What did I learn from the coalface?

In post-disaster situations where there is a large influx of foreign resources, and these are accompanied by foreigners who are full of sympathy and pity for the plight of the locals, it is very easy to develop a “Santa Claus” mentality of both providing and expecting goodies. Foreign organisations with “tough love” are needed that will identify the capacities and capabilities of local people and help them develop their own abilities, rather than undercut these by paying too much attention to their victimhood.

There is likely to be a strong network of traditional ties between local people in any country where you work that is often not widely known. During 18 months’ work in Timor-Leste, no foreigner ever talked to me about sacred houses and Li a Naiti, nor did I ask Timorese friends about them until they volunteered information. They are, however, the real civil society of the country, and I wish I had learned much more about them when I first came to the country. In general, a lack of cultural awareness is an important deficit when trying to help people to help themselves.

It is very important to have clear, frank and pragmatic conversations between civil society and government in every country. I suggest that this cannot be left to individual biased and prejudiced people from each side. It is so important that it needs professional and trained intermediaries or counsellors. Countries can do themselves considerable harm by deepening and widening the gaps between the two blocks.

Development agencies also need to be very sensitive when setting up new structures which may clash with traditional structures.

What happened to it all?

Even after the violence of the period around independence and the need for outside peacekeeping troops was over, to my astonishment violence broke out all over again in 2006, after I had left. It seems to have been caused by grievances among soldiers of the F-FDTL (Timor-Leste

Defence Force) who belonged to different areas and who claimed that they were treated differently, and the struggle between political leaders in the run-up to the 2007 elections. The application of a relevant UN programme called DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) within the military would have been very valuable, but it was, I think, neglected.

Another issue was the vexed question of land. There was traditional ownership of land; there was land and housing that was taken over by the Indonesians, and whose ownership was unresolved; and there was land and housing belonging to people who had emigrated to Australia, Indonesian Timor or other places and who came back after independence wanting to claim their rights and property. There was tension between those who had stayed and fought and those who went into exile and then came back when it was all over. This was very similar to South Sudan.

The long-term economic independence and health of Timor-Leste is bound up with access to oil in the Timor Sea, which has been negotiated and renegotiated with Australia. Timor-Leste has set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund from its oil sales and has unexpected resources that we were not aware of when I was there.

There were many opportunities for insights into the situation of Timor-Leste. Here are some worth noting:

  • • The 2004 UEFA European Football Championship final between Portugal and Greece took place while I was in Dili and illustrated how people regarded Portugal. It took place at about two in the morning, and each time the Portuguese scored a goal you heard the cheers go up from the richer part of town and the groans from the poorer part of town — and vice versa. Greece won, and the next morning a few likely lads appeared in the streets wearing hastily constructed shirts in the Greek colours, and cheering Greece while despising Portugal. Portugal and the Portuguese were favoured by the rich and educated, but no one else, as far as I could see.
  • • The Portuguese-speaking senior-level officials of government — including many Timorese back from considerable periods in Mozambique - insisted that the law courts were conducted in Portuguese, using Portuguese laws. There were very few indigenous judges, and thus the courts were held before various short-term expatriate judges - Nigerians, Indians and others. The courts had to be conducted in English, Portuguese, Indonesian and Tetum with translation both ways. It was a mess.
  • • I met, serendipitously, with what have been called the Disaster Cowboys - people who made their living by serially working in famous disasters: Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and now East Timor. Many of them knew each other and it was like an old boys’ and girls’ reunion. It was also interesting that some UN agencies brought locals with whom they had worked in the former Yugoslavia violence to be experts in Timor in security and police work. One subset of the Disaster Cowboys were the Disaster Researchers, whose job it was to try to make a true factual account of the violence that had occurred. Every day they counted records of bodies and atrocities — a strange way to make a living. A huge summing-up of the Indonesian era was produced in 2005 — the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — and, in 2008, the report of the Commission of Truth and Friendship was published, after a wait of 12 years.

I also met serendipitously the commercial equivalent of the Disaster Cowboys — the UN Camp Followers. There were supermarkets for the kinds of goods foreigners wanted, bars and Thai massage parlours. It was really true that such establishments had been providing services to UN personnel on a regular basis in each place where there was a heavy UN presence. An added element in Dili was the presence of a load of Darwin and Northern Territory Australians who were skilled artisans — mechanics, air-conditioning, lighting, sewerage and building contractors. I was told that the word had gone out in Darwin, where many Timorese had gone to escape and find shelter, that there was work to be had in a pretty Wild West kind of place — i.e. Dili — and they had swarmed in. They were quite a riotous crew.

A third significant group supporting the development of Timor-Leste was the solidarity organisations — from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Canada and the USA - that had been politically active in lobbying for East Timor independence at the UN or with their own governments, or that had lobbied against munitions going to Indonesia to attack East Timor (see my original contact through Oxfam with Timor when it was still Indonesian and I met Lord Carrington (Chapter 8)). Many people from such organisations came triumphantly to East Timor and were greatly welcomed for their work. Having arrived, however, they were at a loss — they were not development workers but political activists. Many of them got involved with the political struggles between East Timor and Australia over the ownership of the oil in the Timor Sea.

Coffee had been cultivated in Timor-Leste from the early nineteenth century and some smart US agriculturists and marketing experts pointed out that all East Timorese coffee was organic since very little pesticides or fertilisers had been used during the Indonesian period, and certainly not before. East Timor coffee could therefore command a premium price from environmentally conscious coffee importers as organic coffee, and it soon developed a reputation at Starbucks. Wild coffee grows in a singular way in Timor-Leste — in long, tall vines, which have to be pulled down to harvest the berries. It was starting to be cultivated on small shrubs by the time 1 left.

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