news, at first glance. But the fairness of the plan will depend on the eventual energy-sharing arrangement, which the article doesn’t really address: will North Africa be hooked up to Europe’s clean-energy grid, or just be a one-way exporter? Western powers never tire of insisting that developing countries should adhere to emissions-reduction targets – hardly a simple demand for industrializing economies – and here’s a chance for just that. This should be considered an African opportunity to realize that ever-elusive goal, sustainable development. So why is African solar energy Europe’s to take?

The Guardian’s usually-astute international analysis fell far short here. I wonder what an eventual energy deal would look like – it’s not so hard to imagine, as renewables become more widespread and lucrative, the kind of deeply unfair oil law imposed on Iraq refashioned for North Africa’s soon-to-be-profitable solar harvests.

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