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"UN officials have consistently marginalised the Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Timorense (CNRT), insisting it be accorded consultative rather than partnership status. The CNRT insists it is a national council, not simply a political party, or ‘the biggest NGO in East Timor’. It brings together a range of political forces, and the CNRT argues it should have been recognised as the Timorese-run transitional government from the outset. Nonetheless, the CNRT reluctantly agreed to participate in the UN’s ‘National Consultative Council’ (NCC), although several prominent CNRT figures refused to join. Reflecting the NCC’s consultative status, the UN retains the ability to rule by decree, rendering the council toothless on key issues. Policies such as the introduction of sales taxes and the introduction of the US dollar as the local currency, have simply been imposed." James Goodman, academic, activist, member Committee of Management of AID/WATCH

Partnership versus ‘consultation’ in East Timor

AID/WATCH

August 2000

by James Goodman

The reconstruction of East Timor is a test case for the role of International Non-Government Organisations (INGOs) in global politics. INGOs are often seen as vehicles for ‘peoples power’ in the global era - as sources of participatory democracy and normative renewal. If they can successfully facilitate the realisation of self-determination in East Timor then perhaps there should be greater recognition of their emerging role in global politics.

In East Timor, the United Nations (UN) is seeking to prove it can manage a process of reconstruction and reconciliation, and secure a smooth transition to statehood. It has been particularly sensitive to accusations - from Indonesian diplomats - that it is biased against pro-Indonesian groups. Reflecting this, the UN has sought to exert maximum control over political relations in the country. Ironically, this has meant minimising the involvement of the East Timorese in decision-making.

UN officials have consistently marginalised the Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Timorense (CNRT), insisting it be accorded consultative rather than partnership status. The CNRT insists it is a national council, not simply a political party, or ‘the biggest NGO in East Timor’. It brings together a range of political forces, and the CNRT argues it should have been recognised as the Timorese-run transitional government from the outset.

Nonetheless, the CNRT reluctantly agreed to participate in the UN’s ‘National Consultative Council’ (NCC), although several prominent CNRT figures refused to join. Reflecting the NCC’s consultative status, the UN retains the ability to rule by decree, rendering the council toothless on key issues. Policies such as the introduction of sales taxes and the introduction of the US dollar as the local currency, have simply been imposed.
 

CNRT policies

The CNRT has a clear policy position on the role of NGOs in East Timor. In April 1999 it released a document outlining the relationships it expected to develop with NGOs in the event of East Timorese independence. The policy emphasised that NGOs should be transparent, accountable and orientated to the empowerment of civil society. Furthermore, NGOs should adhere to the country’s ‘Magna Carta Concerning Freedoms, Rights, Duties and Guarantees for the People of East Timor’, adopted by the CNRT in 1998.

Specific requirements include not-for-profit status, transparent decision-making, free and fair election of office bearers and orientation to public interests, specifically to the promotion of long-term environmental and social sustainability. NGOs are expected to adhere to these requirements, as a condition of operating in East Timor.

Despite their self-proclaimed status as representatives of ‘civil society’, very few INGOs have sought to achieve this. On the contrary, in their efforts to appear non-political and professional, many INGOs have tended to decide for themselves what the Timorese people need, and how they are going to get it. Efficient planning, and accountability to ‘home’ INGO executives have been prioritised over sensitivity to needs on the ground and accountability to the East Timorese people. In many cases INGOs have marginalised local NGOs, undermining their capacity to respond to the continuing crisis and resulting in the waste of precious aid.

The CNRT argues that INGOs wishing to operate in East Timor should establish partnerships with local NGOs, as only through such partnerships can INGOs establish some degree of local accountability. Yet INGO partnerships with East Timorese NGOs remain the exception.
 

Partnership model

As INGOs have sought to implement UN priorities in East Timor there have been repeated errors and misunderstandings. INGOs distributing food aid on behalf of the World Food Program, for instance, initially failed to operate through locally-based groups, only to be confronted with intense political disputes at the local level.

The few INGOs that have established local partnerships are setting the pace of change. The Australia-based Trade Union Aid Abroad (Apheda), for instance, has a consistent record of working with the CNRT to realise meaningful self-determination in East Timor, and should be seen as a model for the partnership approach. [See: APHEDA Union Aid Abroad: East Timor Update January 2001 - BD]

Recently the World Bank successfully forced the UN to accept a community empowerment program for East Timor  - that will see Community Aid Abroad [Oxfam in Australia] working with local NGOs, including the CNRT, to form 11 elected community development councils. This will create a local channel for political involvement, perhaps enabling a bottom-up process of development. [See editorial: 'Democracy and the World Bank in East Timor' and an evaluation of the World Bank’s East Timor Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project (CEP) by La'o Hamutuk: East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis - BD]

The general pattern persists though. With some exceptions, INGOs have generally accepted the UN’s top-down model. This lack of resolve betrays a deeper structural dependency. INGOs are dependent on government aid bureaucracies, and on the goodwill of inter-governmental agencies.

Regardless of the principles at stake, they are often too willing to do the bidding of these agencies, at the expense of the peoples they claim to serve. This should raise serious questions about the role of INGOs as agents for ‘globalisation from below’.

James Goodman, is an academic, activist, and on the Committee of Management of AID/WATCH.


AID/WATCH   Monitoring the Development Dollar
AID/WATCH is a community-based, not for profit, activist group that campaigns on Australian involvement in overseas aid and development projects, programs and policies. AID/WATCH works with partners in low-income countries, including East Timor, where people are adversely affected by Australian development activities. This may occur through bilateral aid programs, multilateral development banks and Australian corporations. AID/WATCH also aims to inform the Australian community of how their aid dollar is being spent and what impact it is having, believing that increased awareness of the reality of international aid will lead to aid programs that truly benefit the local population.
Purpose: To support people and communities in low-income countries to determine their own development futures; to ensure that aid money reaches the right people, communities and their environments, and that aid projects are implemented with stringent environmental, ethical, social and cultural guidelines
Telephone from within Australia: (02) 9387-5210  Telephone from overseas: +61 2 9387 5210
Email: aidwatch@mpx.com.au  Homepage: http://www.aidwatch.org.au
AID/WATCH Articles:
July 1999 East Timor: Australia's accountability: http://www.pcug.org.au/~wildwood/earlygoodman.htm
July 1999 Viva Timor L'este: Beyond Silence, Betrayal, Cowardice & Murder: http://www.pcug.org.au~wildwood/earlyviva.htm
August 2000 Partnership versus ‘consultation’ in East Timor: http://www.pcug.org.au~wildwood/earlypartner.htm
AID/WATCH Newsletter:
August 2000 The Rebuilding of ETimor and Bougainville: http://www.aidwatch.org.au/news/20/index.htm
November 2000 Project Proposal: Timor Watch: http://www.pcug.org.au/~wildwood/novaidwatch.htm.
BACK DOOR Newsletter on East Timor home

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