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Piracy puts global attention on Somalia's plight

Piracy has proven to be a unifying force when it comes to international aid for Somalia.

BRUSSELS — No one could say the booming epidemic of piracy has been good for the majority of Somalia’s citizens, those who don’t earn anything from the million-dollar ransoms the hijackers have been successfully raking in.

But there has been one backward benefit — the entire world is now focused on Somalia, unified in its desperation to reverse the conditions that have spawned these ragtag mercenaries and allowed them to thrive virtually unchecked.

A Somalia donors conference in Brussels Thursday — co-sponsored by the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union — would normally have drawn attention from humanitarians and dutiful pledges for increased food aid from governments. But this time around, it was a much bigger crowd-puller, as a "donors conference in support of Somalia’s security." More than 30 governments and international organizations overshot the U.N.’s request for $166 million, donating a total of about $250 million in cash, equipment and training.

Piracy has finally made the international community feel Somalia’s pain.

This convergence of interests drew special mention from Somalia’s president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. “The international community and Somalia have shared issues at this moment,” Ahmed told the conference, without mentioning piracy in particular. “So as such it’s a very interesting time in history.”

United Nations Special Representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah employed a less oblique description of the “shared issues.”

“Today Somalia is a threat to itself, Somalia is a threat to the region and Somalia is a threat to the world,” he said, “with unnecessary violence and continued acts of piracy.” Ould-Abdallah went so far as to remind observers of the usefulness of failed states for terrorists, suggesting that supporting the government now will be more efficient than dealing with the consequences of the country’s continued instability.

The donations will support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia — there are currently 4,300 employees there, but there are plans to increase that to 8,000 — and will help boost Somalia’s own forces up to 10,000 police and 5,000 other security officers. Ahmed had also asked for support for his coast guard, so they can go after pirates more effectively.

The 44-year-old sheikh was himself previously an Islamist rebel leader in the fight to control the country. He was a controversial choice when he won the presidential election in January, becoming the leader of the 15th government to try to rule Somalia in the last 18 years.

But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at the meeting that, “we have seen so much strong support and political will demonstrated,” both by and for Ahmed's relatively new administration. Ban agreed that this is a watershed moment for Somalia — a “crossroads,” as he called it.