Subject: How the UN failed Timor Leste

ChannelNews Asia Analysis

How the UN failed Timor Leste
First Published, Friday July 14, 2006

MR JOAO Cancio Freitas might be the director of Dili's Institute of Technology, but like almost three quarters of this city's population, he has spent weeks living in one of the dozen refugee camps dotted around Timor Leste's capital.

He and his family, along with 7,000 other refugees, have been sleeping in a hot car park opposite the inappropriately-named United Nations (UN) compound or Obrigada Barracks ­ "obrigada" in the local tetum language means "thank you very much".

But these days not too many Timorese are singing the UN's praises.

It is thanks to the UN and international donors that Timor Leste has verged on collapse, say Mr Freitas and other observers. After all, they say, the world body and donors hastily assembled a skeleton of a government, failed to properly train the security forces, and barely made a dent in the country's crushing poverty.

During the 1999 independence vote, 1,500 people were killed and 70 per cent of infrastructure was destroyed. For the next three years, the UN effectively built the nation from scratch.

"The things that deserve credit are the UN humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. But governance was the biggest problem," said Mr Freitas.

One of the major failures was the police force. Its recent, spectacular collapse ­ police traded fire with the military or abandoned their posts ­ was in part due to inadequate training. The police, many of whom had poor training under Indonesian rule, were trained by police personnel from many countries with conflicting methods of policing.

"The UN brought in people from 112 countries, ranging from the best to the worst. Many didn't have any experience. The worst part was they came for six months and then left," said Mr Freitas.

The UN denies the charges, saying it expects its police trainers to "conduct training in accordance with international human rights standards", said the UN's Dili spokesperson, Ms Donna Cusumano.

Sacked interior minister Rogerio Lobato, who served five years in jail in Angola for diamond smuggling, and ex-premier Mari Alkatiri are also to blame, said Mr Freitas. Together, they turned the police force into a rival for the military, with more arms and the creation of rapid-reaction, special forces.

"They (the UN) should have said, you've got a crook as your interior minister. But the people that had a political mandate to criticise the government didn't do it," said one observer, who has been in Timor since 1999.

Other analysts point to the UN's failure to adequately prepare the Timorese to run their own nation, with too much aid money funding expensive expatriate salaries.

"The UN only teaches how to build institutions but doesn't care how they function," said Mr Marcelino Magno from the Timor Institute for Development Studies.

He accused the UN of hiring Timorese as "translators, drivers and cleaners" rather than employing the dozens of qualified locals for more senior positions.

When the UN ran Timor Leste, "internationals occupied key positions and were only slowly replaced by Timorese, often with little skills transfer or training", the World Bank said in a recent report.

Since 1999, international donors have given more than US$2 billion ($3.16 billion) to Timor Leste. But little of that money went towards developing local agricultural and fisheries industries to reduce poverty, said economist Joao Saldinha of the Timor Institute for Development Studies.

At least 30 per cent of that aid was spent on foreigners' salaries and consultants' fees, Mr Saldinha added.

"Normally in post-conflict societies, aid starts to trickle in slowly and then gradually increases," he said. "But in Timor it boomed really quickly, creating an artificial boom economy. I argued against this."

Five years later, with 40 per cent of the population living in poverty, there is little evidence of this boom. Most young men sell oranges, or phone cards and cigarettes.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a speech last month admitted that the UN had perhaps rushed the job in Timor Leste.

"We have learned ­ at a painful price for Timor Leste ­ that the building of institutions on the basis of ... democracy and the rule of law is not a simple process that can be completed within a few short years," Mr Annan said. TODAY/rose 

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