Subject: East Timor - nation-building in a rush
The European Voice
Vol. 12 No. 30 : 3 August 2006
East Timor - nation-building in a rush
Outbreaks of violence and failed development projects suggest that the international community might have been too quick to consider the independence of East Timor a success story
By Judith Crosbie
An EU report on the situation in East Timor is to recommend focusing on poverty alleviation and strengthening communications between the local population and the central government.
The report, being finalised by the EU envoy to East Timor, Miguel Amado, is the result of his mission which began on 6 July and ended this week. The mission focused on unrest in April and May, which was sparked by the sacking of 600 soldiers. At least 37 people were killed in the ensuing violence with 150,000 people fleeing their homes.
Amado says there is also a need for technical experts to help train local people in institution-building.
"The main question is on security and how we can give support to the wider population. People are suffering from poverty and a lack of communication. They don't know what is happening in Dili [East Timor's capital city]," he says.
The European Commission is an important donor to East Timor and has given financial aid of 200 million euro since the country voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. A development aid programme worth 18m euro was signed just before the unrest broke out and since then 3m euro was donated to help those displaced by the violence.
The recent violence has been blamed on poor management of the justice system, militarisation of the security forces and the introduction of certain measures, such as a tough defamation law, which evoked memories of Indonesian rule. An international force led by Australian troops has stabilised the situation and moves are under way to put in a UN-led force.
But the unrest has also served as a warning to the international community that they may have been too quick to pass East Timor off as a success story.
In particular the scaling back of a UN peacekeeping mission is now seen as a mistake. "The UN dismantled too early. You cannot build a country on the cheap and on the rush," says Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Gomes who recently visited East Timor.
Various international groups, including the EU, have also been criticised for the way they have managed projects in East Timor by not involving the local population enough and not communicating to them the benefits of what was being done.
"Some projects have been very big on international consultation and low on local capacity building," says Alex Grainger of the Dili-based non-governmental organisation, La'o Hamutuk. He cites one EU-funded project which involved the development of chambers of commerce. "They haven't worked because the people who set them up didn't do enough training on what they were and how they were supposed to work," says Grainger.
La'o Hamutuk published a report in February this year pointing out that, "if the EC [European Commission] is committed to democratisation, good governance, and eradication of poverty, then local community participation must be central.
"Thus far, La'o Hamutuk sees that local community participation in various programs designed by the World Bank and other international institution is very low," the report says.
Amado recognises that there have been mistakes in the past: "We have to be more efficient in our co-operation - less paper and more creation."
The EU has also been criticised as being politically weak in East Timor. "The EU was often seen as not being incredibly decisive on certain issues. We didn't see them standing up and making a fuss when Australia withdrew funding from NGOs after it was criticised," says Grainger.
The reintroduction of the Portuguese language was pushed strongly soon after independence, despite the fact that less than 10% of the population spoke the language, and the overall education system suffered as a result. "The EU programmes have been a lot more effective than others. However the money provided by Portugal was huge and ineffective with a mindless focus on language," says an employee of one of the major international agencies who was based in East Timor for four years until April this year. "I would have hoped that the EU could have influenced how one of its member states operated but I didn't see that."
Gomes supports the idea of helping to build up expertise on the ground. "I would like to see the EU send more experts to the different ministries to help devise programmes, to spend money, to support a functioning media and to spend money on judicial training," she says.
Despite fears that the blood-letting earlier this year may lead to another wave of revenge, Amado remains positive about the future. "In general I am optimistic despite the fact that we have many problems to solve."
East Timor - recent history
1974: Portugal begins withdrawal from East Timor after more than 250 years rule;
1975: Indonesia invades, beginning a brutal period in which 200,000 people die;
1999: Following a UN-sponsored agreement East Timor votes in a referendum for independence;
2002: East Timor is declared independent and joins the UN;
April 2006: Unrest is sparked after 600 soldiers are dismissed from the army for alleging discrimination;
May 2006: Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal send 2000 troops to quell the violence;
June 2006: Prime minister Mari Alkatiri steps down;
July 2006: José Ramos Horta appointed prime minister;
2007: presidential and parliamentary elections to be held.