Subject: Bungled UN Aid Operation Slows East Timor's Recovery

The Guardian [UK] Wednesday August 30, 2000

Bungled UN aid operation slows East Timor's recovery

A year ago today its people voted for independence from Indonesia, but the fledgling democracy faces a hard future

John Aglionby in Maliana

The growing mountain of freshly-made pupils' desks and teachers' tables stacked haphazardly outside Joao Evangelino's rudimentary carpentry workshop in the town of Maliana neatly encapsulates the current state of East Timor, one year after it voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

It is undeniable evidence that reconstruction in this United Nations-run territory, which was systematically destroyed by the Indonesian army and its local militias following the referendum last August 30, is at last gathering momentum and allowing the East Timorese the chance to participate in their own nation-building. But the fact that it is there at all, starting to gather dust, is undeniable evidence that there is still a long way to go before this former Portuguese colony can claim to have completed its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of last year's devastation. Just last night, UN troops and militias exchanged gunfire near Maliana.

"The UN says it has nowhere to put it," said Mr Evangelino, gesturing towards the furniture. "They haven't decided which schools are going to reopen, let alone rebuilt them. And the school holiday ends next month."

That Mr Evangelino endured a tortuous ordeal to see his workshop become a reality is a further microcosm of the nation's acute growing pains.

"I put in my proposal on January 1 and got the money on May 30th," said the mini-entrepreneur who, like thousands of East Timorese, spent weeks hiding from the militia until the UN established a presence in October. "I was told little except that the process takes a long time and that I had to be patient."

UN officials accept that reconstruction has been slow but blame the delays on factors beyond their control. "The situation in East Timor was exceptional," explained the UN's transitional administrator, Sergio Vieria de Mello. "Unlike when we arrived in Kosovo, there was nothing here. Everything had either been destroyed or stolen. We had to start from scratch."

That was undoubtedly the case, but the army of foreign administrators, donors and developers went about reconstruction in the wrong way. The most prominent first signs of change visible on the streets of the capital Dili were a fleet of thousands of brand-new four-wheel-drive vehicles, a 500-room floating hotel shipped in from Singapore for the international staff, and the growing number of cafes catering to their cappuccino craving.

These visible manifestations of the new neo-colonialism might not have been so bad if there had been decent interaction with the locals, many of whom had lost literally everything. But, for the most part, the foreigners were taught practically nothing about East Timor before arriving and when they landed they received little guidance from their superiors.

"I did not arrive in East Timor with a full knowledge of the situation here or the psychology of the East Timorese," Mr Vieira de Mello admitted. "It took me six months to understand."

As if afraid to learn or take any initiative, many UN staff drove round from meeting to meeting with their windows up, appearing not to acknowledge the destitution and suffering around them. "After work people would not go out and speak to the East Timorese, to find out what they wanted," one UN staffer said. "They went and checked their email."

Compounding the problems were the over-optimistic expectations of the East Timorese. "There was a widespread feeling that we were going to come in and solve their problems overnight," said Gianni Deligia, the UN district administrator in Maliana. "The reality is that we are more a like a supermarket. We have this and that on offer and they have to choose."

Crisis point came at the end of April. Demonstrations outside the headquarters of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (Untaet) were a daily part of life in Dili. To the East Timorese it seemed as if there was lots of show but little substance. Not atypical, according to one aid worker, was an education project where "only 18% of the budget went on pens, paper and stuff for the kids. There was so much bureaucratic waste."


Local leaders are more blunt. "There was a sense of frustration, a lack of faith in Untaet," said Jose Ramos Horta, a vice president of the East Timorese political umbrella group, the National Council of East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. "[This was] because of their inability to involve the East Timorese, their inability to come forward with a roadmap, a plan. We saw time going by and no Timorese administration, no civil servants being recruited, no jobs being created."

So in May Mr Horta and the CNRT president, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, "did a lot of shock therapy with the UN", Mr Horta says, and within days a difference was noticeable. In June four of the eight cabinet posts in the transitional administration were given to East Timorese and the size of the local consultation council was doubled. "Now we are in a much more cordial, fruitful partnership between the UN and CNRT," Mr Horta said. "There are less demonstrations, people are getting jobs and also enough to eat."

There is also a roadmap of the path towards transition to full independence. The CNRT is currently holding its first proper congress where the goal is to empower the constituent political parties, both those that existed before Jakarta invaded in 1975 and the new ones. The first general election is timetabled for the second half of next year.

Of much greater concern are the faltering processes of reconstruction and developing a sustainable economy. The World Bank, in charge of stimulating small and medium-sized enterprises, "has never worked quicker in its existence since the second world war than it has here," according to its spokesman in Dili, Malcolm Ehrenpries. But, he adds, there are numerous hurdles still to overcome before a proper development strategy can be implemented. "We do not even know how many people live in East Timor."

The population was about 800,000 before the vote. But a proportion of these were Indonesians who left and more than 250,000 people fled or were forced into West Timor by the militias. Well over 100,000 are thought still to be in virtual imprisonment in refugee camps there.

Coffee is the only current significant foreign currency earner - to the tune of about £12m last year - although East Timor and Australia are exploring the sea between them for oil and natural gas. No one knows for certain how big a windfall might come East Timor's way; people are hoping for billions but the most realistic estimates are in the range of tens of millions of dollars a year.

The lack of income-generating opportunities is reflected in the national budget which, for the sake of not wanting to create a massive debt burden, has been limited to a paltry $60m.

"We can't yet see if the economy will ever be really sustainable," said Arsenio Barno, the executive director of the East Timor Non-Governmental Organisation Forum. "We're concentrating on developing the capacity of our human resources but our worry is that we will end up like Cambodia. Seven years after the UN went in the country is still very dependent on foreign aid."

The struggle to create a functioning judicial system is typical of East Timor's human resources crisis, according to Mr Vieira de Mello. "What we had here were Timorese students with law degrees from Indonesian universities, none of whom had the slightest court experience," he said. "Well, we appointed them, we trained them and if you visit the Dili court you will see that we now have a credible, independent Timorese judiciary."

What Mr Vieira de Mello did not say was that while the system might be functioning it is unable to cope with the flood of work and, like all facets of the embryonic administration, will take years to develop enough strength in depth.

With the future not looking exactly rosy, most people are putting their faith in Mr Gusmao. This former resistance leader who spent seven years in Indonesian jails is by far the most popular man in the territory and is widely expected to become the first president of independent East Timor.

"I don't see any serious alternative candidate to Xanana becoming president," Mr Horta says. "Just like with Mandela, he is an exceptional individual that everybody just follows."

But Mr Gusmao is not exactly brimming with confidence about East Timor's prospects. "It's difficult to rebuild this country," he said. "We're building anew and need a new mentality to go with it. I can't tell you my priority because everything is still a priority."

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