Subject: Building a new society: NGOs in East Timor

Building a new society: NGOs in East Timor

by Janet Hunt and published in New Community Quarterly, Vol 2 no 1 Autumn 2004


Before the destruction of East Timor in September 1999 a small number of Timorese non-government organisations (NGOs) were operating under highly repressive conditions. The international humanitarian response helped them recover, but failed to make best use of their experience. Subsequently Timorese NGOs have played an important role in advocating for a rural-focussed, pro-poor, sustainable development model in the new nation. They have contributed significantly to human rights and civic education of the population, to shaping the Constitution, and to the gender composition of the Parliament. They are also seen as having a role in the National Development Plan. In the rural Districts there are a number of active NGOs as well as community based organisations, and farmer, fisher and youth groups. The challenges facing NGOs now are their sustainability in a period of reduced funding, their relations with the community and the new government, and the need to continue to network internationally to learn from others’ experiences.

When East Timor was almost totally destroyed by militia violence in September 1999, the international emergency response rolled into action, and the task of building the new nation of East Timor began. The new nation was formally welcomed into the world in May 2002, with a new President, Parliament, government and all the other organs of the state. But building a new nation involves more than building a government. This paper describes the revival and emergence of Timorese non-government organisations which have formed to assist people in East Timor improve their lives and restore or conserve their environment. This is a significant part of rebuilding the community sector in East Timor.

The paper starts by reviewing some of the history of civil society and NGOs in particular, as this is important to understanding the current situation. It goes on to explore the legacy of the emergency period, and then discusses the current state of NGOs in East Timor, and finishes with a discussion of some of the challenges they face as the nation emerges and develops.

Civil society before September 1999

Civil society in East Timor played an extremely important role in the struggle for independence. Despite the high level of repression during the Indonesian occupation period, NGOs existed and operated, albeit within many constraints. Student, youth and women’s organisations, such as RENETIL, Organizacao Mulheres Timor (OMT) and Organizacao Popular Mulheres Timor (OPMT), were courageous resistance activists. The Catholic Church also played a critically important role especially through the provision of education and health services to the community. The Catholic church had its own humanitarian organisation, Delgado Social (DELSOS), which later became Caritas East Timor. DELSOS was probably the earliest local NGO. It began in 1976, supported by international Catholic NGOs in Germany and the USA. Catholic Justice and Peace Commissions in Dili and Baucau were also significant especially in documenting the many human rights violations that were occurring.

International NGOs have operated in East Timor and some have supported the development of local NGOs in East Timor from the outset. The US Catholic aid organisation, Catholic Relief Services, and the International Committee of the Red Cross entered East Timor in the late 1970s to provide emergency relief following the Indonesian invasion and a famine. Though the ICRC remained, CRS withdrew in the mid-80s, having helped to establish a local agricultural NGO, known as ETADEP in 1987.

After the 1989 ‘opening’ of East Timor a wider range of Catholic agencies, among them CAFOD from UK, and Caritas Norway, Sweden and Australia, lent support to Catholic and other local organisations there. New international NGOs also started working in the area, notably CARE Canada (1995), Christian Children’s Fund (1990), and World Vision (1995) the last two as part of their Indonesian programs. There was also some presence by branches of Indonesian NGOs such as Bina Swadaya.

Around 1996-97 more local NGOs formed, among them Yayasan Hak focussing on human rights, Fokupers and ETWAVE (initially formed as GERTAK) addressing women’s rights and violence against women, Pronto Ata Serbi (PAS) a health NGO, and Yayasan Bia Hula, a water and sanitation NGO formed from an AusAID bilateral aid project. Posko, initially intended as a network of emergency relief, but in practice an operational organisation, formed to respond to the 1997/98 drought, and in 1999 did its best to reach and assist the militia-controlled Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The emerging youth and students movement led to the formation of the East Timor Student’s Solidarity Council (ETSSC) which in 1998 organised a courageous demonstration of some 10,000 people at the time of a visiting foreign delegation. The students played a key role in public education in the lead up to the 1999 ballot.

Local NGOs began to establish a coordinating body, the East Timor NGO Forum, in 1998 but it had difficulty meeting from April 1999 onwards because of the worsening security situation. Some 14 local NGOs who founded the Forum released a Mission Statement on 23 June 1999 but the Forum was barely able to function before the September emergency.

The Emergency

As a result of the massive destruction in September 1999 local NGOs lost everything. Their offices were trashed or destroyed, and staff had fled and were scattered everywhere. Some had gone in to hiding in the hills, others to Bali, others had been forced across the border to West Timor. Some were reported to have been killed .

A large number of international NGOs arrived. Their emergency teams were in Dili in late September, with masses of equipment, logistic capacity, trucks, communications equipment, and considerable resources. They operated within a UN framework providing urgently needed food, medical assistance, water and sanitation, shelter and later, the means to restore agriculture. Their quick action saved many lives. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) established an NGO coordination centre, whose initial focus was coordination of the international emergency response NGOs, although it later worked hard to support and assist the reestablishment of local NGOs, particularly the NGO Forum.

Over the next few months (November 1999 ­ January 2000) considerable tensions developed between local NGOs, the Timorese leadership generally, and the international community, over Timorese roles in decision-making. The Timorese were feeling excluded by the huge international presence. The disparity in resources of the UN and international NGOs compared to the Timorese political leadership and local NGOs was a source of genuine grievance.

To address the issue within the NGO community, in December 1999 the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) helped to organise a workshop in Dili for international and local NGOs to come together. The workshop, attended by 22 local NGOs, decided among other things, to re-constitute the NGO Forum and the Forum began its re-establishment in cooperation with the UN’s NGO Information Centre .

However, despite some notable efforts, problems of achieving satisfactory partnerships between international and local NGOs persisted. In late 2000 Oxfam commissioned a study by Cecilia Brunnstrom. She documented many of the problems local NGOs experienced throughout the emergency period.

“Throughout the initial emergency period the collaboration between Timorese and international NGOs was marked by the difficulty of the two bodies to find a common platform to operate from……although the Timorese offered their experience and thorough knowledge of the country, the situation and the available networks, to the emergency operation, the international community did not include them in the work.” (Brunnstrom 2000: 6)

Her report highlighted that even where partnerships existed, they tended to be unequal, and she made a number of recommendations about how international NGOs could more effectively work with local NGOs.

Growth of the Local NGO Community

Whatever the difficulties of NGO relationships with the international community, the end of Indonesian colonialism had made room for NGOs and civil society to flourish. Throughout 2000 and 2001 the local NGO community grew rapidly. In January 2000 there were 34 local NGOs registered with the UN, and by September 2001, some 197 local NGOs were registered with the NGO Forum which had then taken over this role. Much of this growth came from young people, often students, trying to use their knowledge to help people recover from the September 1999 destruction. By early 2002 the NGO register at the Forum showed 231 local NGOs registered, of which 140 were Forum members, and the register today has over 300. This was a huge increase, which does not encompass a lot of local community groups of women, farmers, and others in the Districts.

The expansion of NGOs was not only numerical. Local NGOs moved into many new areas and sectors, though they were predominant in areas such as agriculture, education, health, small business and livelihood work, women’s rights, and human rights. The NGOs brought special attention to vulnerable groups such as children, widows, and orphans. The re-formed human rights NGOs consolidated an already highly visible profile in documenting current and former abuses, undertaking human rights and civic education and advocacy, and lobbying for an international tribunal. Leadership tended to come from some of the NGOs which had existed earlier, and had re-established themselves with support from the international community.

Apart from the NGO Forum, which itself played a key role in helping to build an NGO community in East Timor, other networks also formed quite quickly. For example, fifteen women’s NGOs formed REDE, in March 2000 and organised the first ever East Timor Women’s Congress in June that year, attended by over 500 women from all over East Timor. The national Congress was preceded by a series of District women’s meetings. The conference adopted a “Platform for Action for the Advancement of Women of Timor Lorosae”. The Platform identified a number of critical areas of concern: poverty, law and order, reconciliation and justice, culture of violence and decision-making and institution building. Women’s NGOs were extremely active in political mobilisation before the Constituent Assembly elections, successfully gaining women 27% of the seats in the Assembly, which subsequently became the current parliament. REDE’s early work was critical in achieving such a strong representation of women in this first parliament. Today, the Women’s Caucus has grown out of the training provided to women at the time of the Constituent Assembly elections, and is currently focussing on women’s participation and representation in forthcoming suco elections.

By late 2001 a considerable difference was emerging between the well-established NGOs (eg Fokupers, HAK, ETADEP) and the newer, voluntary groups. NGOs in the Districts especially had very limited resources, lower skill levels, and poor access to information and relationships. Most were, and remain, quite small with memberships of between 10-20 people , and some seem to be struggling to find a clear role. Their humanitarian motives may be strong, but many have neither the resources nor the skills to realise their potential. Established NGOs have some concerns about the legitimacy of other NGOs ­ some may call themselves NGOs but actually be profit-oriented. This is a problem the NGO Forum has yet to address. At the same time the well-established NGOs have struggled to retain experienced staff in the face of competing opportunities (often better paid) offered by international organisations.

A number of international NGOs have been involved in supporting the development of local NGOs and the NGO Forum through training, resourcing, mentoring and organisation of study tours and exchanges. Some have worked in close partnership with selected NGOs to build their capacities in organisational management, advocacy, and program development. Other international NGOs have tended to work directly with communities, often helping to develop local community groups in the process. Various donor governments, notably USAID and AusAID, and the multilateral organisation, UNDP, have also supported local NGOs and civil society more broadly .

The NGO Forum, with support from a range of NGO and official donor sources, has also provided a range of trainings for local NGOs, among them English language, information technology, and a range of project management and organisational development trainings.

LNGOs and advocacy about East Timor’s Development

Since late 1999 NGOs have been very active advocating on approaches to East Timor’s development. Much, though by no means all, the advocacy has developed through Working Groups organised by the East Timor NGO Forum. They quite quickly established their role in the debates about national development, through dialogue with UNTAET, the World Bank and other donors in East Timor.

Some common themes which NGOs have articulated include the needs for: greater focus on rural areas support to sectors such as health, agriculture, education, and attention to vulnerable groups (children, widows etc) greater efforts to use and develop capacity of local NGOs, and local resources, including for monitoring and implementation of reconstruction and development programs longer timeframes and more thorough community consultation processes human rights, justice and good governance international staff to build Timorese capacity.

They have argued these in many fora, but especially at the series of international donor conferences which have taken place since December 1999. For example, twenty-four local NGOs and many international NGOs made a joint statement to the very first donor conference on 17 December 1999, which expressed NGO concern that:

‘current development proposals appear predominantly urban-biased, when rural development and agriculture should be stressed.’

Such sentiments were echoed in many subsequent statements . Since most of Timor’s poor live in rural areas, this concern for development to reach the rural poor seems well founded. At the June 2003 donor conference the NGOs again pressed for investment in agriculture and the rural economy coupled with support for small and medium enterprises, and microfinance to support rural enterprise: ‘A major barrier to poverty reduction and employment creation is the under-investment in the agricultural and rural economy, which has been exacerbated by recent and projected declines in economic growth rates. The promotion of inter- and intra-district trade and markets, with the aim of increasing procurement of local produce and materials and moving away from Dili-centred economic development is critical….’ Some other examples of areas in which NGOs actively advocated and contributed to some changes included the UN Civic Education project and the National Constitutional Commission.

Civic Education

A major controversy erupted in October 2000 over UNTAET’s proposed eight million dollar project “Civic Education for Democracy in East Timor”. Local NGOs reacted angrily to a project about which they felt they had not been properly consulted and which ignored their capacity almost entirely. This project epitomised for local NGOs the way international efforts were overlooking significant local capacity. It had been students and women’s groups as well as other activists now working for NGOs, who had carried out much of the voter education prior to the August 1999 ballot, under intensely repressive circumstances. ‘What qualifications would international staff bring which local actors did not have?’ was the question on NGO minds.

UNTAET eventually withdrew the proposal and started the project afresh, with a Steering Committee involving local NGOs and other civil society players. The revised proposal saw 50 civil society representatives trained and then resourced to conduct civic education across the country in time for the Constituent assembly elections A similar exercise was undertaken in early 2002 in preparation for the Presidential elections. Civic education has remained as one of the key activities of the NGO community. A group called Civic Forum was formed in June 2001, supported by the National Democratic Institute (USA), and is now active in all 13 Districts with 220 groups and over 3,200 participants, promoting citizen participation and grassroots advocacy in the shaping of East Timor’s democracy . It has also worked with the women’s group GFFTL to run workshops to build women’s confidence to speak publicly and to voice their issues and concerns through Civic Forum, as women’s voices have not been very strong in the past.

The Constitutional Commission

NGOs were extremely concerned about the short time frame for development of the new nation’s Constitution, which initially was expected to be fully debated and finalised in only three months between the election of the Constituent Assembly members, at a ballot conducted on 30 August 2001, and 15 December of the same year. Such a time frame was seen to be totally inadequate for wide consultation across the community, particularly given the difficulties of communication in rural and isolated areas .

NGOs recommended that a National Constitution Commission be established to lead the consultation process, but this was not agreed by the political parties. In the event, UNTAET, swayed by NGO concerns, set up District level Constitutional Commissions, although there remained no formal process for the adoption of their reports by the Constituent Assembly. NGOs also lobbied hard for the new Constitution to enshrine basic human rights principles, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Thus by early 2002, NGOs and civil society more broadly had established themselves as key stakeholders in the new nation’s development, with views and ideas, and a commitment to a participatory and inclusive approach to national development and respect for human rights.

Civil Society and National Development Planning

In the first quarter of 2002, now President, H. E. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao led a Countrywide Consultation with Civil Society as part of the process of development of the National Development Plan. The process involved over 1,000 gatherings across the country with some 38,000 people participating. NGOs actively participated in the process. The result was a document “East Timor 2020: Our Nation, Our Future.” It illustrates that people have some clear expectations of what NGOs might be able to do for them in the future. Among the roles suggested for NGOs are provision of literacy and education, including technical training; training of health workers and operation of health clinics; assisting in agricultural development, including marketing and transport, provision of credit, and assistance in environmental management; assisting the poor and advocating on their behalf; assisting widows, especially with house-building; promoting livelihood activities for women and training for youth; promoting peace, reconciliation, human rights, including women’s rights to live free from violence, and democracy. These reflect many of the areas where NGOs have already become involved, but there is obviously scope for a great deal more to be done in a nation in which 46% of the rural population are classed as living in poverty (Planning Commission 2002).

The National Development Plan itself recognises that NGOs and wider civil society have roles to play in development. One of the goals of that plan is to ‘strengthen an already robust civil society, and create opportunities for its constructive engagement and participation in national life…’ (Planning Commission 2002b: 21). It recognises that the church and NGOs can assist with service provision particularly in areas such as education, health, rural water and sanitation, poverty reduction, and rural development. It also sees an important role for civil society in information and communication strategies with rural people, including giving them voice. How NGOs and other stakeholders will participate in the implementation of the National Development Plan is yet to be determined. Discussions have begun, with a first meeting held in August 2003, about a stakeholder mechanism for participatory development, to bring all stakeholders, including NGOs, the church, community groups and others, into the process .

NGOs in East Timor in late 2003

By late 2003 many international NGOs have left Timor Leste; around 20-25 remain, though some have quite small programs, and there are probably only around 10 with large programs who clearly plan to stay for some time yet. Many have now placed Timorese staff in senior positions, and relatively few expatriates remain. The local NGO community is taking stronger shape, though it is having to adjust to a very different funding environment from that immediately after the emergency. Clearly there is a group of quite well established NGOs with good reputations, running programs and advocating to the government on a range of issues. Many, though not all of these, are NGOs which existed in the late 1990s before the emergency. Nevertheless they face funding challenges particularly to pay salaries and overhead costs, some have had to downsize already, and many still need to further enhance their program, management and organisational development skills (see Box 1 for a selection of Dili-based NGOs).


Box 1 Selected Dili-based NGOs Yayasan Hak (human rights); Fokupers (women, violence against women); Haburas (environment and culture); SAHE Institute for Liberation (popular education and sustainable livelihoods); LAIFET (training in trade-skills, eg carpentry, blacksmithing, plough making etc and small business management); CDEP (marketing support for farmer cooperatives); Alola Foundation (Violence against women, women, children); Bia Hula (water and sanitation); PAS (health); ETADEP (agriculture and microfinance); GFFTL (literacy and women’s empowerment); ETWAVE (violence against women and children): Lao Hamutuk (monitoring international assistance).


Most Dili-based NGOs are working in a range of Districts. For example, Hotflima is working in the Covalima and Aileu Districts in microfinance, HAK has offices in Baucau, Maubisse and Maliana, GFFTL is conducting literacy classes in five Districts. In the Districts there are many NGOs formed, but only limited numbers which actually have funding and are running programs. In each District there may be no more than 5-6 Timorese NGOs which currently have enough capacity and resources to put their ideas into practice. Hadomi Malu is working well with farmers groups in Suai; in Oecusse, FFSO and Centro Feto (Women’s Centre) do a range of work with grass roots communities, especially women, and ACHAI works in youth education and training; in Los Palos there is a very lively NGO community, with good networking and good relationships with local government. In Baucau there are strong NGOs, such as the Justice and Peace Commission, and Caritas Baucau, both linked to the Catholic church. On Atauro Island Roman Luan operates a kindergarten and East Timor’s first and highly successful community-based ecotourism operation. OMT has transformed itself to support women’s economic development, and District OMTs run guest houses, small restaurants, and market crafts. These few are merely illustrative of the kinds of activities NGOs are undertaking, as it is impossible to outline them all.

In the Districts there are many smaller, informal groupings such as farmer or fisher groups, youth groups, and community-based organisations, only loosely connected, if at all, to local NGOs. Linkages between Dili-based and local NGOs also still need strengthening.

In August 2003 the HASATL network of NGOs held their second very successful ‘Expo Popular’ in Dili to showcase their work and exchange ideas especially in relation to sustainable agriculture. It ran for a week and was highly popular, with many people attending both daytime and evenings. NGOs had stalls, workshops and demonstrated their agricultural techniques, so that ideas could be spread.

Many of the NGOs are going through a difficult phase of readjustment, trying to find their roles for the long-term as well as securing funding. Some smaller NGOs are simply implementing a single project. The line between a community based organisation (CBO) and an NGO is not really clear, and some ‘NGOs’, especially in the Districts, would elsewhere probably be considered as ‘CBOs’. Others may be called ‘temporary NGOs’ in that they rise and fall according to availability of funds. Some involved in civic education particularly might be categorised in this way, since funding for civic education peaks around key electoral events. Some newly-formed NGOs have split, as changes have brought unresolvable tensions. Some have good visions but lack the capacity to carry out effective programs to fulfil them. For many, their future existence will depend on strong voluntary contributions as long-term funding prospects look rather limited. The skills of community development and mobilisation will be very important for NGOs to help communities improve their living standards in an environment in which funds are likely to be very scarce in coming years.

Challenges and Issues Now

The challenges facing local NGOs in East Timor now are complex. In a new country, in which change has been fast and dramatic, many NGOs are still working out their own roles and relationships as well as working out what type of relationships they want to have with the new Government of Timor Leste. The Government itself, unfamiliar with NGOs, has not really framed its own thinking on how its sees the role of NGOs and civil society in the development of East Timor. Even the concept of NGO is relatively unknown, especially in the community, and a great deal of work is needed to build trust between community members and NGOs, wherever they are from. In early 2002 UNDP undertook a study of civil society in East Timor, which identified a number of issues and challenges for the future, which remain relevant in late 2003.

Sustainability of the NGO community

One of the most significant challenges to NGOs, now that the emergency period with the rapid dispersal of funds and resources is over, is to sustain themselves in a period of reduced funding. Some have developed relationships with international NGO donors which may last for some years, others are developing small ‘contract’ arrangements for conducting activities (such as trainings) on behalf of certain donors, or creating income-earning opportunities to try to become more independent of aid funds. Some require their ‘clients’ to pay for services, albeit at discounted rates compared to commercial prices (eg ETADEP charges farmers for use of its tractors). However, most are still heavily reliant at this stage on their international donors. Further, the initial emergency period provision of vehicles and computers may be costly for them to sustain. As vehicles get older and worn from the rough roads and hot, dusty conditions, maintenance costs will be high. Similarly computers and other office equipment will not last for ever. Maintaining or replacing costly equipment will be a major expense which many will find difficult to fund. Another difficulty is paying core salary and overhead costs, as many donors will only fund project activities, not these recurrent costs. This makes it particularly difficult for NGOs who can get donor support for their field programs but have no way of gaining funds for the essential support and management costs to maintain them.

But financial sustainability will essentially depend on the NGOs being very clear about their vision and their role, and being able to link their capacities to implementation of the National Development Plan. It will also require them to demonstrate their effectiveness in improving the lives of people in the Districts, working participatively with them to help solve social problems, and tackling some of the big challenges ahead in terms of improving livelihoods or creating jobs for the many people living in poverty. If they can apply their local knowledge, creativity, and skills to these issues, and can find innovative solutions to the many difficulties facing the emerging nation, they will surely continue to receive international support. They will also need to work hard to develop their organisations, including their boards and their staff capacities, financial and human resource management, and organisational systems, to enable them to meet the demands of this new environment. Those unable to adjust to the new environment, or unable to build a network of international donor support will probably not survive.


1) I am grateful to Chris McInerney of UNDP and David Shires, the author of the study, for permission to draw on it.

NGO-community relations

One of the key issues facing NGOs is the need for them to establish their integrity with and accountability to the communities in East Timor with whom they work. Good communication with communities is also important for NGOs to establish their legitimacy to speak with or for the rural poor, and to share information with people in isolated areas when communications infrastructure is so poor. Since a top-down communication approach predominated in the Indonesian period, NGOs are still developing skills in how to work in genuinely participative ways with local communities, and quite often they have language difficulties where local languages predominate and few people speak good Tetun or Bahasa Indonesian.

Currently, the legitimacy of NGO views is being challenged by some government officials, especially as NGOs generally have very small membership bases. NGOs will have to consider the sources of their legitimacy carefully, and be exemplary in terms of their transparency and accountability. Preventing corruption and developing trust are key issues for NGOs. These issues are particularly important for the credibility of all NGOs who play any sort of ‘watchdog’ role on government and donors. Unless they have systems to ensure their own integrity, they will be on weak ground in their dialogue with others.

The idea of developing an NGO Code of Conduct has been discussed through the NGO Forum, but has not progressed, due to the pressures of the many other demands placed on NGOs, and the time needed to discuss the issues involved. The principles embodied in the NGO Forum constitution provide a guide to NGO behaviour for the time being, though the extent to which these ideas are being promulgated is debatable.

NGO-State relations

The new State formed in May 2002 confronts an enormous range of challenges. It is, in a sense, still forming its various levels, with new parliamentary arrangements, a new President, Ministers with their specific responsibilities, public servants at national level and district administrators for each of the 13 Districts. As yet no formal local government structures exist, and the judicial structures and processes are weak. However, Government is finding its feet, and this is an important time for its relations with the NGO community to be crystallised.

For NGOs the challenge of forming relationships with government is made more difficult because the only model of NGO or civil society­state relationships many have experienced is within a repressive state. It is hard for NGOs and government alike to envisage and create a cooperative, collaborative, complementary relationship, where both work alongside each other towards the nation’s development. Roles and relationships have to change and this requires new skills and attitudes, which will take time to develop both within NGOs and Government. At present the opportunity remains to develop generally positive relationships and a relatively participatory process of governance, though there is concern that government processes are not as transparent as they could be. The relationships between NGOs and government at present vary according to the issue, and the experience of people on both sides, with some friction at times, while in other areas there has been positive collaboration.

Despite some efforts by UNTAET in 2001 to advance an NGO Regulation Process, issues of NGO registration and regulation remain unresolved. The NGO Unit in the Ministry of Planning and Finance is now considering the whole issue of NGO legislation and registration, hoping that a whole of government approach can be adopted. At present the Ministry of Justice has an Associations Law drafted to grant legal status to for-profit and non-profit organisations alike, pending the development of a Securities and Exchange Commission. It is not yet clear how this will relate to a law or regulation specifically on charities or non-profit organisations, which the Ministry of Planning and Finance may administer. Certainly there will be considerable work to clearly define NGOs and develop the key legislative base for their operation and registration. This Unit is also trying to develop an effective database of NGOs, including the sectors and Districts in which they are working.

NGOs also relate to government as advocates, and Timorese NGOs have formed a small number of networks to coordinate around some key issues, such as the Centro Informacao Independente Tasi Timor (or Independent Information Centre on the Timor Sea), and the International Financial Institutions Working Group, which is studying the role of these institutions in Timor Leste and giving support to the government over issues such as loans rather than grants. Working Groups in different sectors, led by key NGOs and facilitated through the NGO Forum, are also useful meeting grounds for NGOs working in particular sectors and staff from the relevant Ministries, as well as donors in those sectors.

Other networks are less focussed on advocacy, more on sharing experiences and promoting good ideas. One example is Dai Popular, or the East Timorese Popular Education Network, which is working to promote popular education to help democratisation and promote social transformation. The Conselho Nacional Juventude Timor Leste (CNJTL) arose from a May 2002 Youth Congress attended by 35 youth organisations. As the majority of East Timor’s population is young, the participation of youth in shaping the future is extremely important and this network will hopefully play a significant role now.

There are a number of examples of NGOs working closely with the Government, and undertaking tasks for government. This may include developing frameworks for vocational education, assisting in delivering key services, or providing essential government information to communities. For example, LAIFET is implementing a pilot project in Ermera and Bobonaro in collaboration with the Land and Property Unit, to provide information to the people on Law Number 1 2003, on immovable land and property; and KBH (a Vocational Training Centre jointly managed by LAIFET, SAHE and GFFTL) is represented on the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity’s Advisory Board on Vocational Education which is shaping the future of the vocational education system. Such collaboration, which utilises the skills and experience of both NGOs and government to address the development issues, is valuable.

NGOs will have to juggle their roles as advocates for the poor and their efforts to be partners with the government for development. This may not always be an easy balance, as at times they will find themselves being critical of their Government. Some key issues revolve around the nature of economic development. NGOs talk about promoting a ‘people’s economy’ by which they mean an economy which is equitable and in which everyone can participate. The CDEP’s efforts to develop District-District marketing arrangements to take rice from producer to consumer areas is a good example of an NGO demonstrating what is needed and trying to fulfil the role. NGOs’ advocacy with and for the rural poor is likely to be a continuing feature of their work which may from time to time bring them into conflict with a Government trying to develop a market economy within an extraordinarily tight budget.

However, a very positive step is that NGOs have recognised that government cannot do everything which needs to be done in the new nation, and that they can and must play a significant role in the nation’s development. Equally, government appears to have accepted that it will need NGOs to work with it to meet people’s expectations and aspirations, so the basis for future partnerships and collaboration is there.

NGOs and the international community and donors

The international donor community is likely to remain in East Timor for many years, and there is an important role for NGOs to simply help people understand these bodies - who they are and what they do (this includes UN agencies, International Financial Institutions, international NGOs and foundations). Local, especially District, NGOs themselves do not always know much about them, or how to relate to them. The requirements of international donors bring new systems of management and project systems which are largely unfamiliar to East Timor, and whatever one may think about them, people engaging with them need to understand how they operate. The possibility of donors driving the agendas of local NGOs is a very real one, where funds are hard to come by, and NGOs struggle to gain funds to operate.

There are also concerns in the NGO community about the roles of IMF and World Bank in shaping economic policy in East Timor, but at least the nation has started debt-free. Whether it is able to remain that way, or at least without the burden of unpayable debt, remains an open question. One issue which NGOs have already taken up is that of the Treaty arrangements between East Timor and the Australian Government over the sea-bed boundary and the consequential benefits East Timor will gain from the oil and gas exploration and development. Another area which human rights NGOs are taking up, in partnership with the international NGOs, is the whole question of an International Tribunal for the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity in East Timor. The apparent failure of the Indonesian legal process to bring the highest level perpetrators to trial keeps this issue alive, and a Working Group of NGOs continues to explore how justice could be achieved in this regard.

Regional and international NGO networking

East Timor NGOs are mostly less than five years old. Until very recently they have not had the benefit of easy communication and interchange with other NGOs in the region. There is a lot be gained through the sharing of experiences, and lessons with NGOs through training, study visits and exchanges in the region. For example, a visit to East Timor by representatives from a Nicaraguan Men’s Group which has been working to combat violence against women, has stimulated the development of the Mane Contra La Violencia (Men Against Violence) network in East Timor.


Clearly the NGO community has flourished since the emergency, but interestingly many of the NGOs which look most well established are those which had formed prior to that, even if their work had been very difficult under the Indonesian occupation, and despite the fact that they lost most or all of their material possessions in September 1999. New NGOs have formed since 1999, especially in the Districts, and some are now emerging as capable development organisations, able to make a contribution to their District’s development. The plethora of small informal community groups, as well as fisher and farmer groups and cooperatives is also testament to the freer environment in which people can associate together more easily than before to start to address their own problems.

The emergency period brought significant resources and many international donors to East Timor, and some donors and international NGOs made significant efforts to help rebuild and nurture the NGO community, although this was not without its difficulties and misunderstandings. That phase is now past, and NGOs are facing another transition to the longer term situation, in which resources will be reduced and they will have to demonstrate the quality and effectiveness of their work to maintain international support. They will also have to find innovative ways to earn income and become more self-reliant.

The future for NGOs in East Timor will certainly revolve around how they manage all the new roles and relationships required of them and particularly how they position themselves within the interactions between local communities and the Government of Timor Leste. Managing the complexities of local-level relationships while also managing relationships with all elements of National Government (bureaucracy, parliamentarians, the President etc) will require skill and sophistication in program, policy and advocacy work as well as an ability to mobilise communities to solve some of their own problems. NGOs have significant opportunities to contribute their experiences and ideas to the development of their country, to learn from mistakes made elsewhere and to draw on successful models, whilst adapting them for Timor Leste’s particular circumstances, culture and needs.


Bano, A., Hunt, J., and Patrick,I., Making the Most of the Capacity of Local NGOs in Relief, Reconstruction and Development: the case of East Timor, paper prepared for Rethinking Humanitarianism Conference, University of Queensland, September 24-26 2001. Available in Evans-Kent, B., and Bleiker, R., Rethinking Humanitarianism. Conference Proceedings University of Queensland, 2001: 27-47.

Brunnstrom, C. 2000 “Loron Aban Hahu Ohin - The Future is Today” Report on the Relationship between Timorese and International NGOs in East Timor, for Oxfam, November 2000

Meden, N., From resistance to nation building: the changing role of civil society in East Timor. From ReliefWeb,,14 May 2002, also published in Development Outreach magazine of the World Bank Institute (Winter 2002).

Patrick, I., East Timor Emerging from Conflict: the Role of Local NGOs and International Assistance. Disasters, 2001, 25 (1): 48-66

Planning Commission, 2002 East Timor 2020: Our Nation, Our Future, Dili.

Planning Commission, 2002b East Timor: National Development Plan May 2002, Dili, Part I.

Shires, D. 2002 Situation Analysis of Civil Society Organisations in East Timor, Report to UNDP, Dili.

UNDP 2002, East Timor Human Development Report especially Chapter Four, Civil Society and the Future of East Timor.

Walsh, P., 2000, New NGOs for a New East Timor: Discussion Paper on the role of the East Timor NGO Forum (Fongtil)Dili, 16 April.

i Civil society is viewed by this author to include a wide range of organisations and traditional, relatively informal social forms and networks, which are not motivated by profit. They may include cooperatives, trade unions, media, human rights groups, womens’ and youth groups, church and student organisations, and self-help groups. They are independent of the state. NGOs are part of civil society, and are voluntary, not for profit, independent and not self-serving ie they aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged people and assist them to realise their human rights. (Based on Mitlin, D., 1998, and Commonwealth Foundation 1996). This chapter focuses on NGOs, not the wider civil society of East Timor.

ii The NGOs who founded the Forum were: Yaysan Timor Aid, Yayasan Hope, Yayasan Kasimo, Puskopoit Hanai Malu, Puslawita, Yaysan Ledavo, Yaysan Halarae, Yaysan Bia Hula, Yayasan Etadep, Yaysan Hak, BinaSwadaya TimTim, YBSL, Fokupers and USC.

iii For example it was reported in the international media that the Director of Caritas East Timor had been killed. It later emerged that the Director of the newly-formed Caritas Baucau had been assassinated. iv This was the successor organisation to the UN OCHA NGO Centre, now under the auspices of the UN Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Rehabilitation organisation, the humanitarian ‘pillar’ of UNTAET.

v This is borne out by the UNDP Civil Society study undertaken in May 2002

vi Others with smaller or more limited civil society programs include DFID (UK), CIDA (Canada), Ireland Aid (check).

vii Joint Statement from National and International NGOs for the Tokyo Meeting on East Timor 17 December 1999

viii See for example: East Timor NGO Forum 2000e NGO Forum Statement to East Timor Donor’s Meeting, Dili, 9 November 2000 ;East Timor NGO Forum 2000 East Timor NGO Forum Statement to East Timor Donor’s Meeting, Brussels, 5-6 December 2000;East Timor NGO Forum 2001 Briefing Papers for Canberra Donors’ Conference June 13-14 2001

ix Rona ami nia Lian (Listen to our Voices) East Timor NGO Forum Statement to the Development Partners meeting, June 2003.

x East Timor NGO Forum: INF 25 November 2000 p 10. (NGO Forum’s Information Bulletin) xi High Level Mechanism Final Draft, p4

xii East Timor NGO Forum General Statement for Canberra Donors’ Conference, June 2001

xiii HASATL is the acronym for Hadomi Sustenabilidade Agricultura Timor Lorosa’e

xiv I am grateful to Ms Josephine Dongail from the Ministry of Planning and Finance for this information.

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