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"Despite the UN’s optimistic view, when you scratch the surface of reconstruction in the emerging nation, the picture that emerges is a profoundly worrying one," Jenny Denton

East Timor suffers under weight of world plans

The Canberra Times

Jenny Denton

April 14, 2001 Saturday Final Edition

East  Timor  suffers under weight of world plans; Despite the UN’s optimistic view, when you scratch the surface of reconstruction in the emerging nation, the picture that emerges is a profoundly worrying one, writes Jenny Denton.

WHOSE AGENDAS? At 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning, a handful of people are standing around outside the Anarchist Bookshop in Newtown, Sydney, waiting to load a truck with food and goods donated for East Timor.

Some of them have been there since 8am. Stacked in the warehouse are sewing machines, bags of rice and flour and cases of long-life milk for Tricia Johns’s ‘self-help project’, a wheelchair ‘for a boy named Elvis”, bicycles, bongo drums and a set of encyclopedias for the Hadomi Orphanage, a mixing desk for Radio Falantil, tyres, a photocopier, a freezer and assorted tools for the East Timorese-run trade cooperative, FUTO, and a box labelled ‘crucifixes” addressed to Bishop Belo.  ‘We don’t have any trouble getting the stuff donated it’s getting it up there that’s the problem,” says Barbara, one of the organisers of the collection.

This is the second attempt at shifting the goods from the warehouse to the shipping container which will go to  Timor.  Earlier in the week a truck organised through another company failed to turn up. Eventually this one arrives, is loaded and heads off to a yard in Alexandria. It gets there to find the container can’t be located. This is grassroots Australian aid to East Timor  slow, chaotic, but committed.

‘There’s tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in,” says Andrew McNaughton, convener of the Australian East Timor  Association and former AusAID worker. ‘You’ve got various levels. You’ve got the grassroots-type stuff, like people sending up a container, and then you have some of the NGOs with small budgets, and, of course, they’re not perfect. But you’ve also got huge blocks of UN money.”

In 2001, according to Koffi Annan, ‘the UN has cause to be proud of what they have accomplished” in East  Timor. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East  Timor  (UNTAET) report for July 2000-January 2001 outlines service and infrastructure achievements, from reopening 820 schools and the national university, to running crash-courses for diplomas.

Under the auspices of the UN’s transitional administration, repairs have been made to water and electricity systems. Limited telephone, postage, radio and television services have been restored. District courts, a defence force and a police force have been set up. A registry of births, deaths and marriages was due to start registering inhabitants and issuing identity cards last month. Political parties have been established or re-established.

The UN-chaired National Council recently announced the date for the country’s first elections. On August 30 this year, the second anniversary of the UN-brokered referendum on independence, the East Timorese will go to the polls to elect an 88-member constituent assembly. After broad public consultation, a constitution will be proclaimed on December 15 and on the same day the constituent assembly will be transformed into the national parliament.

The world’s newest nation seems to be well on track. But scratch the surface of East Timor’s  ‘reconstruction” and the picture that emerges is a profoundly worrying one. As well as the persistence of chronic and debilitating shortages, raising questions of the efficacy of aid programs, there are serious questions about the bureaucracy, expense and paternalism of the UN presence and the appropriateness of the models of development being proposed and implemented by the UN in tandem with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. In particular, the extent and nature of foreign investment, which is not subject to social or environmental guidelines, is a cause for great concern. The influx of foreign investors and comparatively wealthy UN and aid workers has led to the creation of a double economy and the perception of the UN as the new colonialists in East  Timor. There is strong evidence of deepening divisions among East Timorese. Many who were active in the struggle for independence, especially the young, have been marginalised in the influx of foreigners and returning diaspora (East Timorese formerly exiled in Australia and Portugal), and the adoption of Portuguese as the official language has locked them out of the political process and public-service employment.

As evidenced by Xanana Gusmao’s recent resignation as head of the CNRT (the umbrella group of East Timorese political organisations) [Xanana Gusmao resigned from the national council of the transitional government, not the CNRT. In fact, he now has more time to devote to his Presidency of the CNRT - BD] and his statement that he would not become East Timor’s president, there are clear signs that all is not well in the leadership of the fledgling nation. This tiny half-island has been through everything colonisation, war, brutal occupation twice over. [thrice over including Japan - BD] It has become an international cause celebre. And it has come to symbolise various things to different groups.

To many, East  Timor  is an inspiring story of the faith, strength and unity of its people. In Australia, its recent history (though not the 25-year period when Australian government policy recognised Indonesia’s occupation as legal) has been used to promote the Australian defence forces and to sell telecommunications.  To the World Bank, East Timor  is a clean slate to showcase economic development. To others, apparently, it is a new frontier, ripe for profiteering. Whether the next stage of East  Timor’s  history sees rampant free-market economics consigning the territory to a new form of colonisation and continuing inequities remains to be seen. A happy ending is not guaranteed. ‘If it was just one country helping us, we would understand,” Robin Taudevin, an aid worker implementing the United Nations High Commission for Refugees shelter program, was told by a young Timorese villager. In a contribution to the book East Timor: Making Amends? last August, Taudevin says that aid programs in rural districts are often underfunded, very late and of poor quality. The bureaucracy inherent in the UN system and big international aid agencies is compounded by overlapping levels of organisation and governance, and poor communication between them and local structures. At the district level, UNTAET’s overall control of the country is frequently ‘at odds in intent” with the leadership of CNRT. ‘It is my opinion,” Taudevin writes, ‘that firm, if not formal, lines are being drawn in terms of primary governance of the nation and that there are too many conflicting interests pulling in too many uncoordinated directions.” The fundamental problem of the transition, he believes, has been ‘the scant involvement of East Timorese.” In a recent interview with the Jakarta Post, Indonesian sociologist and Newcastle University lecturer George Junus Aditjondro discussed his impressions of East  Timor  after his most recent trip there in January: ‘I was shocked at the speed of investments pouring in; this certainly has a lot to do with the way Indonesia left East  Timor  this created the ideal bonanza for foreign investors, especially Australians from the Northern Territory.” In an earlier article, Aditjondro noted that Northern Territory Chief Minister Denis Burke, after sending his special representative on an urgent assessment mission to East  Timor  in 1999, had immediately fed the results back to the Darwin business community, which was assisted in applying for registration with the UN agencies and subsequently obtained 40-46 per cent of work in the disaster regions. ‘ Timor  has been transformed from an Indonesian colony to an outpost of global capitalism with investors from Hong Kong, Macao, Portugal, Singapore everyone wants a piece of the reconstruction pie,” Aditjondro says. ‘The World Bank says East  Timor  is a showcase in how to build an economy from scratch, thanks to the Indonesian military, but [rebuilding] also involves many other groups, so the Timorese are becoming guests in their own country.

‘This is a more subtle and entrenched form of colonialism. The old colonialism was brutal. The new one is pervasive, filling in the gaps, leading to a begging-bowl mentality. If you’re Caucasian, you’re regarded as a donor and this applies from the top to the grassroots level; begging has increased, which is why the first English word for many youngsters is ‘Hello Mister’, ironically now the name of a supermarket in Dili.” Lansell Taudevin (Robin’s father), who ran AusAID’s East  Timor  programs for four years, says: ‘East  Timor’s  got a very, very big uphill battle to face economically. Its first priority has to be, of course, the needs of its people some of the feedback I get from friends and from being up there recently, is that people feel that they’re worse off now than they were under Indonesia, economically. ‘There is very little change in the patterns. You’re replacing the Indonesian-Javanese kind of investment with the carpet-bagger type of investment, which appears to be not necessarily dominating, but it’s certainly a problem up there. I think a lot of the investments that are going on up there are very much short-term and when the UN and its entourage moves out I mean there was a figure quoted the other day there are 2700 four-wheel-drives and only three fishing boats. I think that encapsulates the whole thing in a nutshell.”

James Arvanitakis, campaign director of AIDWATCH, an independently funded organisation, says: "Most aid money never leaves Australia, most aid money will go into the pockets of consultants, so the concern is not only where the aid money is going, but the type of projects that are being funded.” In response to concerns raised by activists in  Timor  about the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some of the projects of international NGOs, AIDWATCH has launched ‘Timorwatch’, a project which will send two people to East  Timor  to work with local organisations in assessing the projects and proposals of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

‘The World Bank agricultural project, if you look at that on its face value,” says Arvanitakis, ‘is saying certain things; it’s World Bank-speak.  You look at it and you think, ‘Yeah, this sounds OK,’ but when you start analysing what it’s saying, it’s basically putting export-oriented economic growth ahead of food security and that is not going to work. It’s a disaster. And that’s what’s caused starvation in so many parts of the world. The infrastructure that it’s promoting is roads into ports. Why do you do roads into ports? To promote, again, export-oriented growth. So it’s a very economic rationalist, very export-focused recommendation model.  That’s not, we believe, the only solution that can be taken to the table.” As an example of inappropriate, ‘top-down” development planning, Arvanitakis cites an incident in Bougainville: ‘The Asian Development Bank had hired a number of consultant experts, who had gone in there and designed this really sort of elaborate micro-finance model that was basically a three-tiered sort of [structure] you’re going to have a national association and then there’s regional associations and you’re going to have a new product-development arm and a whole bunch of really weird stuff. ‘Seriously, if someone was building this for an Australian audience or even somewhere like Indonesia, you could probably say, ‘OK, there’s a chance it’ll take off here,’ but somewhere like Bougainville it was just one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen Bougainville is one of the least developed places in the Pacific.”

The World Bank has a long history of blunders in developing countries with programs which impact heavily on the environment, and change social and economic structures by encouraging dependence on cash cropping, distributing non-native and genetically modified seeds, and by offering loans to larger-scale agricultural concerns, ignoring local patterns of smaller-scale landholding. These policies, well-intentioned as they may be, destroy communities’ strategies for self-sufficiency, often with disastrous results.

‘The people by Western standards are certainly not well-off,” says Lansell Taudevin ‘That doesn’t mean to say that they’re starving. They have developed their own almost barter-like trade system and they will probably continue to do so in the face of what is a ‘top down’ system, which I don’t think is necessarily going to be, in the long-term, helpful to them. One of the problems they’re going to face in  Timor,  when the Timorese take over their own development, which they should be doing now, is that it’s not being driven by the people who know the situation, and to a certain extent that applies as much to UNTAET as to the returning diaspora, which is going to create its own problems. ‘ Timor  does not have the potential to ever become a major exporting country. In terms of agriculture, its first priority has to be self-sufficiency.”

Taudevin likens the UN development models with those previously tried under Indonesia. ‘The Catholic Church tried to [develop livestock], it used the same model as UNTAET, and that was that the Catholic Church spent all this money on developing these cattle industries, and used the farmers’ land and used the farmers as serfs to work the land. That’s a major criticism I have of them. ‘There’s a lot of well-meaning aid that went into it, but they farmed it with huge equipment and machinery that the farmers could never afford in their own right. And basically the farmers themselves became serfs of their own land. I don’t agree with that, but that’s the pattern that UNTAET’s following because it’s easiest to do. The hardest to do is to get in there and work with the farmers themselves and build and support them, through training, etc, etc. And I don’t think that’s happening.” What about the World Bank ‘community empowerment program’? [See: Evaluating the World Bank’s Community Empowerment Project - BD] ‘Oh look, I’ve had 30 years in this game, working for the World Bank and working for ADB [the Asian Development Bank], and in every contract that is the necessary thing, along with women in development and gender equality. ‘These are the catchphrases that you put in all your reports and all your plans. And they look fantastic and they satisfy all of the activists in the world, but then you actually look at the reality, and the reality is that it doesn’t happen it can be done, but it requires a totally different mindset to what the World Bank generally is capable of . . . There’s a big difference between the reports that people make about what’s happening and what’s actually happening on the ground. ‘I think the government itself, CNRT and so forth, what they’re saying is: ‘OK, our focus, while we’ve got all this money pouring in from the international community, is to get this self-sufficiency thing going. And then, as a second phase, we’ll go for exports.’ ‘And I would think that basically they’ll set up a balance, to say that agriculture, etc, in the first 10 years will be self-directed and we’ll export or exploit our mineral reserves to provide the necessary balance in export earnings. And that’s the balance I know they were talking about, but whether they achieve that’s going to be very, very difficult.” With hindsight, it is tempting to see an inevitability in the success of the East Timorese struggle for self-determination. But there is no inevitability of a happy ending. East  Timor’s  future depends on the institutions and relationships and legal and economic agreements which are being established now.

One crucial area of Australian involvement is the  Timor Gap Treaty.  Estimates of the value of royalties from the development of the oil and gas reserves in the  Timor  Gap vary dramatically, but UNTAET head of political affairs Peter Galbraith has speculated they could be between $A200 million and $A400 million by the end of the decade. For a country whose annual budget is just $A90 million, ‘that makes all the difference”, he says. The proportion of that figure which goes to East  Timor  is dependent on the results of negotiations with the Australian Government. At the last talks in October, the Australian government was seeking to uphold the terms of the treaty negotiated with Indonesia. The  Timor  Gap Treaty, infamously toasted by Ali Alatas and Gareth Evans in a plane over  Timor,  didn’t establish a boundary, but an agreement on a ‘joint development zone’ which was premised on Australia’s recognition of the Indonesian occupation as legal. Current international law, including the UN convention on the law of the sea, favours ‘median line” sea boundaries between countries, based on equity and distance, rather than ‘seabed” boundaries, based on geological features, on which Australia’s case rests. With the drawing of an equidistant line, the vast majority of oil and gas reserves would fall under Timorese sovereignty.

Back in Newtown, the missing container has been found, and Barbara and another organiser, Alix, are heading off for an appointment with someone from the Maritime Workers Union to see about getting more storage space and shipping donated. ‘You can play spot the Timorese in Dili,” Barbara says, ‘but they still don’t have the basics. They still need the bread and butter stuff.”


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