Oxfam Australia has worked in East Timor since the mid 1990s, and has had a direct operational presence since the independence vote in 1999. Country Programme Manager Keryn Clark spoke to Ruth Gidley from her office in Dili.
AN: So Oxfam has been providing assistance to Timorese people since 1999?
KC: There was quite a strong presence of Oxfam Australia here before, but mainly through local partners, national NGOs, between 1995 and 1999. We have continued this but there has also been the need for direct implementation.
AN: What is the focus of the programme?
KC: There are two components. The first is our Environmental Health Programme, which is water supplies and sanitation but also includes health promotion, with a particular focus on water-borne diseases. The second component is what we call our NGO Development and Advocacy Programme. That’s working a lot with civil society groups—both NGOs and community organisations working on advocacy—getting people involved in decision-making. It’s also supporting activist issues in East Timor, particularly coming up to the election and developing a constitution.
AN: How strongly was civil society suppressed during Indonesian rule?
KC: It was very difficult for civil society organisations to operate. The main organisations that were able to operate were the churches—the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church. Oxfam was working with a local chapter involved in human rights and health issues and it was actually very difficult for those organisations to operate. They were eyed with suspicion about the activities they were involved in.
AN: Do you work specifically with women’s organisations?
KC: We work a lot with women’s organisations. It’s one of the key aspects of the NGO development and advocacy programme. The overall goal is to ensure active participation—particularly for women—in the reconstruction, development and political process. So some of the organisations we work with are predominantly women’s organisations. Other times we’re working with general organisations but we’re working with them on gender issues and helping them to consider the impact of their work on both men and women. We’re working quite a lot on a women and leadership programme, looking at how legislation is being developed, how to draft a constitution, why it’s important for women be involved, why their vote counts, what they might feel is important.
AN: What are the important elements of your programmes for women’s rights?
KC: There’s quite a lot of domestic violence in East Timor, so one of the programmes we support works with community groups on domestic violence and focuses a lot on men. Another one of the issues is economic rights, which involves income-generation activities within society and how that affects education and health issues, improving facilities within the home to get control. Once again, this involves all of the community, not just women, so although a lot of the issues are seen particularly as women’s issues, the actual programme work is with everyone
AN: What are your links with people outside East Timor?
KC: There’s a lot of support from the international network for the work that we’re doing. A lot of our programme has been funded from private donations from Australians, but Oxfam Australia also gets support from a number of the other Oxfams—Oxfam in Great Britain, in Belgium and the Netherlands, in Hong Kong, in New Zealand. The majority of our staff are East Timorese, and they make decisions about the way they think the programme should go. Our East Timorese partner organisations develop proposals and then we support them to do that work. We do a lot of training and facilitating. Some people that Oxfam works with in Brazil are over here at the moment doing some work on developing communication networks and popular education, to look at the work that Oxfam’s been supporting in Brazil and use those experiences. So a lot of it’s about looking at networks across either the region or other countries that have maybe gone through processes of popular education or altering the constitutions, learning from experience.
AN: Do you work at all in West Timor?
KC: We do, but we don’t work operationally in West Timor. We did have some programmes there after the referendum, with refugees, but we had to close that programme in September and we now work with local partners which we were working with before the ballot and in the post-ballot period. The main activity once again is around domestic violence with East Timorese refugees. You can imagine it’s a highly violent atmosphere they’re living in and it’s demoralising for the families living there as refugees. They’re uncertain about what’s going to happen, so I think that doesn’t help to control levels of violence. That programme helps them through discussion and reconstructions to address the cause. We also do advocacy and lobbying work through national NGOs, to the Indonesian government, about issues of rejection and issues of the militia in the camps. ...
AN: Is there a lot of local support for a tribunal on human rights violations?
KC: There’s a lot of concern about the effectiveness of the Indonesian government taking control of ensuring justice. Justice is so important to have reconciliation. To a certain extent, they go hand in hand. As long as people feel that the perpetrators of crimes are getting away with it, reconciliation is very, very difficult because they don’t feel that anyone has paid for what happened to them. Horrific things happened. In Suai (the site of one of the worst post-ballot militia atrocities in East Timor, in September 1999), three priests were hiding (up to 200 unarmed) people in the church, women and children. The three priests went out and were killed and then the people in the church were massacred. There is certainly an enormous amount of anger and a sense that someone should pay for that, where children were killed, mothers were killed, or a grandmother with her grandchildren. I think it is really, really important and civil society groups in East Timor are calling for it. ...
AN: What aspects of your work do you find particularly challenging?
KC: I think the fact that everything is being put into place has provided quite a challenge. Normally when Oxfam is working in a country, it always tries to support local grassroots communities but also to work with local government. You’re strengthening both the state and civil society, especially when the state has a role in every country. Here, there’s a government structure in power but there’s still no politics to work within, so you’re often trying to guess what the policy would be, what would be happening, to ensure that community issues are addressed from the top down and also there’s a bit of a vacuum at times.
KC: I think the satisfying part is living in very exciting times. I was working in Angola for four years with Oxfam Great Britain. In my time in Angola we had war then peace then back to war. We were in a pretty bad cycle there and I still very closely in contact with that but it’s one of those things where you had wonderful people to work with but the situation was utterly hopeless. Here, it’s the birth of the nation and setting up all the new systems and government and everything’s new. It’s not from zero. There was a lot of capacity here. Even though a lot of people who were employed in national positions later went to Indonesia, there was a level of very, very experienced and very committed people in East Timor. So it’s a pleasure to work with them, but it’s also working towards something that has a possibility of moving forward. Every day we’re getting another step closer.
Aid Abroad - Oxfam Australia Updated Feb 17
CAA is an independent, Australian, secular and voluntary community-based organisation that brings together people from diverse backgrounds, beliefs and cultures in order to build a fairer world. Community Aid Abroad merged with the Australian Freedom From Hunger Campaign in 1992, and the combined organisation is the Australian member of Oxfam International.
CAA's work in East Timor includes rehabilitation of urban water supply systems; health promotion; capacity building with Timorese groups involved in environmental health activities, as well as other local community groups undertaking activities ranging from women's collectives, to human rights, and carpentry and other start-up ventures.
Homepage: http://www.caa.org.au/ ETimor Webpage: http://www.caa.org.au/world/asia/east_timor/index.html
13 CAA-OA: East Timor Donors must deliver Release added
"The international and national non-government organisations in East Timor are calling for:
* A longer timeframe for political transition – Donors are asked to support a longer time frame for popular consultation on the constitution, so that East Timorese men and women can be consulted effectively.
* A clear UNTAET exit plan – Donors are asked to support clear a process for UNTAET withdrawal that includes transfer of skills and capacity to East Timorese institutions.
* Long-term strategy for development – Donor nations are asked deliver appropriate funding taking into consideration the long-term needs of the East Timorese people." Oxfam Community Aid
BD: East Timorese Women's Issues - A collection of recent information, petitions, articles and news
BD: 'Refugees' & Missing Persons - A collection of recent information, reports, articles and news