Governments struggling to rid sea lanes off Somalia of pirates face a dilemma: while paying a ransom only encourages and emboldens pirates, they also have a duty to protect their kidnapped citizens. The US is staking out the moral high ground and is leading a charge to outlaw payments. But as laudable as the idea is, a ban is not practical. American - and other - officials would do better to put their energies into gaining multilateral acceptance to tackle the roots of the problem: Somali lawlessness and poverty. Paying ransoms feeds the cycle. The pirates are estimated to have received US$100 million to return ships and crew over the past year. They still hold nine vessels and about 200 people; their demands are getting ever greater. Extortion makes them greedier and gives them the means to be better equipped to carry out their crimes. It is good that the US is sending a signal that paying ransoms is unacceptable. For all its good intentions, though, there is no way such a rule can be enforced. A ship owner who has a non-US-flagged vessel has no reason to abide by such a rule. When lives and profits are at stake, the quickest means of saving crews and getting cargoes moving again is invariably to negotiate a financial settlement. Navies of at least 40 countries are patrolling the waters off the Horn of Africa to keep shipping between Asia and Europe travelling through the Gulf of Aden safe. Such co-operation is unprecedented. While the number of pirate attacks in the north Indian Ocean has more than doubled, there has been a substantial decrease in the level of successful hijackings. But militaries are not the long-term solution; Somalia's dire circumstances mean that there is a seemingly unending supply of young men willing to try their hand at piracy. There is no easy solution. Somalia has not had a meaningful government for more than two decades. Ending the grip of warlords and bringing peace and stability will require a mammoth international effort. As laudable as a ransom ban may be, a more meaningful direction for Washington and other nations is to find a way, together, to bring order to the nation and improve Somalis' lot.