Building roads and harbours in Somalia is a better way of tackling piracy than deploying warships, a study says.
Local elites and communities protect pirates because they lack an income, says the study by two UK universities.
The EU, US and China have all sent ships to the waters off Somalia in order to keep shipping lanes safe.
This has led to a decline in attacks off the Somali coast, with the UN estimating that about 40 people are still being held by pirates.
At the peak of their activity three years ago, the pirates held more than 700 crew members and more than 30 ships.
The World Bank estimates that pirates netted more than $400m (£230m) in ransom money between 2005 and 2012.
Somalia has been a largely lawless state since the fall of long-serving ruler Siad Barre in 1991.
Warlords, religious groups and clans have been fighting for control of Somalia.
The study, by the University of Oxford and King’s College London and published in the British Journal of Criminology, says Somalia witnessed a surge in pirate attacks when territory was contested or elections took place.
This suggested the behaviour of clan leaders in Somalia was similar to that of politicians in Italy and Taiwan, who extended protection to criminals when they needed extra funds to further political ambitions, the study adds.
“Local communities support pirates when there isn’t a better alternative income stream,” said Federico Varese, a co-author of the report based at the University Oxford.
“By improving the infrastructure of Somalia, building new harbours and roads to link the remote areas to trade routes, our research concludes that poorer communities would be less likely to resort to piracy,” he added.
People in Somalia’s north-eastern city of Bosasso cut ties with pirates once the economy grew, the study says.
“As the city regained its importance as a major trading port for livestock and an import centre for the wider region, pirates were no longer tolerated – pirate hostages were freed and pirates were imprisoned by the local clan leaders,” the study adds.