Somali Pirates and Youth Gangs: Not all that Different

Somali Pirates and marginalized youth in America share similar problems

Posted Aug 13, 2011

Five senior Kenyan officials from their Department of Justice recently visited my research centre. Among them was a federal prosecutor and a Supreme Court Justice, both involved in the trials of Somali pirates captured at sea. Because Somalia has no functioning judicial system, Kenya has agreed to hold the trials for the pirates on behalf of the international community. At this moment, as many as 50 commercial vessels are under pirate control.

It's not a problem that is going to go away soon as these young men have nothing to lose (except their lives) and everything to gain hijacking oil tankers. Prospects for the future are so bleak among Somalia's very large population of youth that unless one becomes part of the armed paramilitaries or involves themselves in criminal activity, there are few other opportunities to succeed.

Where else have we heard this same argument? In our own backyards.

If we watch an HBO show like The Wire or, as a more scholarly endeavour, check out a gang prevention initiative like Acting Together, a government funded initiative in Surrey, British Colombia, we'd meet young people with many of the same perceptions of their futures as those of the pirates. In fact, recent work on how communities can create a context for positive youth development makes it clear that young people need to both experience the chance to make something of themselves (that means opportunities for work, education, and training) and perceive their futures as full of hope if they are to avoid delinquency. Both gang involvement and piracy are ways to survive in resource poor contexts where young people feel excluded.

The good news is that as a recent study of 8 US-based community initiatives shows, we know how to make our communities work for young people. Among the most important elements:

  • Make those communities safe, with reasonable expectations that when youth break the law, there is a judicial system to treat them fairly and offer them opportunities to get their lives back on track. Punishment alone makes our communities less safe. Look around the world and we see very clearly, countries with the most punitive, poorly funded (in terms of rehabilitation and diversion services) systems have the highest rates of crime and, coincidentally, incarceration. Jailing young people as punishment makes our communities less safe. No two ways about it.
  • Create what Michael J. Nakkula at the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues call "the New Norm". What that means is valuing young people as a critical resource in their community who need supports and opportunities to grow up well. Youth are by nature opportunists. Give them the mentorship and the chance to do something that makes others see them as powerful forces in their communities, and they'll choose the prosocial over the antisocial 8 times out of 10 (some youth, unfortunately, will still not take advantage of opportunities, at least not at first).
  • And finally, lets stop blaming young people for making bad choices. Nurture trumps nature.

As Urie Bronfenbrenner, among the world's most well know social psychologists, wrote in his classic 1992 paper, "It is true that individuals often can and do modify, select, reconstruct, and even create their environments. But this capacity emerges only to the extent that the person has been enabled to engage in self-directed action as a joint function not only of his biological endowment but also of the environment in which he or she developed. There is not one without the other."

What that means is that pirates follow leaders who tell them to put to sea when there are no other enabling adults in their lives offering anything better. And young people opt for gang involvement for the same reasons.

We have the power to shape communities that not only tell kids gang involvement has serious consequences and they'll be held accountable for their violence, but also communities that give them alternatives. In the United States, Canada, and other western nations, we need to learn from the troubled youth in Somali and make sure we don't make our urban deserts as inhospitable and futureless as those half a world away. While we're at it, we may also want to extend a hand to those Somali youth, addressing the destitution we are witnessing in the refugee camps in Northern Kenya. Without all of us helping, the next generation of pirates will be raised as suredly as communities that neglect the poor in North America are raising the next generation of gang members.