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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