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Activism and Aid

Chapter Two


An international response that follows a national calamity, whether due to violent conflict or natural disaster, can have a lasting impact on the development trajectory of the afflicted country. After having virtually no outsiders present in the twenty-four years since the Indonesian invasion, East Timor experienced the arrival of a large United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation and forty-nine humanitarian NGOs in a matter of months. This had a significant impact on the social, economic and political environment.

This chapter explores the early international development intervention in East Timor and the roles of activists from the clandestine youth and student movements who turned their focus to contribute to the internationally funded development activities following independence. The establishment and growth of civil society organisations is analysed, highlighting the attitudes of Timorese activists to the UN administration and humanitarian aid response.

The Transition of Timorese Civil Society

Activists of the clandestine student and youth organisations immediately sought ways to engage in development activities in the new political environment. This is evidenced by the examples of two key student organisations that adopted clear strategies with regard to their role in the nation’s development: the National Resistance of East Timorese Students (RENETIL), the organisation of university students studying in Indonesia, and the East Timor Student Solidarity Council (ETSSC) formed by students at UNTIM university in Dili after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Some 2000 members of RENETIL, students during the occupation, had sworn to remain faithful to the organisation, based on the mandate to ‘prepare professionals with a revolutionary conscience to continue the liberation struggle through national reconstruction’.1 RENETIL had held a Congress after the fall of Suharto in 1998 at which members discussed what the future role of the organisation might be. The Congress redefined the aims and goals of RENETIL, recognising the importance of civil society organisations in carrying out the new mission of the organisation ‘to free the people from poverty, illiteracy and disease’.2 Members at this time formed the Sahe Institute for Liberation, to focus on popular education, returning to Dili in 1999 to start literacy programs and to publish a magazine to open public debate. Sahe Institute engaged in transforming activists of the resistance into activists for community development and participatory democracy. Its influence spread when in 2002 the Dai Popular Network was formed, bringing together over twenty local NGOs and community-based organisations using popular education in their community organising work (Durnan 2009:274–5). RENETIL members also established community radio stations in Dili and many district centres, all run by local young people. Their strategy was to work through local organisations in the areas of civic education, development, environmental sustainability and advocacy. RENETIL activists thus committed themselves to the reconstruction and development of their country. As explained by one:

The liberation of Timor-Leste was the factor that united the people. Now the focus is on liberation of the people – how to free the people from poverty, illiteracy and disease. The constitution of RENETIL focussed on how to translate this into programs.3

The organisation of students studying in the university in Dili, ETSSC, also felt a commitment to ongoing work for their new country and adjusted their aspirations accordingly:

The Student Solidarity Council was established to struggle for independence, promote dialogue between Timorese and promote non-violence, to bring people with different political orientation together in dialogue. We have a moral responsibility to the country.4


A student activist in ETSSC in the mid-1990s, Natalino Gusmão Soares became Coordinator of ETSSC after independence and coordinated the National Unity Committee for civil society engagement in promoting peace during the 2006 crisis. He is now a community development lecturer at the National University.

From its inception, ETSSC was involved in civic education, traveling into the districts to promote democracy and human rights: ‘In the village we sit and talk together with young people’ explained the Coordinator.5 He further described the organisation as having ‘a dream to build the nation’ with its role as a ‘social and moral force’ to promote peace, democracy and human rights in the country, noting that the English and computer training provided by ETSSC to youth in Dili after independence ‘does not respond to the goal’ of promoting dialogue and non-violence. ETSSC, like other student and youth organisations were challenged by the loss of a uniting goal. A new form of civil society was required to meet the needs of a very different kind of social and political environment.

ETSSC members created new organisations to meet the demands of the new political environment. Their women’s wing had a large female student membership, and this transformed into an active women’s development NGO, Grupo Feto Foinsa’e Timor Lorosa’e (Young Women’s Group – GFFTL) to run literacy and livelihood programs for women. Another is Kadalak Sulimutuk Institute (KSI) which was formed by ETSSC in 2000 as a conflict management group but became an NGO involved in research and community participation activities, especially in the area of land conflict resolution. A number of organisations transformed from operating on a membership basis to operating as NGOs. This included changing their vision from political activism to developmental operations, which some did in order to access donor funds (Ostergaard 2005:36).

Not all clandestine youth organisations found a space for themselves in the new environment. A youth social analysis study funded by the World Bank in 2005 found that the youth organisations of the resistance ‘all confessed that what made their members interested in their organisation was the vision to struggle for the liberation of the country’ (Ostergaard 2005). The report shows how, after independence, many youth organisations lost their central purpose, and there was uncertainty about precisely what type of role they might play in the new environment. Some became inactive with no clear direction, some affiliated as youth wings of political parties and others became development NGOs.

Activists who participated in this research expressed their ideological commitment to development, as described by one:

Development is to change in a meaningful and positive way and to do something for our nation … development is not just for people who sit in the government but for civil society to participate in the processes.6

These views parallel those of evolving participatory development discourses that have emphasised practices of social analysis, community participation, gender sensitivity, and empowerment of local people as crucial ingredients for effective development. Civil society organisations are seen as fundamental to this inclusive form of development. Development, then, in the minds of these activists, is not something done by the government for the people, rather a process through which the people as active citizens combat poverty and ensure access for poor people to basic human rights.

Understanding Civil Society

The term ‘civil society’ is used in different ways and it is difficult to find an agreed definition. Civil society is generally understood to be the space outside the government and market, a definition based on ‘what it is not’ and often referred to as the third sector and equated with voluntary and nonprofit organisations. Organised groups that make up civil society range from registered groups such as NGOs and church organisations to informal community based organisations (CBOs) such as women’s groups or youth groups. Civil society in Timor-Leste has been described as ‘a wide range of organisations and traditional, relatively informal, social forms and networks which are not motivated by profit’ (Hunt 2008:8), a definition which recognises traditional as well as modern forms of organisation. Civil society organisations (CSOs) can be aspirational, providing a forum for a vision of a better world, as expressed by many Timorese activists.

Civil society activity has been shown to be more than just a process of providing social services or implementing development projects. An active civil society has been shown to contribute to notions of belonging and citizenship. Research has shown people’s sense of citizenship, dignity and self-respect is enhanced by their engagement in civil society actions. Indeed, participation in social movements, even when acting in opposition to the state, can contribute to a sense of citizenship (Eyben and Ladbury 2006). This was evident in East Timor where the independence movement was the driver which enabled the population to unite in an organised and sustained campaign.

The active participation of Timorese activists in local organisations is clearly linked to their sense of belonging as Timorese citizens. Activism is an important part of nation building and the importance of participation in the affairs of the nation or ‘active citizenship’ is critical to both democracy and development (Gaventa 2006). Citizen engagement through local associations, social movements and campaigns and formal participatory government spaces, researched and documented across more than twenty countries, found that local associations were foremost in playing ‘important roles in constructing citizenship, improving practices of participation, strengthening accountability and contributing to social cohesion’ (Gaventa and Barrett 2012:2407). Further, local associations were the principle type of citizen engagement that most nurtured positive outcomes in settings where democracy was fragile or weak.

Local associations or civil society organisations have been closely associated with democratic governance since the work of Alexis de Tocqueville in 19th century USA. De Tocqueville observed the importance of free human association in a society which claims to be democratic, while in 20th century Italy Robert Putnam suggested active engagement in community affairs was a pre-condition for democracy (Howell and Pearce 2001). Today, the role of CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organisations, aims ‘to amplify the voices and opinions of ordinary people’. It recognises that, for effective and sustainable civic participation to occur, citizens must enjoy rights of free association and be able to engage all sectors of society’.7 Democratic participation is thus widely associated with civil society action.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) are typically comprised of the better-educated, socially aware, relatively privileged ‘middle’ social sector (Pearce 2000:39). Globally, the 1960s and 70s idea of ‘helping’ organisations as charities has been largely replaced within NGOs by a human rights and advocacy approach. Indeed, the concept of the ‘rights based approach to development’ was formulated to shift the emphasis from ‘meeting basic needs’ to that of promoting human rights through advocacy, citizens’ participation and engagement with government structures. The rights-based approach emphasises the accountability role of civil society organisations to challenge governments and to advocate for human rights, defined in national laws or signed UN conventions.

NGOs and other local civil society organisations (CSOs) are sought after by international agencies for roles in service delivery. Howell and Pearce describe a ‘mainstream perspective’ in which the most immediate roles for civil society are service delivery and holding the government accountable (Howell and Pearce 2001:30–1). In this view the social solidarity role of civil society organisations is an integral component of capitalist development, whereby donor concerns about corruption and misuse of aid can be tempered by a strong civil society. Government aid and development agencies have tended to support this role as part of a process of modernisation and to assist the transition from traditional forms of production (Howell and Pearce 2001:2). The World Bank has evolved its relationships from purely economic actors to include civil society, because: ‘Partnerships and participation in state activities by external stakeholders – business and civil society – can build credibility and consensus and supplement low-state capability’, according to its 1997 World Development Report.

An ‘alternative’ view of civil society places civil society in a role of challenging dominant policies and development strategies and putting forward alternative approaches (Howell and Pearce 2001:36–7). It is this alternate view that shaped the development of civil society in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation. International donors have, on the other hand, predominantly supported the mainstream approach in the emergency, rehabilitation and development phases of international assistance. With the proliferation of new NGOs that were set up in response to the emergency and relief operations in 1999–2002 in Timor-Leste, inevitably some new NGOs with less altruistic motives grew, for example to obtain funding to generate self-employment opportunities in rural areas.

The rapid growth of CSOs is typical of international post-conflict interventions where civil society grows to meet the demands of international aid. For example, in independent Mozambique NGOs started to form only after the arrival there of international aid programs in the late 1980s. During FRELIMO’s8 Marxist-Leninist period of rule in the mid-1980s, civil society was made up of just three mass organisations for women, youth and workers, and the country was largely shunned by international aid and development agencies. Following the Mozambique government’s adoption of a free-market economy, aid started to flow again and hundreds of Mozambican NGOs formed to meet the needs of international organisations as local implementing partners.

It has been suggested that co-option of civil society resulting from market ideology and globalisation can reinforce a two tier society and erode democratic ideals (Figueira-McDonough 2001:162–4). For example the ‘projectisation’ of the development processes in the Guatemalan Peace Process caused civil society leaders to lose touch with the grassroots base of poor and marginalised communities. The rapid emergence of civil society in response to donor requirements led to strengthened organisational hierarchies and accountability to donors but weakened accountability to its grassroots base (Howell and Pearce 2001:157–172).

Civil society should be supported to encourage democratic ideals and social inclusion, but when humanitarian and aid agencies view local organisations just as service delivery partners, they may overlook activists’ own purposes for establishing organisations. This, rather than donor-driven activities, is the source of their credibility in the community.

UNTAET Administration and the Humanitarian Response

In the early emergency and rehabilitation phase, many aid workers arrived in Dili with vast experience of emergency work in Rwanda, Bosnia and other post-conflict settings, but had no knowledge or understanding of Timor-Leste. Most international workers were unaware of the reality that the Timorese had been living in prior to the events of 1999, or of the twenty-four years of intimidation, fear and trauma under Indonesian military occupation. In 1999, local NGOs and civil society groups had been the target of direct and severe attacks against individuals and properties. As international agencies moved into East Timor, many NGO staff had not yet returned to Dili and others were trying to rescue what was left of their offices and materials (Brunnstrom 2003:312). It was ‘several months before relief operations began benefiting from much-needed local knowledge and expertise and even when NGO staff were ready to resume work, it was common to see experienced and talented Timorese employed as drivers, interpreters and security guards’ (Brunnstrom 2003:313).

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United Nations for Timor-Leste, Sergio Vieira de Mello, described the challenges facing the international response in 1999:

About half of the population is illiterate. Some teachers continue to teach but receive no salaries. Most of the technicians who ran public utilities, those who ensured there was electricity and running water, have left. There are no national police, no judges either. Law and order rely largely on the goodwill of inhabitants. There is no civil registration, no banking system, no official currency, no revenue system, not even an official language. We are starting from scratch. (Sergio Vieira de Mello speech at the Donors Meeting for East Timor, Tokyo, 19 Dec 1999.)

This statement was to have repercussions as a huge humanitarian relief and reconstruction effort was implemented based on the idea of ‘starting from scratch’.

Some forty-nine international NGOs (INGOs), many that had no previous connection with the country, arrived in the country in the last three months of 1999, and the number had grown to more than 250 within two years. Most of which came without funds but were looking to obtain grants from donor agencies (Smillie and Minear 2004:69). These international organisations needed to establish partnerships with local organisations and thus encouraged new local NGOs to form as partners. During the Indonesian period the civil society sector included youth organisations, women’s organisations, co-operatives, church organisations, community groups and associations that had been highly active mostly in support of the independence struggle. But INGOs were looking for sets of administrative skills amongst local NGOs, to assist in the delivery of programs, that were largely unobtainable. Timorese had little experience of the forms or mechanisms of accountability required by INGOs as knowledge of applied community development skills and project management procedures was often weak (Patrick 2001:60). During the period of Indonesian military rule, information was closely guarded within families and was never written down because of the risks involved. Civil society organisations which supported the clandestine movement flourished in Timor prior to 1999, but the kind of organisations that donors wanted to work with, with experience in project management and donor funding, simply did not exist (Patrick 2001).

In Timor-Leste, from just fourteen local NGOs that had begun to undertake human rights and advocacy work when the umbrella organisation FONGTIL (NGO Forum) was established in 1998, there were some 200 local NGOs registered by the end of 2001 (Hunt 2008:311). Hunt’s study of six of the more mature Timorese NGOs through the period of transition showed that many Timorese organisations did work hard to transform themselves to meet the changing external environment (Hunt 2008).

Timorese NGO representatives were disappointed by the poor knowledge of and lack of interest in local history, culture and tradition on the part of international development personnel (Brunnstrom 2003). Brunnstrom contends this failure stems from a Eurocentric orientation on the part of the international community and the assumption, ‘common among international organisations: namely that of assuming that the systems and institutions that function best are those created in the image of those dominant in Western countries’ (Brunnstrom 2003:314). A gulf between the Timorese and Western aid workers resulted from the top down Western attitude to development which makes ‘its presence an invasion and which prevents Timorese organisations from shaping the future of their country’ (Brunnstrom 2003:319).

This gulf existed both in relation to INGOs and the UN administration. The UN processes sidelined the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT),9 the political organisation under which different political parties had united in the lead up to the independence ballot, because it was considered a political organisation even though it was the de-facto voice of the people. CNRT was left without a building to establish itself in Dili, instead having to locate themselves in Aileu District, ninety minutes away, without transport or any other support (Hunt, Bano et al. 2001). As UNTAET believed it was important to get programs operational as quickly as possible, it initiated the processes of forming structures of government but was slow to invite Timorese to work alongside it (Freitas 2005). CNRT policies and expertise were ignored.

Prior to 2000, the Timorese leadership had devised a clear and detailed trajectory for the transition to self-government and nation-building through the Magna Carta (Morison 2009:183).10 For example CNRT had established policies with regard to the future education system, but the recruitment of teachers to replace the Indonesian teachers was directed in English to UNTAET education officers, and not to the CNRT Education Committee (Nicolai 2004:116). Further, the recruitment of the military and police forces was carried out according to entirely pragmatic considerations, such as prior experience in the force, even though the members of these two forces were at the heart of political confrontation during the Indonesian occupation just months previously. The consequences of this were to be evident in the outbreak of rivalries between the police and military which occurred during the crisis of 2006 (Rees 2003; Rosser 2008). Similarly, Timorese views on health were overridden by the World Bank’s domination of fiscal policy, resulting in the numbers of health workers being set at half of that during the Indonesian period, due to budget restrictions (van Schoor 2005). New agricultural policies reflected the free market views of the World Bank rather than those of Timorese leaders, who desired farmers to be supported to resume farming following the material losses and destruction of 1999 (Anderson 2006).

Overall, the state building responsibilities taken on by international institutions resulted in sometimes hasty, unilateral decision-making about national structures and systems of administration which failed to integrate Timorese nationals into political and administrative leadership functions (Bugnion C et al. 2000; Hunt, Bano et al. 2001; Hurford and Wahlstom 2001). Some Timorese activists viewed this as a new form of colonialism, marked by patronising values about the helplessness of the populace and imposition of pre-packaged and inappropriate solutions (Patrick 2001:57). One report identifies the lack of Timorese participation in the humanitarian response as one of the major flaws in an otherwise very successful operation:

One recurring issue within both the documentation and amongst interviewees was the lack of participation of East Timorese people in the early overall humanitarian aid response – either as individuals, or within NGOs, communities, churches, the CNRT and other groupings (Hurford and Wahlstom 2001:23).

The top down decision making of the UN mission was criticised early on by Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão, who accused UNTAET staff of cultivating neo-colonialist attitudes on the basis of UNTAET’s unfettered political power and the economic inequality between Timorese and UNTAET staff (Philpott 2006). At a conference in Melbourne in 2005, Mari Alkatiri, Timor-Leste’s first Prime Minister, described the UN mission as being established with ‘imperial powers’ more accountable to New York than to the Timorese people (Alkatiri 2005).

Humanitarian operations (incorporating emergency relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation) are typically managed in separate sections of aid and development organisations rather than by the staff involved in in-country partnerships. The rise of global NGO networks has led to a greater focus on global organisational plans, with increasing ‘corporate’ demands on staff in the field to comply with organisation goals for programming and finance. Caritas Australia was one of the few INGOs supporting local Timorese initiatives during the Indonesian occupation. It had strong in-country relationships with its partner Caritas Dili (Wigglesworth 2006). At the start of the emergency, Caritas Australia sought leadership of the emergency program within the Caritas network. With no previous emergency experience, Caritas Australia brought in emergency specialists whose different modes of operation eventually led to a breakdown with the local partner organisation. As an evaluation concluded:

The emergency operation role of Caritas Australia in conducting the food aid operations as a contractor to the World Food Program seriously strained the partnership with Caritas Dili.11 Caritas Australia’s work as an INGO responding to the peoples’ needs overshadowed its role as a Caritas partner (Hunt 2002).

Dili became a meeting place of old friends who had worked together in emergencies in Rwanda, Kosovo or Afghanistan, with a dual economy in which shops and restaurants catered for the international community at prices that Timorese could not afford, leaving the Timorese impoverished in a sea of plenty (Wigglesworth 2006:174). The international relief program implemented in East Timor in 1999–2000 was hailed internationally as a tremendous success, but according to some this flurry of assistance following twenty-four years of inaction in East Timor ‘exemplified many of the worst failing of donor agencies and governments’ (Smillie and Minear 2004:51). This highlighted the dominant role of international organisations which found it easier ‘to set up from this ground zero position with little local politics to worry about’ (Smillie and Minear 2004:78).

Pre-existing skills, knowledge of local communities, specific community needs and local decision making processes and structures were thus largely ignored. Indeed, a review of the humanitarian response in May 2000 noted there was no framework agreement established between UN agencies or INGOs working with local organisations to ensure East Timorese participation (Bugnion C et al. 2000). The local NGOs’ lack of technical skills was itself a product of the isolation and repression. The marginalisation of local NGOs that occurred in the emergency and initial rehabilitation phases of the international assistance program in East Timor had a negative impact on recovery and failed to contribute to the development of a vital civil society (Patrick 2001:63).

Capacity Building and Donor Driven Projects

The Timorese diaspora returned after the departure of the Indonesian administration and were seen by the international community as holding greater skills than local populations who ‘lacked capacity’ for the national administration (Hughes 2011:1504).

Where changes have taken place in the context in which people operate, such as in Timor-Leste, there will be a need for capacity development to adjust to a changing external environment (James 2001:6). Capacity development,12 or capacity building, refers to strengthening the capacities of individuals or organisations to undertake defined tasks and activities: a natural part of the process of change.

Following the emergency and rehabilitation periods, when funding levels fell and many post-1999 NGOs closed down, a number of INGOs turned their attention to enhancing capacity development in local NGOs (Hunt 2008). The need for strengthening local NGOs is undisputed, although the focus of this strengthening can be a cause of disagreement between local and international actors. In a 2006 consultation, Timorese NGO staff most commonly reported receiving training in project proposal writing, reporting and financial accountability and other project implementation requirements (Wigglesworth and Soares 2006). They claimed to have had little opportunity for institutional strengthening such as participative community engagement processes, organisational development (strategic planning, staff job roles and work plans, forming and managing a Board). Except for a few notable exceptions, INGOs have favoured ‘capacity development’ reflecting project accountability to donors.13

That ‘capacity building’ as devised by donors rather than in response to local demand may not strengthen civil society organisations as anticipated is demonstrated by two multi-year, multi-million dollar ‘civil society strengthening projects’ established in Timor-Leste soon after independence. The UNDP project ‘Strengthening capacity of CSOs in local and national development processes for the achievement of millennium development goals (MDGs) in Timor-Leste 2003–6’, aimed to ‘enhance the capacity of CSOs in monitoring and advocacy with regard to national development goals, MDGs and NDP’.14 The evaluators found that the project had underachieved due to its unrealistic goals, suggesting that this could have been avoided by a more participatory approach to project design and recognition that CSOs have, and want, support for their own agendas (Methven 2006). The agenda of achieving the MDGs met the needs of the UNDP and not the civil society organisations (CSOs) in the program.

Another civil society capacity-strengthening project, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Engaging Civil Society Project, used a two-tier process working with national NGOs as core partners to support ‘satellite’ CSOs in a ‘cascade’ model. It aimed to increase capacities of core and satellite groups through building networks and coalitions aimed at enhanced advocacy capacities amongst CSOs (Kinghorn, Pires et al. 2005). The evaluation found that assumptions made in the design were incorrect and the ‘capabilities, priorities and commitments of the partners were often a mismatch for the expectations of the project’. Partner organisations were at a formative stage of development, most needing to develop mission and vision statements and to put in place basic operational structures. Neither networking nor advocacy (the focus of the project) were CSO priorities. As well, the lack of decentralisation of government structures meant that district government representatives lacked decision-making authority. Therefore there was no responsible local authority as a focus for local CSOs advocacy (Kinghorn, Pires et al. 2005). These two ‘civil society strengthening’ projects are examples of donor designed projects based on their own organisational priorities rather than those of the local organisations they aim to support. Ambitious projects with large budgets are often favoured by international agencies to provide long-term secure funding for their activities, sometimes developed with minimal consultation with local stakeholders. These projects typically have inflexible objectives and activities with onerous reporting that often result in the use of expatriate managers rather than building management skills of local staff.

Project managers are tasked to fulfil project objectives, activities and budgets for their organisations. Institutional demands for ‘accountability’ have become increasingly strident over the last decade, encouraging greater focus on the internal rather than external aspects of accountability. Long timeframes for project design and funding approval and inadequate local participation can result in a project not responding to community preferences. Rather than be responsible for implementing development best practice, project managers may be unwilling or unable to question the adequacy of the design. Both local and international staff may be judged ‘accountable’ by implementing the existing project design, rather than making modifications to better reflect the actual situation on the ground.

Partnerships between international donors and their local counterparts reflect a power imbalance where the donor holds all the power, even though international NGOs may have altruistic motives outlined in their vision and mission statements. Research into NGO aid effectiveness with Australian NGOs found that a value base is critical to playing an effective development role (Chapman and Kelly 2007). The NGO’s compliance with its organisational values enabled it to achieve effective program outcomes. Importantly, long term relationships in developing countries which allowed partners to work together in trust and mutual learning to resolve issues and problems were found to be the key to effective funding partnerships (Chapman and Kelly 2007).

An example of this trust and mutual learning occurred in the Irish NGO Concern in Timor-Leste. Concern’s partner agency staff were invited into Concern staff meetings at which internal organisational issues were exposed to the scrutiny of their partners (as a capacity building exercise) so the partners could see and learn from the experience that all agencies have problems for which they need to seek solutions (Wigglesworth 2008:10). Such partnerships are described by Fowler as ‘authentic partnerships’ where dialogue and mutual understanding underpins decision making about activities including capacity development, and the donor is held accountable by the local NGO for what is said and done (Fowler 2002).

In the early years of independence the relationship between government and civil society was fragile. The role of civil society as a ‘watch dog’ in keeping the government accountable was viewed positively by the World Bank, which noted that NGOs provided ‘useful monitoring, advocacy, education and advisory services in the areas of human rights (Associação HAK), justice (JSMP – Judicial System Monitoring Program), gender awareness (Fokupers, Rede Feto), the environment (Haburas) and international assistance (La’o Hamutuk) (World Bank 2005:3). As the NGO Forum (FONGTIL) started to play a strong advocacy role in relation to the Timor Sea oil, land ownership and fiscal transparency, this did not always please the government. The tension between the government and civil society mirrored that which existed in the Indonesian period, according to one activist: ‘the Timorese government has the Indonesian idea of distrust of NGOs’.15 This view was echoed by the World Bank: ‘The Government is hesitant to collaborate with civil society and maintains a statist style. It has not yet succeeded in engaging constructive critics or in maintaining an effective dialogue with communities’ (World Bank 2005:4).

During the resistance a common enemy existed, but now with independence the government did not appear to like the independent thinking arising from civil society organisations. This was partly because many young Timorese had defected from FRELILIN to join the new Democratic Party set up by former RENETIL leader Fernando de Araujo. Civil society organisations thus sometimes became seen as ‘oppositional’ rather than a potential source of people with capacity to contribute to the development processes. As described by one academic: ‘The government sees civil society as the opposition and the opposition as the enemy’.16


When the international aid community arrived in Timor-Leste they replaced and displaced Timorese decision making. The Timorese disappointment with the perceived take-over by Western development agencies compromised the relationships between the international community and Timorese. Foreign agencies did not recognise that the Timorese had been planning for independence and had clear ideas of what kind of arrangements they wanted to put in place.

Large scale international emergency and rehabilitation programs generate a rapid growth of local civil society organisations to meet service delivery requirements. When NGOs implement donor-funded programs there is often an unequal relationship between the international donor agencies and local organisations. This can limit options for local agencies and constrain altruistic NGO values and locally defined development.

As an integral part of nation building, civil society should assist in citizens having voice and taking up advocacy or promoting practical interventions in support of the rights and needs of the population. Effective partnerships require mutual learning between international and local organisations so that the knowledge that each brings to the process is respected equally in an ‘authentic partnership’. Timorese activists emphasised the need for Timorese to define and develop programs that build on knowledge of both traditional customs and progressive understandings of individual and democratic rights. But while the beliefs, customs and practices of the majority of the Timorese people remained a strong force in Timor-Leste, political leaders from the diaspora were removed from the culture, and the international community understood little of it, with consequences that are described in the next chapter.

1     The Internal Statute of RENETIL, article 2º, nº3. ‘A RENETIL se incumbe da preparação de profissionais elevados de consciência revolucionaria para continuar a Luta de Liberação do Povo Maubere através da Reconstrução Nacional de Timor-Leste’ (

2     Interview, Samala Rua, Dili, 31 June 2006.

3     Interview Samala Rua, Dili, 31July 2006.

4     Interview Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

5     Interview Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

6     Interview de Carvalho, Dili, 25 August 2006.

7     CIVICUS website Accessed 8 August 2012.

8     Mozambican Liberation Front (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique – FRELIMO)

9     The Conselho Nacionale de Resistencia Timorense (CNRT) included FRETILIN, UDT and some smaller parties.

10   The CNRT held a meeting in the lead up to independence which outlined the principles concerning freedoms, rights, duties and guarantees for the people of East Timor, based on the Magna Carta, on which an independent state of Timor-Leste would be based. This was adopted at the East Timorese National Convention in the Diaspora in Peniche, Portugal on 25 April 1998.

11   With the formation of the diocese of Baucau in 1998 another Caritas Baucau was formed and Caritas East Timor became Caritas Dili.

12   Capacity development, more commonly known in Australia as capacity building, refers to funded activities aimed at strengthening the work of the CSO rather than supporting program activities. A Timorese activist criticised the term ‘capacity building’ as implying starting from zero, arguing in favour of the term ‘capacity development’.

13   Interview, Director of FONGTIL, Dili 4 October 2006.

14   NDP-National Development Plan. In the first years the project had a broader aim but changed its approach mid-stream due to UNDP funding constraints.

15   Interview with Oxfam former Country Director, 27 March 2007.

16   Interview with Director of Dili Institute of Technology (DIT), Dili, 6 September 2006.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth