After nearly a year of political deadlock following the 2017 parliamentary elections, on 12 May Timor-Leste’s citizens elected a new government, with Xanana Gusmao the likely new prime minister. The parliamentary power his Change for Progress Alliance coalition might wield is little different from the power it was prohibited from wielding under the previous government.
After the 2017 polls, the Fretilin party—having bested Xanana’s CNRT by a few fractions of a percentage point—ultimately refused to convene parliament to face a majority Xanana cobbled together from smaller parties, claiming that because Fretilin received the largest number of votes for any single party, it possessed the “majority”. By this logic parliamentarians exercising their authority would be undertaking a coup d’état. It remains to be seen whether this same illogic will emerge again. Xanana, for his part, surely has promises to keep, and we can anticipate new ministries so that coalition partners might be rewarded. In the near term we can anticipate so many overseas “study tour” junkets that they may necessitate a brand new ministry to organise them.
This is all grist to the mill for many a Timor-watcher who has consigned the country to an “arc of instability” alongside Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. The picture painted is one of a failed state, according to Foreign Affairs, or a still-failing one, according to a La Trobe University lecturer, with the long-exasperated neighbour Australia at any moment exposed to the fallout of potential collapse in the form of civil conflict or irregular migration.
Except, of course, that it’s not true.
The view from Dili
After Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, the United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) built Timor-Leste’s institutions of government, but political violence resulted in another peacekeeping mission in 2006. Since 2013, the country has achieved stability through petroleum revenue-funded “reconciliation” between political elites.
Certainly, viewing Timor-Leste through a political economy lens and then extrapolating that view across the multiplicity of sectors and layers that constitute local government and public service delivery makes for dark viewing. In recent years, while conducting field research on service delivery in the country, I heard the dire pronouncements of many a Dili-based NGO or donor representative, or a Timorese health, education, or other line ministry official, and these coalesced around a key assumption: a lack of civil servant capacity in remote and inaccessible hinterlands results in low health, education, and other human development indicator measurements which set the stage for another generation of development assistance. This is usually followed by a melancholy “we are a new country” caveat. Hearing enough of this in Dili, one can be forgiven for assuming that everyone in the countryside is uneducated, hungry and dying. This perception surely underlies Singapore’s objection to Timor-Leste’s membership of ASEAN.
But this dark view evaporates as soon as one leaves Dili. Let’s begin with bromides concerning low human resource capacity outside of a few towns. Across Timor-Leste’s rural areas where the majority of Timorese reside, civil servants can be found at their posts and doing their jobs in a challenging environment—one in which little attention is received from the centre. Decentralisation has in some imperfect manner occurred, with schools functioning autonomously and health services improvising to provide services. These civil servants may often be under-qualified—the teachers may only have high school diplomas—but they are there. Anecdotally, service standards are higher in rural Timor-Leste than in much of remote eastern Indonesia.
“Remote” is also relative in Timor-Leste. Iliomar, often mentioned as one of the most remote areas of the country, can be reached in nine hours from Dili by car, with a nearly uninterrupted 3G phone signal across the entire journey; by no standard of measurement is this remote, especially compared to areas of nearby Indonesian Papua that are up to a week’s walk from a road, with complete network absence. No area of Timor-Leste that I am aware of suffers a lack of services and corresponding ill health, high mortality, low school attendance and student performance due to remoteness. Claiming that geography inhibits service delivery is disingenuous.
State failures, but not a failed state
Timor-Leste’s problems are bureaucratic, not geographic. The biggest obstacle rural civil servants identify is not “remoteness” or “human resource capacity”: it is “Dili”, an often insular centre that lacks understanding of, and experience in, the rural areas where most Timorese live.
The new state’s problems are many, but they are surmountable, and they are concentrated in Dili. They involve ineffective logistics, haphazard supply chains, a lack of facilities standardisation and maintenance, top-down budgeting that takes no account of local conditions, lengthy delays in payments and financial acquittals, and so on. This in turn stems from less-than-competent senior management and politically-driven appointments. While the centre does host committed and effective senior technocrats, they are exceptions.
Centralisation of fiscal policy and procurement is justified by an alleged lack of capacity in the countryside. But the way such matters are handled in the capital would be laughable if it wasn’t so harmful. For example: Government tenders for vehicle maintenance are awarded where all repairs are done in Dili only. Repairs can take over a year, and work can be shoddy: in Lospalos, an ambulance repaired a year after delivery broke down on the drive back. Fuel provision contracts are awarded in such a way that vehicles must drive to Dili to fill up their tanks. To cope with this absurdity, sub-national administrators utilise other budgets to purchase fuel locally. Some ministries have such a bad reputation among potential private service providers with regard to delayed payments that only the worst contractors bid for their tenders. Most damagingly, civil servant salaries can be collected only in municipal capitals. This takes administrative post health, education, and other officials out of their posts for two days to a week every month.
Individual civil servants, including those in Dili, strive to distinguish themselves from the Indonesian state structure they replaced. However, they are disempowered from acting independently, and are hobbled by the focus of the bureaucracy on paperwork and “accountability”—such as the requirement of undue amounts of signatures for the release of funds, one of the worst aspects of New Public Management superimposed by UNTAET. Middle managers defer decisions upwards; they receive few rewards for good performance and face fewer consequences for poor performance. A lack of managerial accountability is found throughout: for example, a preventable death from an obstetric emergency will result in no investigation or administrative sanction to the civil servants responsible for a particular shortage or lack of maintenance that led to the death. A junior civil servant may be dismissed for absenteeism, but their manager will not be dismissed for failing to provide the supporting structure that made it impossible for that civil servant to do their job in the first place.
These problems are hardly unique to Timor-Leste. They are found across the developing and developed world. And yet Timor-Leste is described as at risk of collapse, even though it lacks the violence, insurgency, and debilitating corruption of other failed and failing areas: as though it possesses the political equivalent of a genetic predisposition. But contemporary observable conditions in the countryside fly in the face of the dire pronouncements of the centre, mostly backed by old data. Most current human development indicators available from donor and agency sources demonstrate improvements in the last 10 years but even these might be unduly pessimistic.
So why does this image of failure persist? The root cause is that national-level civil servants and development workers speak for a grassroots that they don’t understand. Also to blame is the repetition of biases and application of expired heuristics across decades. In the 1970s, Timorese diaspora opponents of Indonesia’s invasion, and their threadbare foreign supporters, spoke of the tragedy of an invasion of a nation already left behind by hundreds of years of Portuguese neglect, then subjected to horrendous levels of violence and social engineering schemes, dying from neglect or from intention.
Much of this message was encapsulated in the imagery of emaciated children in relocation camps, and that image has never left us. It is implanted in the minds of government and NGO staff who easily absorb those images and aid in their recycling. The unthinking continuity of this image supports the unthinking elements of the development industry; it is the reason why many a salary is drawn (including the salaries of underpaid local enumerators who are expected to feed doom up the line to their superiors) and many a study tour and per diem is taken. Local government and NGO workers I’ve spoken to across Timor-Leste offer numerous examples of enumerators filling in household surveys with exactly the results they expect to find.
Another cause is that many government and NGO workers in Timor-Leste have never worked elsewhere. It’s easy to believe conditions in Timor-Leste are the same as Afghanistan or the Congo if one knows absolutely nothing about those failed states.
Some of Timor-Leste’s problems seem to be invented. For example: the small stature of many Timorese is often classified by donors and NGOs as “stunting”, childhood malnutrition which can result in diminutive size, cognitive deficiency, and ill health. Undoubtedly the diminutive stature of many Timorese is caused by childhood malnutrition; some foreign-funded nutrition projects are needed, and welcomed, but all too many of them assumed that the problem is a lack of food, which they then attempted to address through food distribution.
But malnutrition in Timor-Leste is not caused by a lack of food so much as it is caused by a lack of knowledge—of nutrition, of breastfeeding and supplemental feeding, of sanitation and food storage. And also, some people are just shorter than others. The articulation of stunting comes with a laundry list of negative physical and mental outcomes offered as though they are inevitable to all Timorese below a certain height. This is insulting and racist: diminutive stature does not mean that one is stupid, but the small stature of many a Timorese is re-cast as a dire epidemic of mental imbecility and physical frailty —a problem from the worst excesses of the Indonesian occupation, reinvented in order to open a funding line and respond to something that cannot be defeated because it mostly doesn’t exist.
Timor-Leste has enough palpable problems; one need not resort to the past or one’s imagination. Youth unemployment is high, economic opportunity is lacking, education is sub-par, maternal and child mortality are high, and malnutrition is prevalent. Violence against women and children is unacceptable at any level, much less the level found in Timor-Leste. The government’s political decisions impede policies to improve the lot of the majority of Timorese in favour of expenditures such as the Oecussi Special Economic Zone, the Tasi Mane petroleum corridor, exorbitant pensions to insurgent veterans and their offspring, and so on. These short-sighted expenditures are often funded by Petroleum Fund draw-downs which impact that fund’s Estimated Sustainable Income levels.
Government employment is an erroneous form of social protection. Even the official status of Portuguese is wasteful, with local civil servants dependent on the translations of Portuguese “advisors”. Most importantly, Timor-Leste has the highest birth rate in Asia: this will degrade all human development progress made in the near term. Family planning underpins nearly all positive outcomes in maternal and child health and family health in general—physical, economic, and so on. It is foundational to gender equality.
Building on what’s there
Despite myriad problems, it is worth repeating: things aren’t so bad. In rural Timor-Leste civil servants are struggling to provide services with little support; children are in school, being taught by teachers who are mostly present; health posts are open and relatively clean, and pharmacies have stocks of some medicines. Civil servants know what their duties are, feel obligated to undertake them, and understand the support they need to execute those duties optimally. They freely offer prescient criticisms and suggest solutions.
Fighting corruption with spiritual power in East Timor
Support for the KHUNTO party springs from pockets of deep resentment towards the post-independence elite.
Timor-Leste’s most pressing issues are as tedious as they are solvable. The imagery of boatloads of stunted Timorese washing ashore in Australia’s Northern Territory as the country burns like a Yule Log so big it can be seen from space is a delusion. Timorese won’t kill one another in large enough numbers to touch off such a crisis. They don’t even have enough boats. Approaching a country from the perspective of its impending demise likely doesn’t lead to good assistance. A new paradigm by which to approach development in Timor-Leste is needed: one that builds upon the solid foundations one can find if only one manages to look and listen beyond the capital. Timor-Leste has a new government, and with it arrives new opportunities.