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East Timor advances despite Australian aid failures

By Richard Curtain - posted Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Last week, Australian citizen Angelita Pires was one of 27 people brought to trial for the attempted assassination of East Timor's President José Ramos-Horta on February 11, 2008. Pires, who insists she is innocent, is the former lover of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who was killed in the attack.

Next month will mark ten years since Indonesia agreed to a plebiscite. Four out of five Timorese voted for independence. The assassination attempt was undoubtedly the low point of the decade.

There have been many other setbacks, including the current destabilising accusations against Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao for his role in authorising a multi-million dollar contract for a company part-owned by his daughter.


But life in Dili has improved greatly over the last 18 months. The government has injected large amounts of money into the local economy, much of it directly into the hands of the poor. On the main road through Dili, stacks of government-subsidised rice are for sale. The camps of internally displaced persons have gone, although some claim they have gone only from public view. In their place are restored buildings and new public spaces. Opposite the main hotel in Dili, where a crowded camp for displaced persons once stood, a well-equipped playground is now full of children.

In Australia, a younger generation will have the chance to learn anew about the origins of Timorese independence with the release of the major film, Balibo. It re-enacts the tragic events of 1975. Journalist Tony Maniaty's book, based on his reporting from Dili at the time of the murder of the Balibo Five, will also add to many Australians' knowledge of these events.

So what progress has East Timor, as the country prefers to be called, made over the last decade? In particular, how effective has the Australian Government assistance been over this period?

Contrary to many Australians' expectations, the Australian Government has a low profile in East Timor. Despite its large troop presence of up to 800, its influence often appears passive, reactive and disjointed in its dealings with the Timorese Government. Australia's three main arms in East Timor - the diplomatic mission, AusAID and the International Stabilisation Force - operate as separate entities. This lack of an integrated presence is one reason for Australia's limited success in fostering the institutions and capacities of the new state.

In addition, there is little evidence that the Australian aid program has been effective, especially in reducing poverty. The World Bank, in a recent assessment, concedes that “despite concerted efforts by government and development partners, human development outcomes remain low”.

Australia is the largest donor to East Timor, its aid program amounting to $117 million. But the aid funds are spread thinly across a broad range of activities. It has programs in security and justice, and public sector management. It also funds the delivery of services in health care, water and sanitation, vocational education and food security. Most expenditure is on security and governance, with less than a third allocated to health, water/sanitation, rural development and education.


But despite the breadth of its programs, AusAID is floundering. Unlike its practice in other countries, it has failed to produce a country strategy for East Timor, despite repeated statements that it is about to do so. AusAID's ad hoc and fragmented approach to delivering aid has been driven from Canberra. Until this year, when staffing has been upgraded, only a small number of staff were on the ground in Dili.

Many complain that AusAID staff spend too much time closely monitoring programs, and too little time attending to the big picture or improving program performance. AusAID has no capacity on the ground to collect or analyse data. It cannot focus on delivering outcomes or on finding out what has worked and what has not. AusAID lacks transparency. It does not provide progress indicators for specific programs. Nor does it publish evaluation studies to report successes or failures.

To forge a new basis for its relations with East Timor, a new bilateral agreement is needed, based on the strong common interest of both countries to reduce poverty on a large scale over an extended period.

Australia also needs to address the concern of the Timorese government to gain access to the Australian labour market for temporary work and on-the-job training. It also needs to help provide more local benefit to the Timorese economy from the exploitation of its only major economic asset: its oil and gas reserves.

A more effective aid program has to be a core element in a new relationship. Program funding should be for ten years or more. A much greater focus on reducing poverty at all levels is needed. Changes need to be made on the basis of published reports on the success of programs. If Australia is to have a greater impact in the second decade of East Timor's existence, it needs to develop a much stronger and integrated local capacity.

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First published in on July 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Richard Curtain is a public policy consultant with a strong interest in skills formation policy. He is a member of an expert panel for Higher Education and Skills Group, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Government of Victoria. He has also recently prepared a response to Australia’s Skills and Workforce Future Focus Discussion Paperof the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency for the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association of Australia and New Zealand.

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