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East Timor's administrative teething troubles

By Alfred Deakin - posted Thursday, 19 September 2002

I wasn't really surprised to see news footage recently of a fairly agitated demonstration outside the government precinct in downtown Dili. The world's newest nation is by some counts the fifth poorest on earth on a per capita basis, and there are few jobs available, especially as UN staff leave taking all their lavish spending with them.

Moreover, the Indonesians didn't exactly leave a lot of infrastructure behind them. In another sense, however, East Timor's wealth is enormous. It can be measured in the joy of liberation from Indonesia's murderous rule, still palpable in the streets, three years after it occurred.

But liberation from tyranny was only the beginning, as was the UN-administered rebuilding program. It has largely succeeded in erasing the worst physical scars from the streets and buildings of East Timor's major towns, but the UN's efforts at building national institutions and effective governance have been much less successful (to put it gently).


My dealings with UN officials, as a lawyer for various East Timorese organisations, taught me that its humanitarian objectives are too often frustrated by an almost unbelievably inept, cumbersome and somewhat self-serving bureaucracy.

Almost all UN staff are employed on short-term contracts. They spend the first 12 months of any posting learning the ropes and currying favour with superiors, and the last year lobbying and intriguing with increasing desperation for a new contract. The result is that much less ends up being achieved than one would expect from the sheer size and extravagant cost of the East Timor relief operation.

I recently returned from a week in East Timor assisting a group of Timorese and Australians who are trying to set up a major commercial joint venture there, in a key infrastructure sector. The exercise gave me an opportunity to observe the workings (or rather non-workings) of the new East Timorese administrative machinery at close quarters.

The picture was a fairly depressing one. Despite the fact that my clients are well-connected in East Timor, we spent much of our time wandering around government departments on a mostly futile quest for basic information on some key questions.

What do the tax laws provide, and are there any proposals for change? What laws exist or are proposed for corporations and other essential commercial questions? There is certainly no effective land tenure law, something we already knew, and land ownership disputes are common.

Most of the government offices we visited were characterised by a remarkable combination of lethargy and confusion. Cynics may suggest that this differs little from Australia, but in reality the contrast is stark. No-one seemed to know clearly what their own job entailed, or have any clear idea of overall administrative structures or responsibilities.


After I returned to Darwin I discovered at least one reason why this was so. UNTAET had devoted a lot of resources to the process of developing a constitution and a parliamentary, court and policing system, but put almost no effort into developing the administrative skills and structures necessary to run the country on a day to day basis once the UN administration withdrew (as it now largely has).

NTU political scientist Dr. Dennis Shoesmith tells me that he assisted in presenting a one week induction program for East Timorese public servants dealing with basic principles of public administration. However, as far as he is aware, that was the extent of training public servants received. No wonder they are confused.

A deficient grasp of fairly basic matters is not confined to the ordinary ranks of the public service. When I was there, the court system was in gridlock because the Justice Minister had been absent on an overseas fact-finding mission since shortly after the May independence celebrations (some customs are learned quicker than others), but had failed to sign delegations authorising anyone else to extend or renew judges' commissions, many of which are now expiring. The lack of interpreters is also a serious problem.

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About the Author

Alfred Deakin was Australia's Prime Minister on three separate occasions between 1903 and 1910. During this time, he wrote a column about Australian politics for London's Morning Post. It is a non-de-plume that we are using for "immersion" journalists - people who are prepared to write about situations in which they are also involved - who may need to be pseudononymous. If you can supply an insider's analysis, please e-mail the editor.

Related Links
Instituto Nacional de Linguística Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e
United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor
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