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"I spent a little over 8 weeks in Timor Lorosa’e, working for an Australian NGO at Tibar west of Dili. ... Because there were a number of Australians at Tibar, we naturally attracted Australians and other expats, so I had a bit of an opportunity to observe their attitudes in unguarded moments. ... My observations of the following is cause for concern:
* A total lack of cultural and political awareness on the part of some expats; * A reluctance on the part of some aid organisations to get on with the business of involving local staff in the running of the organisation; * An apparent disregard of proper industrial relations; and * The ‘foreigners know best’ attitude.
I wish to highlight what the people of Timor Lorosa’e have to put up with." Trish Woodcroft-Lee, volunteer in East Timor
See also:

Mar 13 E.Timor NGOs protest police predictions of violence  Letter & Commentary
Feb 2 JP: Aditjondro: ETimorese becoming guests in their own land  Interview
Bahasa Indonesia:
Feb 17 ETNGOs: Pimpinan Operasi Civpol UNTAET  Letter

[These comments were posted to two East Timor lists Timlang@topica.com and lh-discuss@topica.com by Trish Woodcroft-Lee cpwl@ozemail.com.au . - BD]
 

Debates on East Timor Society and Economy

Trish Woodcroft-Lee

Email: cpwl@ozemail.com.au

Dear subscribers

I have been following the debates on these lists with great interest as I have been working through the 400 e-mails accumulated since my return from Timor Lorosa’e in April and I would like to make a few comments. I realise that most of the contributors are experts in the field so I write with some trepidation.

I am only an ordinary person and not an academic or an expert in the overseas aid field, so perhaps I should not write at all, but I feel that there are some things that need to be said. I am writing to both lists, because the language and culture issues are so closely intertwined.

I spent a little over 8 weeks in Timor Lorosa’e, working for an Australian NGO at Tibar west of Dili. They were kind enough to accept me despite my age and lack of experience. Because there were a number of Australians at Tibar, we naturally attracted Australians and other expats, so I had a bit of an opportunity to observe their attitudes in unguarded moments. The following remarks do not refer to the hard working volunteers at Tibar but to opinions and attitudes which appear widespread in the expatriate community in general. I must say that, while I think Professor Aditjondro [See interview: Feb 2 JP: Aditjondro: ETimorese becoming guests in their own land] is going overboard a bit and am willing to accept that perhaps the comments of the police person were taken out of context, there are enough elements of truth in their observations and other quoted in discussion, to cause concern.
 

My observations during my (admittedly brief) stay fell into the following categories:
 

* A total lack of cultural and political awareness on the part of some expats:

While many volunteers and paid staff of international organisations are doing a great job in working alongside local people others appear to come to the country with no background or training in either language or culture. Consequently they appear to have no idea where they are and to believe that they are operating in a virtual war zone. They are further terrified out of their wits by the tales of mayhem and violence with which they are regaled by the ‘old hands’ with whom they meet up. One lady was terrified even to walk down our little rural road because of the violence she had heard about. She was incapable of distinguishing the perfectly normal folk who lived in our neighbourhood from the gangs in Dili. (Well I expect they all look the same don’t they?) It was a great breakthrough when we got her actually going for a walk and even climbing the mountain near our place.

I also freaked a former volunteer on my return by telling her I caught the local bus “but it’s so dangerous”. I would have said that, given the fact that one is wedged in like a sardine with about twenty other people on a bus built to carry about twelve, and since everybody wants to talk to you, it would be the least likely place one could think of for pickpockets or muggers to operate.

This siege mentality tended to generate a lot of speculation and silly generalisations about the surrounding society of the ‘they don’t handle conflict well” type, quoted in your article, ‘they like fighting’, ‘they can change in a minute, so its not safe to walk around Dili (in daylight) because a riot could break out any time’, and ‘greed is rampant everyone is out for what they can get’. I am afraid that much of this silly nonsense, bordering on racism, was spread by some members of the local police and other officials, in their off duty hours. [See: Mar 13 E.Timor NGOs protest police predictions of violence ]

Certainly there is a crime problem in Dili, I had items stolen, but there is a crime problem in Canberra too, with less justification and I don’t think anyone has suggested we are all criminals because we live here.

This culture of isolation was largely due to the lack of language skills among many of the expats. They were unable to communicate freely with the people around them and so viewed them as alien. I was more fortunate as people were gracious enough to speak Indonesian to me as I spoke nothing else. They told me they appreciated the opportunity to communicate and to have someone listen to their point of view. I tried valiantly to learn some Tetum as a gesture to my friends that I was not totally ignoring their language, but as I was in great demand as a translator, once my rather rusty Indonesian was discovered, I did not get very far. I am trying to resume my Tetum efforts again at home.
 

* A reluctance on the part of some aid organisations to get on with the business of involving local staff in the running of the organisation:

There appeared to be several reasons for this, a feeling among some volunteers that they did things better than anyone else, fears among paid staff that they would work themselves out of a job and a an assumption that the local staff were somehow incompetent, because their first language was not English. This underscores the need for organisations like Lao Hamutuk to ensure that NGOs and their staff don’t hold up the reconstruction process.

* An apparent disregard of proper industrial relations:

NGO people would say “our workers are very well paid” almost as though they shouldn’t be!  And there seemed to be a perception among some that unions were non existent and if they stuck their heads up we’d show them the door quite smartly. I am going to bring this up with our Union Aid Abroad here. The fact that the union movement is in its infancy and struggling is no excuse for 19th century mill owner attitudes from foreigners.

* The ‘foreigners know best’ attitude:

A view I heard repeated by a number of expats was ‘this place will fall in a heap once the UN/NGOs etc leave’. An extreme form is ‘its going to become another Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, (or any other example once can think of)”. It will fly apart into a number of warring factions. A corollary of this one is ‘they shouldn’t be turning Falantil into a defence force, it will bring all these arms into the country and promote civil war”. One scenario was that the police (the fledgling Timor Lorosa’e Police Service) and the new defence force would back rival factions and start the civil war.

It seems to me that the Timorese may not be guests in their own country (as Professor Aditjondro puts it) yet, but they will need to work damn hard to ensure they don’t become so. Not only foreign businesses, but also people who should know better, because they work in the Transitional Administration or in NGOs could be hard to dislodge from their little pieces of territory.

The continuous emphasis on staff speaking English is not only a way of perpetuating division, but also downright insulting. Perhaps there should be greater emphasis on training in language skills and local cultures for anyone aspiring to work in Timor Lorosa’e, either as a volunteer or a paid employee of an organisation. A desire to ‘do good’ is not sufficient to ensure a successful placement.
There were of course a number of aid organisations that worked in partnership with local NGOs and were very highly thought of. I am just quoting the bad examples in the hope that something can be done about them.

Everyone else on the list probably knows all this anyway, but I thought it worth stating, if only to highlight what the people of Timor Lorosa’e have to put up with. It annoyed me intensely in the short time I was there, imagine living with these irritating individuals all the time!

Which brings me back to what I suppose was a silly question, but I will repeat it. What can we in Australia to do to help the work of Lao Hamutuk? It is so necessary to monitor the plethora of agencies that claim to be reconstructing the country.

In solidarity

Trish Woodcroft-Lee

Email: cpwl@ozemail.com.au


See also:

Mar 13 E.Timor NGOs protest police predictions of violence  Letter & Commentary added Mar 17
"On February 8, and Australian news article interviewed the civpol Commander of Operations in East Timor who predicted violence
as the election process progresses, basing it on myths of East Timor having little experience with democracy and a culture of
violence. After a phone conversation in which the Commander confirmed that the interview does reflect his opinions, a coalition of East Timorese NGOs wrote him a letter on 17 February. As there has been no response to the letter for three weeks, the NGOs
have decided to release the letter to the public and the media." Charles Scheiner, International Federation for East Timor

Bahasa Indonesia:
Feb 17 ETNGOs: Pimpinan Operasi Civpol UNTAET  Letter added Mar 17
"Kami memahami bahwa anda memiliki berbagai kekuatan, dengan berbagai pelatihan, pengalaman, bahasa, dan latar belakang budaya, yang membuat semua itu menjadi penting bagi kepemimpinan Civpol mengusahakan informasi yang akurat yang merefleksikan masyarakat Timor Loro Sa’e dan mendorong suatu hubungan yang baik dengannya. Mengembangkan suatu ide secara meluas bahwa kini orang Timor Loro Sa’e tidak mampu memecakan perselisihan secara damai merupakan sesuatu yang keliru dan berbahaya." La’o Hamutuk, Yayasan HAK, Center for Popular Economic Development, Sa’he Institute for Liberation, NGO Forum, Organizacao Juventude de Timor Loro Sae, Klinika PAS, Fokupers

Feb 2 JP: Aditjondro: ETimorese becoming guests in their own land  Interview Up-dated May 16
"So fighting for democracy has been no less difficult than fighting for independence. The young, the women and the villagers feel the most marginalized; this is the new task of the solidarity movement (to help them) instead of just shaking hands with Xanana." George Junus Aditjondro, self-exiled author and lecturer from Indonesia, currently teaching at Newcastle University


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