Very interesting story last night on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent about Somali pirates, reported by Andrew Fowler in Puntland. He remarked optimistically that “until a year ago most people had never even heard of” Puntland, but it’s a fair bet that even most ABC viewers had never heard of it until last night, and if they weren’t watching they probably still haven’t.

Which is a pity, because it’s a facinating place. Somalia as a whole is not unfairly described as a “failed state”, but its northern half has a bit more political coherence. The north-west has declared its independence as Somaliland, and is a functional (though unrecognised) multi-party democracy. The north-east, Puntland, claims only to be an autonomous state within Somalia, but since no central Somali authority recognises its autonomy, it too is de facto independent.

As Fowler reported last night, Puntland’s new president, Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, a former finance minister, was until recently a PhD student at Melbourne’s LaTrobe University. He is keen to engage with the western world and says that economic development in Puntland could solve the problem of piracy for a fraction of the money currently being paid out in ransoms.

But the program’s conclusion risked misleading viewers when it described Puntlanders as “victims of … the world’s neglect to actively engage in solving the problems of the failed state of Somalia.” The problem in Somalia hasn’t been a lack of engagement: it’s been engagement on the wrong side.

It was American (and before that Soviet) support that propped up Somalia’s long-term dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, until 1991. When Somalis finally emerged from anarchy in 2006 under the Union of Islamic Courts, it was American and Ethiopian military intervention that deposed them, under the pretence that they were soft on terrorism. It’s the west that has diplomatically isolated Somaliland, and now western naval intervention threatens to comprehensively destabilise Puntland.

The problems of dysfunctional countries are more often the result of foreign intervention than native malaise — just as the Taliban was sponsored by the Pakistani secret service, which in turn was sponsored by the CIA.

The moral is a more general one. Supporters of an activist foreign policy have the same blind spot as proponents of government intervention in a host of other fields: they assume that the good guys will always be in charge, and that the interventionist policies adopted will be the right ones.

But for a variety of reasons, including the nature of large organisations and the incentive structure of politics, things don’t work out that way, and government activity often produces more harm than good. We can do more for Somalia by heeding that lesson than by assuming that we have all the solutions.