Subject: Crikey: What's needed to rebuild East Timor

May 31, 2006 

*What's needed to rebuild East Timor* By occasional UN advisor and Dili resident Robert Johnson

There are lessons to be learnt from the latest turmoil in East Timor ­ but is anything going to change?

First, despite my misgivings about Dr Ramos Horta's international ambitions, he's about the only member of the government tirelessly moving about among the people, and trying to broker a peaceful outcome between the parties.

President Gusmao continues to have enormous support, and looks (on the strength of his appearance Monday ­ I haven't seen any local media yet Tuesday evening as I write this) to be ready to deal with a recalcitrant political leadership. It is simply astonishing that key figures such as PM Alkitiri continue to dig in with such devastating consequences for the people. But a "successful" resolution ­ as both Gusmao and Horta know ­ will still mean protracted instability. It would be wise of Dr Ramos Horta to renounce all interest in the UN Secretary-General's position and focus on the long haul of nation-building. It is clear that his people need him far more than does the rest of the world, and will do so for a long time to come.

Second, PM Howard and others should cut the "failed state" stuff. East Timor's government ­ including much credit due to Alkitiri ­ has acted strongly in a number of ways in tackling the important issues of human survival and development. Health and education indicators have been improving at a very good rate. Remember the utter vacuum that it inherited. They've had just four years so far; Australia and the USA even opposed an extension of the UN Mission after just three years of independence!

Of course the Timorese Government achieved much because of lots of help from others, but so what? The Timorese people suffered because of the silence of lots of others for a much longer period. The Fretilin Government has been committed to development; and any blame for any failure also has to be shared. It sounds like the international community is too ready to take the praise for the successes, but to attribute all the blame to the government.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the current leadership has made utterly unacceptable errors in the latest unrest, and are so much a part of the problem they can't conceivably be part of the solution (although Xanana's likely proposed government of national unity or alternative transitional measures through to next year's national elections will probably allocate them current leadership roles as a means of bringing the different forces together).

Third, evidence of the capacity of areas of the government is on show. For example, the continued functioning of the police and health services and schools in the districts where things are calmer, and the roles being played by government in the current humanitarian effort. Of course, there's been panic among people desperate to get food from the warehouses, but there's more evidence of civil order in food distribution (I know it's not great stuff for TV). I watched food distribution in one of the camps yesterday afternoon: piles of boxes of water, piles of sacks of rice, lots of people queued waiting to have their names ticked off a list to be handed their rations. All handled calmly by a couple of people from the main humanitarian relief team, and several designated Timorese guys living in the camp who diligently maintain the lists for the team.

Fourth, the statements by Tim Costello when he returned to Australia on Monday night have been insulting to many people working in humanitarian relief. Let me describe the situation ­ an Inter-Agency Humanitarian Assistance Group has been established. It comprises the Timorese government (in a coordinating role, under Labour and Community Reinsertion Minister Arsenio Bano), seven UN agencies (WHO, UNICEF etc), and five international NGOs (Oxfam, Plan International, HealthNet, Red Cross and Care). I'm told World Vision was invited to join the effort.

These various agencies are cooperating in their coverage of food distribution and health and sanitation monitoring across all camps. Apparently World Vision is doing the same. According to Tim Costello on ABC's /Lateline/ on Monday night, “There's only about three or four aid agencies still functioning. The UN's gone, many other aid agencies, because of the security situation have gone”. I'm not involved in any of this, so I don't mind saying it has not gone down too well with many people working long hours.

It's hard to feel sympathetic with his calls for stretched Australian military forces to provide "double cover". As I said yesterday, the Australian troops are not only securing and protecting loads of essential utilities, and restoring order in the face of violence springing up in all sorts of places, but ensuring safety to the political leadership, UN facilities and officers, and the joint humanitarian efforts in the field (there are lots of camps in Dili).

The important issue here is that there's an opportunity for international agencies to not repeat the errors of the past. Cooperation is essential. So I see a few vehicles driving around flying their own flags and others wanting to ensure their own "brand recognition" for TV viewers back home. Of course UN agencies have also been under pressure from their head offices to get good footage for impressing potential donors. To their credit, they're generally focusing on what's necessary on the ground at present.

Listening to people displaced and impacted by all this is also essential. Sitting and listening to various people in the camp yesterday afternoon was more informative than any UN briefing I've been to in the past few days. Groups can't just come in and start doing their thing or operate in relative isolation from others; this is a lesson which apparently has to be learnt over and over again.

This is one of the positive outcomes I hope arises from the current tragedy. East Timor can be described as a "failed state" in the sense that everyone, in some way, has failed it. Are they going to fail it again? What lessons have the different agencies learnt?

I still hear people in different agencies (UN, international NGOs, etc) talking as if they need to get back to what they were doing before, or do what they were doing but with more resources. Stop! From now on it has to be different. There's been too much of importing "solutions", of paternalistic "development", of wasting donor resources due to inexperienced "advisers" or forgetting to focus on outcomes.

Fortunately, there are now many people in the Timorese Administration who can ­ and must ­ be more assertive about what is needed as East Timor does what it couldn't do post-1999: to undertake "emergency" and "development" roles side-by-side rather than the latter being viewed as a logical successor to the former. Despite the destruction and current dejection of the national psyche, the foundations for doing so continue to survive. The biggest challenge is to those agencies ­ UN and others alike ­ which continue to operate here: how are you going to change this time around? And when the dust settles, it will be more than the Timorese leadership that will have some questions to answer.

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