13 to 22 November 1999
Professor Jim Ife
Secretary, Human Rights Commission
International Federation of Social Workers
School of Social Work & Social Policy
The University of Western Australia
Nedlands WA 6907 Australia
Fax: 61 8 9380 1070
This mission was undertaken in November 1999 to assess the situation in East
Timor and recommend possible social work involvement in the reconstruction process.
I visited East Timor as part of a three-person team, the other two members being Mrs Chalida Tajaroens from Forum Asia, and Mr Marco Mezzera from Focus on the Global South. We worked together, though had three different agendas from our respective organisations, and we have written independent reports.
We spent two days in Darwin and then 7 days in East Timor. While in East Timor we spent time in Dili, and also visited Gleno, Ermera, Dare, Aileu, Baucau and Viqueque. I was present at a total of 42 different meetings, including individual interviews, formal meetings, visits and informal discussions with small or large groups of people. They were made up as follows (the numbers indicate number of separate meetings, not the number of individuals contacted, which was much greater):
Personnel from UN, World Bank, etc: 7
INTERFET (military forces from Australia & Thailand): 8
CNRT/Local East Timorese leaders:10
Local people on the streets, in refugee camps, etc: 9
These included a two hour meeting with Xanana Gusmao, and lengthy meetings with two other senior CNRT (National Council for Timorese Resistance) leaders, Agio Pereira and Emilia Pires. The important group which is not represented in those figures is the Church, and one regret is that it was not possible in the short time available to arrange meetings with Church leaders. However it is worth noting that 6 of the people included in the above figures had strong associations with the Roman Catholic Church or Church organisations in one capacity or another (one employee and one former employee&Mac247; both East Timorese&Mac247; two Christian Brothers, one priest and one East Timorese assistant priest)
Our visit was facilitated by Timor Aid in both Darwin and Dili, and through Timor Aid we were able to arrange accommodation and to have access to UN and military transport. The people from Timor Aid were consistently helpful and accommodating, and the visit would not have been possible without them. We were also hosted for part of the mission by the Thai military, whose hospitality and assistance is gratefully acknowledged.
The following report reflects purely my own observations, and must be read in that light. East Timor is a complex place, with many complex issues, and each person&Mac226;s view will necessarily be different; for what it is worth, this was mine. East Timor is also rapidly changing; the situation described in this report was current in the third week of November 1999. It will already be out of date by the time it is read, though I believe that despite the changing circumstances the main points raised in the report will remain valid for some time to come.
Many actors, many agendas
There is a bewildering array of actors involved in East Timor at the present time. They can be grouped as follows:
(i) INTERFET: The multinational military force, sent to secure East Timor against militia attacks and intimidation, and to keep the peace. INTERFET itself is composed of forces from a number of different countries, with different cultural and military traditions.
(ii) UN: The United Nations presence is also a multi-faceted one. UNTAET has taken over from UNAMET as the UN controlling body, with responsibility for the transitional administration of East Timor. But there is also significant presence from other UN organisations such as UNHCR, UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, and so on. Also under the UN is the coordination of the World Food Program through OCHA. Other quasi-public international bodies, such as the World Bank, are also involved.
(iii) NGOs: There are many NGOs operating in East Timor. The needs of the population, as well as the popularity of the cause, have meant that most international NGOs have felt it necessary to have a strong presence on the ground there. It is hard to estimate the numbers, as they are increasing all the time, and include not only the well-known NGOs (World Vision, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, Red Cross, Caritas, Medecins Sans Frontiers, and so on) but also many smaller and less well-known groups.
(iv) Governments: Foreign governments, perhaps most notably Australia and Portugal, also have a significant presence in East Timor as part of the development assistance effort.
(v) CNRT: The CNRT (National Council for Timorese Resistance) is an umbrella organisation incorporating various arms of the independence struggle, including the military (Falantil), the political, an extensive network of local organisations right down to village level, and more recently a committee overseeing the most urgent needs for relief and reconstruction.
(vi) The Church: The Catholic Church is a critical institution in the East Timorese community. In this strongly Catholic country it plays a very important role in the life of the people, commands immense loyalty, and is a vital part of any reconstruction or community building activity.
With these various actors, each of which is itself made up of different units or components with varying degrees of integration, the situation is complex, tends to be uncoordinated, and can often be described as chaotic. The various actors have different agendas, backgrounds, cultures, and politics. They may all have the common aim of assisting the East Timorese people, but beyond that there is little common ground that can be claimed as a basis for coordinated action.
There are many experienced, dedicated, highly skilled and well-intentioned people working in East Timor for NGOs and the UN, often in conditions of considerable personal discomfort if not hardship. Unfortunately their efforts often lack coordination, and the result is not always to the benefit of the East Timorese people. In an effort to solve this, a good deal of time and effort is put into coordination meetings, which in turn consume time and energy that could otherwise be diverted to actually doing the job. This has led to the comment made by some people outside Dili that “in Dili it is all talk and no action”, but despite this, it is clear that the delivery of relief and services is uneven. For example in the distribution of food and seed, we were reassured many times by NGO and UN representatives that there was an adequate system in place to ensure that this was effectively carried out, while people “on the ground” at village level consistently complained that distribution was uneven, with some areas missing out and others over-serviced. People in villages told us they did not have enough to eat, and pointed to stocks in warehouses and trucks standing idle, while NGO and UN people claimed that food supply was adequate. Undoubtedly some of this is due to differing perceptions of what is “adequate”, and while people may be hungry there was little evidence of serious under-nutrition or starvation. Nevertheless, we formed a clear impression that delivery of food at local level was uneven and did not match the aims of the food program.
Given the number of actors involved, this is hardly surprising; indeed it is perhaps inevitable, and it is a tribute to the persistence and professionalism of many of the aid workers that the food program is working as well as it is, despite apparent problems. Nevertheless it is an example of the complexity of the situation, and the problems faced in attempting to deliver adequate and appropriate programs in a coordinated way. A similar pattern of many actors not always working together to best effect can be seen in other aspects of aid as well as food: refugees, housing, health, etc.
Involvement of CNRT
A contentious issue is the involvement of the CNRT in the relief and reconstruction programs. CNRT representatives, from Xanana down to village level, were clear that many of the above problems could be avoided if the UN and NGOs worked more closely with CNRT, using CNRT&Mac226;s extensive local networks to advise and implement distribution and service delivery. Some NGOs have in fact done this at local level, evidently with satisfactory results. Up to now, the UN has been reluctant to recognise or work too closely with CNRT as this would be seen to legitimise a political party which was not an elected government. There are two flaws in this assumption. One is that the people effectively have elected the CNRT; the independence campaign prior to the ballot was coordinated and represented by the CNRT, and the symbol on the ballot paper which people had to mark in casting a vote for independence was the CNRT flag; thus the independence vote can be seen as a vote also for CNRT. The other issue is that CNRT is more than a political party; it is a broadly-based umbrella organisation with different components, deliberately set up to be inclusive, which is clearly representative of the East Timorese people. There are now hopeful signs that the UN is changing its position and is seeking to work in closer cooperation with CNRT, and will provide CNRT with resources (e.g. office space, vehicles) which until now it has been denied. Such a move was universally welcomed by the East Timorese people to whom we spoke.
The reaction of NGOs to CNRT was rather different. We were told by NGO representatives that they had tried to work with and involve CNRT, but that CNRT itself was divided and uncoordinated, at least at the more senior levels. NGO people talked of how they had invited CNRT people to their meetings, but they had failed to attend, or they had not delivered on promises to provide lists or recommended procedures. There may well be some truth in such allegations; it would indeed be remarkable if an organisation such as CNRT, in the rapidly changing environment of contemporary East Timor, did not have its own problems of coordination and coherence. But that is not the whole explanation. The language used by the NGOs – “we invited them to our meeting, but they didn’t come” – betrays a more subtle but more serious problem. The division between “them” and “us”, and the expectation that “they” attend “our” meetings, suggests a framing of the relationship that is unequal, not based on a genuine partnership, and where it is the NGO not the CNRT that “owns” the process. This raises an issue that underlay much of what I observed in East Timor, namely an unspoken and usually unrecognised colonialism.
The New Colonialism in East Timor
There can be no doubting that most if not all the people working for NGOs and for the UN in East Timor are doing so from the best of motives, and believe that they are working in the best interests of the East Timorese. However social workers in particular should be alarmed by any claim to be working “in the best interests” of somebody else; this has in the past been the justification for the most oppressive and disempowering practices, and for the denial of the basic rights of dependent populations. Working “in the best interest” of somebody else implies that one knows better than they do what they need, and is at the basis of colonialist practice. Unfortunately I found that in East Timor, and among well-intentioned people elsewhere who talk about East Timor, there are many people who claim to know what is best for the East Timorese people, often without taking the trouble to ask the East Timorese themselves in anything more than a token way. This applies in all fields: economic development, health services, emergency food distribution, education, future foreign policy, shelter and housing, social development, language, currency, and even the time zone. The East Timorese, having courageously fought for their independence against Portuguese and then Indonesian colonialism, are now in danger from the “new” colonialism of international agencies. Indeed, Xanana has named the UN and the NGOs the “new colonialists”, and several East Timorese people suggested that they want the NGOs and the UN out of the country as quickly as possible.
The message from the East Timorese, to me at least, was quite clear, and consistent from Xanana himself right through to people on the streets and in the villages. At present they are asking for specific practical and immediate assistance, in areas such as: food until the next harvest, seed, vehicles, tools, farming implements, school materials, housing repairs, and basic infrastructure. They see this as short-term material assistance to get over the crisis, after which they want to be left alone to get on with the job in their own way. They may require specific expertise in particular areas for a longer term, but they want to be able to identify and specify this themselves. It was emphasised to us many times that the East Timorese are a fiercely independent people. They vehemently reject the idea of dependency for anything beyond the very short term, and this is behind the “food for work” program which requires people to assist in the clearing and reconstruction work if they want to receive emergency food relief. To such a people, reliance on on-going development programs from elsewhere is anathema. Indeed, a fear was expressed to me that the continued presence of the UN and NGOs could fatally weaken the East Timorese society.
A number of people in the UN and NGOs did not seem to have heard this message, however. Both in East Timor and in Australia I have been told of many often grandiose plans for on-going development. Some at least of the NGOs see themselves as having a long-term presence in East Timor, and are apparently making plans to that effect. Some people even told me that it was most important to establish a „civil society‰ in East Timor, apparently not being able to notice the considerable existing strength in East Timorese society. And I was told on more than one occasion that we should not be talking about „reconstruction‰ but rather „construction‰, i.e. that it was a matter of starting from the beginning; I could not help but reflect that this was highly insulting to the East Timorese, and arrogantly dismissive of their society and of all they have achieved. In August, a Falantil leader told me that the Indonesians had made the mistake of regarding the East Timorese as “primitive” and “uncivilise”, and as a result they underestimated the strength of East Timorese resistance for 24 years. At least some of the “new colonialists” seem to be making the same mistake. I sat in two important large coordination meetings in Dili, with many UN and NGO personnel seeking to find better and more effective and coordinated ways to deliver services; at both of these meetings the total absence of East Timorese people was both striking and unacknowledged. The same attitude is reflected in a comment by a CNRT leader, who remarked “The UN came and saw East Timor as terra nullius”;
a chilling reminder of the legal justification for 200 years of oppression and disempowerment of Aboriginal People in Australia.
It needs to be added that these colonialist statements and attitudes were not only evident in those from western countries. Some people to whom I talked, from Asian cultural backgrounds, seemed to be just as colonialist in their assumptions, and some were anxious to ensure that East Timor developed a genuine Asian identity or followed the development path of particular societies in the Asian region. Colonialism is not the exclusive prerogative of the west, and knows no cultural boundaries.
Of course it must be emphasised that the above criticism does not apply to all those working with the UN and with NGOs; many of them are well aware of the dangers of the new colonialism. Nor should it be interpreted as belittling the very significant achievements of these organisations in carrying out emergency relief which has been vital for East Timorese people, and for which, there is no doubt, the people are enormously grateful. The good intentions, and the many achievements, of those working in NGOs and in the UN cannot be questioned, but the temptations of colonialism are subtle and insidious, and require a high level of personal awareness and political consciousness if they are to be resisted.
The struggle of the East Timorese people has inspired the world. Those of us fortunate to visit East Timor have been profoundly touched by the courage, resilience, strength, generosity and humanity of the people. It is in addition a very beautiful country, relatively unaffected by industrialisation, globalisation, modernisation and media manipulation. There is (as yet, anyway) no McDonalds and no tourist industry. The “crime rate” is almost non-existent. The air and the sea are unpolluted. The people are warm, friendly, gentle and polite, with very strong community structures. It is a very special place, with tremendous potential to do things differently. This is its strength, and also its weakness. It is inevitable that many of those who go there from outside will not only want to help out in the short-term crisis, but will want to be part of the longer-term future, either out of identification with the inspiration that as the East Timor story, or wishing to pursue a particular agenda about how to change the world and to use East Timor as the example or the laboratory for their social or economic theories. The temptation to secure a niche for oneself, and to seek to influence and be part of the future of East Timor, is almost irresistible, and is certainly understandable. There is, by all accounts, a rush of people who want to be „part of the action‰ seeking UN or NGO jobs in East Timor, or contracts for health, education, welfare and housing programs. In this rush, the voices and wishes of the East Timorese may be ignored. There are already indications that the East Timorese, especially the CNRT leadership, are alarmed at this possibility.
There were two groups that were identified as not falling into the trap of the new colonialism. One was the trade unions, which Xanana claimed were preferable to the UN or the NGOs. This was partly because they had a clear vision of working in solidarity with the East Timorese people, rather than working for them. The solidarity tradition of the union movement gave them a different perspective to working alongside the East Timorese in a way that respected the people and their culture. To Xanana, the notion of working in solidarity is central to successful aid work in East Timor. The other group was INTERFET, the international military forces. At the time of our visit they had effectively secured the entire country, and the militia were no longer a major threat except in border regions. So the military forces used their time and resources to provide practical help as required. They do not have a long-term agenda, as their time in East Timor is limited, but in the short term, where they saw a need, they did what they could to help in a practical way, through construction, running mobile health clinics etc, and generally getting alongside the people and working with them. It was very evident that this approach was appreciated by the people, and it was the kind of short-term practical help, without long-term theory, that the East Timorese were requesting.
The above rather lengthy discussion of the new colonialism is necessary as a background for the remainder of this report, as it shapes the ideas and recommendations outlined below. It is an essential part of understanding the contemporary scene in East Timor, but one which, for perhaps obvious reasons, is too rarely stated.
Some of the significant social issues/problems facing East Timor can be summarised as follows:
East Timor is a poor country, with very low levels of income. Most people have few material possessions, or material resources to fall back on in times of crisis. The standard of living is, by any measure, low, however strong family and community structures more than make up for lack of material resources in any consideration of quality of life. The fact remains that the basis for economic development, at the level of the local people, is weak. There is also not a strong business or trading culture, beyond participation in the local market.
The crisis in East Timor interrupted the crop cycle on which local community economies depend. There has therefore been a food shortage, which has been addressed by the World Food Program coordinated by the UN and involving a number of international NGOs. Despite evident problems of distribution, it appeared to us that while there may have been hunger and some level of food shortage, this has not reached a level of starvation. There are evidently some nutritional problems, but not at a level to cause serious concern. The critical priority is to distribute enough seed before the full onset of the wet season, so that crops can be planted for harvest in 2000. This has been the recent priorityof the World Food Program, and if this can be achieved the food crisis in East Timor will be relatively short-lived. There remains however a question as to the capacity of the people to achieve this planting; many buffalo, used for ploughing, were killed during the crisis, either by the militia, or by the people in search of food. There is a shortage of tools and implements, which aid agencies are endeavouring to remedy. There is also a serious shortage of vehicles (trucks, tractors etc)
Clinics established by the various agencies have reported a range of health problems, including malaria, skin diseases, eye diseases, throat and chest infections, and so on. These are attributable in part to the poor diet and inadequate shelter of many of the people in recent weeks, and also are seen by some as a consequence of the psychological trauma suffered by many people during the crisis. NGOs and INTERFET are providing clinic, ambulance and hospital services, though inevitably these are at present unevenly distributed, with some areas covered more adequately than others. There will be an important need for East Timorese doctors and health workers to take over the health service in due course. This has important implications for training (see below).
In the places we visited there appeared to be adequate water for washing, though there is a shortage of soap and detergent. The water supply is not suitable for drinking without first being boiled, but this was the case before the crisis as well. Supplies of bottled water are still limited, and the price is prohibitive for many people.
Many houses have been totally or partially destroyed during the crisis, and many people are living in makeshift shelters or on a temporary basis with family or friends. UN agencies and NGOs have sought to distributeemergency housing supplies, e.g. tarpaulins and corrugated iron, prior to the wet season. CNRT would prefer where possible people in the villages to use raditional building materials such as thatch, however in the towns this is less feasible, especially in areas where there are large numbers of burned buildings. It is very much a case of immediate temporary repairs prior to the wet season (which has effectively already started), with longer-term permanent reconstruction deferred until 2000.
The extent of destruction varies widely. Some towns and villages are almost completely destroyed, while others are unaffected. In many places some houses have been burned and others spared, apparently on a random basis.
Many people have no „work‰, though of course there is much to be done by way of reconstruction. The „food for work‰ program has already been mentioned above. A problem which was identified on a number of occasions is the group of young people who have not received much education, either because they had joined Falantil to fight for independence, or because they were identified as pro-independence by the Indonesians and denied places in universities and colleges. Finding suitable jobs for such people will be an important priority, if they are not to become disaffected and alienated from East Timorese society.
There will be new employment opportunities in the jobs previously occupied by Indonesians, e.g. in the public service and in health, education and engineering. Other possibilities will depend on the chosen directions for the East Timorese economy, e.g. whether a significant tourist industry is to be established. The soon-to-be-released World Bank report on East Timor, which was the result of substantial consultation with the East Timorese leadership, will give a clearer indication of the likely future direction of the economy, and will have a direct impact on the future of employment.
The place of former militia members is an important and sensitive issue. There is still hope for a reconciliation process, especially for militia members who were not the leaders of the militia groups, and a wish was expressed by several people that ways could be found for former militia members to face their communities and be required to explain and apologise for their actions; after this it is hoped that they could be reintegrated into their communities. However the leaders of the militia groups, and especially those who were active after the independence vote, will be required to face the justice system and to pay an appropriate penalty for their crimes.
We heard of former militia members being caught and beaten by community members, and of other militia who were unable to return to their local communities. The path to justice, healing and reconciliation will be a slow and difficult one, and it is for the East Timorese people themselves to determine the extent to which they wish to follow a reconciliation model, as opposed to a justice model. Again, the strenuous efforts of international organisations, pursuing particular agendas (e.g. war crimes tribunal), may leave the wishes of the East Timorese themselves unrecognised and unheard. Effective ultimate healing and reconciliation will, however, be critical for the future development of the nation.
When the crisis occurred, most of the people fled either into the jungle (or the mountains), or to West Timor, for safety. Some were given no choice, but were forcibly moved to West Timor. Those who went to the jungle or the mountains have now returned, and seem to have survived the ordeal well. There is concern about many refugees still in West Timor, some of whom are now being brought back to Dili, but many of whom remain. There are reports that they are suffering harassment and intimidation in West Timor from militia groups, and that conditions in the refugee camps are poor. The return of these people is being given the highest priority by the UNHCR and NGOs.
When refugees reach Dili, they are processed and arrangements made for them to travel to their home towns and villages. The system has its inevitable inefficiencies, but in general the processing and movement of the refugees once they reach East Timor seems to be proceeding relatively effectively.
The strong traditional community ties, so evident in East Timorese society, will greatly assist in the reintegration of refugees. The Church, local chiefs and local CNRT structures all have a crucial role to play in this regard
The crisis has led to an increase in the number of orphans, and also to there being some children who have been separated from their parents, so that family tracing and reunions are of a high priority. This will place an additional burden on the social services in both the short and the long term. The Church is involved in caring for orphans, and presumably will continue to fill this role.
Children will have had their education interrupted (see below) and many will also be suffering as a result of the trauma they have experienced (see below). They are also, of course. particularly susceptible to health and nutrition problems (see above).
Education and training
This is one of the critical issues facing the people of East Timor. Literacy levels are low, and if East Timor is to develop socially and economically, literacy programs, for both adults and children, will be crucial in the near future.
There has been an inevitable interruption in school programs, because of the crisis. It is made worse by the fact that many of the teachers, particularly at secondary level, were Indonesian, and there is thus a shortage of trained teachers. In some parts of the country, university students (whose studies have also been interrupted) have voluntarily taken over the running of the high schools so that classes can reopen. There will be an immediate need for short-term teacher training courses, to equip such people to take over as teachers in the longer term.
The withdrawal of the Indonesians, who largely filled the public service, technical and professional jobs, has left a real gap, which the East Timorese leadership is anxious to fill as quickly as possible with adequately trained and qualified East Timorese. There is also therefore a priority for technical and university education in appropriate areas. However the University in Dili has been largely destroyed, and as in any case its teaching staff was mostly Indonesian, the re-establishment of the university is a critical priority. TheCNRT has asked the Catholic Church to play a major role in this. In the meantime, the East Timorese are looking to the international community to help, through short courses (e.g. in teacher training) and through the provision of scholarships for East Timorese students at universities elsewhere. This is particularly important for those East Timorese who are part-way through university courses either at the university in Dili, or at universities in Indonesia where they will no longer feel welcome.
Transport and travel
The roads in East Timor are not in the best condition, and during the wet season many of them will become impassable, and will need repair. In the meantime the ability of the UN to deliver services via helicopter will be vital in the coming months.
There is also a significant shortage of vehicles, as many were destroyed during the crisis. Trucks, cars, vans and mini-buses are all in short supply, and this is hampering the ability of the people to move around the country. This is particularly significant for the transport of food, seeds and equipment.
Post traumatic conditions
Given the level of violence and intimidation during the crisis, and indeed in the years prior to the August vote, one would expect there to be a serious incidence of post-traumatic conditions, both physical and psychological, in the population. Opinions on this varied greatly among those to whom I talked. Some felt it was a relatively minor problem, because of the spirit, tenacity and resilience of the East Timorese people. Others saw it as a major problem, which is effectively hidden behind the smiling faces and optimism of the people.
Post traumatic conditions must also be understood in the political context. Xanana himself made the point that the reactions to trauma will be very different depending on whether the trauma occurred before or after the independence vote. Suffering that happened before the vote is seen as part of the struggle for independence, as fighting for the cause, and is therefore easier to come to terms with than suffering that occurred after the vote; the latter seems so futile and inexplicable, that it is much harder for people to confront it, accept it and come to terms with it.
One doctor at a clinic in Dili identified what he has called “the Dili post traumatic syndrome”, which he described as „bizarre symptoms comprising multiple site pain or pruritus covering head, shoulders and upper limbs, nausea, a sense of unease and a conviction the matter was serious‰ All these patients said they had never previously experienced such symptoms, and all described the onset as being at the time of the crisis. This pattern was evident in approximately 5% of the cases seen by that doctor, and he believes that it is a post-traumatic condition, and has asked for funding to research it in more detail.
We also know from work with East Timorese refugees in Australia that beneath the happy gentle exterior, there is a lot of pain and conflict, and this needs to be dealt with. The same could be seen on occasions in East Timor when we talked to people about the crisis: the pain and suffering of the people became readily apparent.
It would, however, be wrong to jump to the conclusion that therefore there is a need for trauma counsellors and extensive post-trauma programs to be designed and delivered from outside. Certainly post-traumatic issues are important, but we must also not underestimate the capacity of the East Timorese to deal with this themselves. Several East Timorese said to me that there are traditional methods of healing, which can be used at community level, and the very strong community structure of East Timor society means that there are very significant supports and capacities for this to be achieved through local community activity. None of the East Timorese people to whom I spoke was specifically asking for outside help in dealing with post traumatic conditions; it was only the „experts‰ from elsewhere who were claiming that a significant level of external work in this area was necessary. Local workers were looking for the international community to support the efforts of local people in specific ways, rather than to mount a major program that was externally driven.
The theme that emerged strongly throughout my visit was that the East Timorese people do not want outsiders taking over their country again. They did not fight the Portuguese and then the Indonesians for independence, only to be recolonised by well meaning NGOs, UN agencies and global capital. This of course also includes well-meaning social workers. They want specific practical assistance, and they are very happy for people to be involved who are able to work in solidarity with the East Timorese, and who will help them achieve their own goals. But they want to remain firmly in control of the agenda, and they do not want people from outside telling them what they need, and then providing it, often despite the wishes of the East Timorese people. It is very easy for people from outside to fall into the colonialist trap
Social workers are acutely aware of the dangers of “wanting to help” , and how easily this can become disempowering action which simply reinforces structures of oppression. There is a real danger of this happening in East Timor.
Yet the people of East Timor do need the help of the international community. The people I spoke to were quite clear about this, and indicated that short-term assistance was essential if their nation is to develop in the way they wish, and if people&Mac226;s short-term needs are to be met. But there are certain principles that must apply to such aid.
Xanana’s insistence on people working in solidarity with the East Timorese is essential. This implies that the relationship, or partnership, between the aid program and the East Timorese people is crucial. Any notion of external people defining the needs of the East Timorese, or prescribing solutions or programs for them, will not only not work, but will create tension and an understandable resentment from the East Timorese.
As indicated above, colonialism can be very seductive for the well-intentioned aid worker, given the inspirational nature of the East Timor story and the appeal of the country and of the people. To overcome this, it is necessary for people involved in aid to East Timor to have extraordinarily high levels of both self awareness and political consciousness. It could be argued, of course, that these are necessary for any effective aid program, and indeed for social work practice in any setting. However the particular circumstances of East Timor mean that these two qualities need to be even more highly developed, among those who hope to help. Social workers can therefore play a role in seeking to persuade aid agencies that they must be very careful in the selection and training of aid workers, and should call on all those involved in East Timor to respect the wishes of the East Timorese people, expressed through the CNRT. Social workers can also work with other interested groups to develop a coalition that can give as much publicity as possible to the clear need for the East Timorese to maintain control of the development agenda.
If the East Timorese are to maintain control over their own destiny, and can continue their traditions of community-based self-reliance, they will need advocates in the international community, who can speak out against economic exploitation in the interests of some imposed understanding of “development”. Social workers and others have an opportunity to be such advocates, either in their own right or as part of other national and international solidarity organisations.
Social workers can also make sure that if they are considering involvement in East Timor, in whatever capacity, they do so in solidarity and in partnership with the East Timorese people, and that they only work for agencies that are clearly committed to such an approach.
The provision of training programs, especially in the short term, is a way in which social workers can provide practical assistance, of a kind that is being sought by the East Timorese. For example, in the area of post-trauma programs, it would, I believe, be inappropriate for social workers (and other professionals for that matter) to go to East Timor to run programs in trauma recovery. However short training courses in issues of trauma and trauma recovery, for East Timorese people who can then work as community trauma workers using East Timorese community structures and processes, would be an appropriate way to assist. It is providing the East Timorese with the information they need to do the job, rather than doing it for them, and is aimed at using rather than by-passing the strong community structures that are a feature of East Timorese society. The East Timorese know better than others how to work in their own communities, and we should not pretend otherwise. However there are some ways in which people like social workers can provide the East Timorese with specific information that they can use, e.g. the possible impacts of trauma if not properly dealt with, the possible symptoms of trauma, the importance of people being able to face up to and come to terms with what happened so they can then move on, and so on. Such an approach can of course be duplicated in other areas, e.g. youth work, care of children, job creation, and so on. Short, practical training programs in such areas are ways that social workers, and other human service professionals, can provide direct appropriate help for the East Timorese recovery program.
For people such as social workers to think that they can go into East Timor and “do” community development, or teach the East Timorese how to “do” it, is both arrogant and naïve. The East Timorese can teach the rest of the world far more about community development than we can teach them. It is the strength of East Timorese communities, and the capacity of the people to use community structures for mutual benefit, that have enabled them to overcome not only the crisis of recent weeks, but also years of oppression, intimidation and violence. It is that strength that will be the basis of the development of East Timor from this point onwards. Those of us with an interest in social justice and human rights can learn from their experience. If social workers are serious about involvement with East Timor, we should be looking to set up structures and mechanisms to enable the rest of the world to learn from the East Timorese story. We can reverse the conventional aid/development relationship by paraphrasing President Kennedy: “ask not what you can do for East Timor, but what East Timor can do for you”. Hence it would be valuable to work towards the establishment and support of some kind of research and training centre for community development, human rights and civil society, run by East Timorese people, where others can come to East Timor and can learn first-hand from the East Timorese experience.
The story of East Timor has inspired the world. This small nation has won a struggle against a far stronger oppressor, and has shown the meaning of courage and determination by voting decisively for independence even though the people were fully aware of the likely consequences. They have forced a world burdened with „compassion fatigue‰ and driven by ideologies of selfishness and greed to respond strongly in a way that has shown a belief that morality and justice are more important than simple strategic and economic interests. The impact of the East Timorese struggle may be felt well beyond the borders of that small country. We must try to ensure that the East Timorese people do not have to fight yet another battle against colonial oppressors, this time from well-meaning aid and development agencies. And we must also try to help the East Timorese story to be told, and to help the rest of the world understand that we all have some very important lessons to learn from the people of East Timor.