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Activism and Aid

Chapter Seven


Every citizen has the right to participate in development that affects them. This chapter reviews how the Timorese have participated in and benefited from the development processes taking place in their country. Since the country was embroiled in crisis from 2006 to 2008, stability returned and new services have been provided, such as pensions for veterans and their widows, made possible by a changed economic environment, as oil royalties came on line to support the national budget. Nevertheless members of the population have little access to decision making structures and the stark poverty in rural areas is largely unchanged. Effective structures for the broader participation of the population, to enable them to hear and be heard by the government, are yet to be established. Civil society, an alternative channel for engaging the people in development, has grown and been influenced by a dozen years of international agency engagement in development in Timor-Leste, but now faces new challenges.

‘We had to make policies to buy peace’

After the Gusmão government took office in 2007, it took a high spending approach to resolve the problems of the country. Benefitting from the substantial oil revenues which began flowing in 2005, the initial 2008 national budget plan of $347.8 million jumped to $773.3 million to resolve social problems created by the crisis. More than 10,300 IDP families received a one-off cash payment of up to US$4,500 for house reconstruction to achieve the closure of dozens of IDP camps holding a total of approximately 100,000 IDPs.1 There were also cash payouts for the 600 ‘petitioners’ dismissed from the F-FDTL in 2006. The impact of the 2008 global price hikes for rice and fuel on vulnerable groups required subsidies to be provided, and, according to Prime Minister Gusmão ‘We had to make policies to buy peace’.2

Of great importance to the rural economy has been the provision of pensions. In 2008 a pension scheme for over 60 year olds was introduced, providing $20 a month for each of these people, distributed through the Suco Council. The provision of age pensions has brought increased cash into the communities and benefited whole families. For instance it is said that some families are better able to meet their cash needs such as paying school fees for their grandchildren, but it also places a huge demand on the national budget.3

The government’s election promise of national electrification required capital withdrawals from the Petroleum Fund in 2012. In 2013 the total annual budget was $1.8 billion, largely financed by withdrawals from the Petroleum Fund in 2013 ($1.2 billion) and unexpended funds previously withdrawn in 2012. Assets in the Petroleum Fund totalled US$11.777 billion at the end of 2012. Suai has been isolated from the nation’s capital for the past ten years due to the poor roads described at the start of this book. It is now the focus of a major government development plan, the South Coast Project, that will include building a port and logistics base in Suai (Covalima District), a refinery and petrochemical plant in Betano (Manufahi District) and a liquified natural gas (LNG) plant in Beaço in Viqueque District, connected by a six lane highway along the south coast. These grandiose plans are in spite of the fact that the road quality from Dili to Suai and Viqueque remains a key obstacle to producers living in these remote south coast districts. Poor roads have also been identified as a major impediment to delivering a better health service.4

Health is one of the more impressive areas of improvement in the past ten years, with the under-five infant mortality rate almost halving to 55 per 1000 in 2010, from 104 in 2000.5 Life expectancy overall has risen to 62 years, but this, coupled with the high fertility rate of 6.2 (up from 5.3 in 1990), contributes to a high population growth rate (3.2 percent), which could lead to doubling the population in seventeen years (RDTL 2011:109).

The maternal mortality rate remains one of the highest in the world, with 42 percent of deaths of females aged 15–49 being related to pregnancy.

The UNDP Human Development Report of 2013 indicates the country has raised its Human Development Index (HDI) value to 0.576 (from 0.418 in 2000), ranking 134 out of 187 countries and rising into the medium human development category, up from low human development in 2009. But there are inequalities across the population (UNDP 2013). Of great concern is the rate of malnutrition, now affecting 58 percent of children under five, which led the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, who visited Timor-Leste in November 2011, to state:

A harsh reality of entrenched poverty and rising inequality hides behind rapid macroeconomic growth indicators. Recent economic growth has not translated into sustained improvements in living conditions or job creation for the great majority of Timorese people … Poverty remains pervasive and widespread with 41 percent of the population living on less than one dollar a day. Fifty-eight percent of Timorese children suffer from chronic malnutrition (Carmona 2012).6

Poverty is a major cause of malnutrition, often a product of a family’s inability to produce or buy adequate food. A mother’s level of education, knowledge and ability to make decisions within the family are important indicators of family health. The Rapporteur welcomed an increase in budget allocations for social services in 2012 but was ‘concerned by the fact that the budget allocation to physical infrastructure is disproportionately high at the expense of desperately needed health services and quality education provision. Investing in health and education is an investment in the future of Timor-Leste and is critical for sustainable people-centred development’ (Carmona 2012). Local economic development is unlikely to keep pace with population growth, so poverty can be expected to increase. This leads Harris and O’Neil to believe there is still a risk of future instability (Harris and O’Neil 2011:233).

Equality of Participation in Local Governance

The concept of decentralisation has been on the agenda since independence but it has not advanced significantly. Rather, a strong central control since independence has left little role for decision making at District and sub-district levels. In 2003, the FRETILIN government (2002–2006) commissioned a Local Government Options Study to consider the process of decentralisation and alternative models for local governance. The government proposed Sub-District level municipalities within five regions, with representative offices of the Ministries planned for implementation in 2007 (Ministry of State Administration 2003). A change in government after the political crisis in 2006 led to a reassessment of the chosen option for municipalities. The fourth constitutional government favoured the existing district boundaries, even though some argue these boundaries do not offer sub-districts adequate road access to the district centre for service delivery.7 Legislative delays resulted in the establishment of local municipal decision making being postponed to 2013–14, and then further delayed to 2017.

The first Suco council elections took place in 2005, opening new forms of participation through Suco level governance structures in 442 local ‘Suco’ councils, including specific roles for women and young people. These built upon the experience of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), embracing both traditional and modern ideas of political legitimacy, which included designated seats for women and young people. In this way the Suco Council co-opted existing local authority structures balanced by modernising elections (Cummins 2011). The Conselho Suco (Suco Council) includes the Suco Chief (Chefe Suco), the chiefs of each hamlet (Chefe Aldeias), two women, a male and female youth (defined as between 17 and 30 years old) and an elder (defined as over 60 years). This structure aimed to blend the traditional leadership of older males with democratic expression involving women and youth (formerly without voice) in local governance structures.

When the first national Timorese elections for the Suco and Aldeia council representatives took place in September 2005, the concept of local elections based along party lines was a foreign creation and was considered divisive. The electoral process has been viewed with some discomfort in the communities where ‘a clash of paradigms’ with local values exists (Hohe 2002). The Chefe de Suco was in the past considered a representative of the entire community, but after the multi-party elections, the elected Chefe de Suco was regarded by many people as representing only those that voted for him or her, so many Chefes could no longer mobilise the whole community but only their supporters.8 Timorese researchers have found that a Suco chief who is independent of political parties is more likely to work directly to improve people’s lives, as he is not beholden to his party (dos Santos and da Silva 2012:211). In contrast to consensus-based decision making that prevails in traditional government, competitive democracy is seen to create distrust, reduce cooperation and create conflict which can lead to violence (Gusmao 2012:183; Magno and Coa 2012:169). The historical experience of conflict between political parties sometimes brought negative memories but more often the political parties were blamed directly for creating conflict from the top level down where ‘people are unable to disentangle political violence from party politics in their village’ (dos Santos and da Silva 2012:211–213). The perception that Timorese political leaders act in their own interests or that of their party rather than in the interests of the community has reduced cooperation and increased conflict between members of different parties within the Suco (Gusmao 2012:183; Magno and Coa 2012:171). It also resulted in accusations of nepotism and graft being linked to the concept of ‘democracy’, as also happened in the first ‘democratic’ elections in Mozambique when Mozambicans observed political leaders corruptly acquiring resources to strengthen their own positions.9 There, many people protected their interests by withdrawing engagement with the state rather than exerting voice through participation and advocacy (Lubkemann 2001). In Timor-Leste the party system of democracy is seen by many in the rural areas as less appropriate than the customary system which strives for harmony.

There are several sources of legitimacy for leadership, such as membership of a liurai house (Cummins and Leach 2012:98) or involvement in resistance struggle (Gusmao 2012:184). In 2005 a young woman named Lucia Guterres was elected as Chefe de Suco at just 25 years of age from a field of five candidates in remote Fatululik Suco in Covalima district. It was reported that her active leadership in the clandestine youth movement since the age of 16 generated support.10 This is an indication of how active and committed women and young people can be, given leadership opportunities once they have proven their abilities.

The Community Leadership Law defines the role of the Suco council as ‘to organize the community’s participation in the solving of its problems, to uphold its interests and to represent it whenever required’ (Law 3/2009, article 2.1). The Suco Councils are expected to engage in consultation and discussion with the whole community for planning and execution of community development activities, resolution of disputes and establishment of prevention mechanisms and protection for domestic violence victims. The Law designates the Suco Chief as responsible for most Council functions and gives the Suco Council responsibility for ‘assisting’ and ‘advising’ the Suco leader (Asia Foundation 2009).

The Suco Councils, which are not a formal part of government, report to the government appointed Sub-District Administrator who reports to the District Administrator. As there has been no decentralisation of power to the District Administration, the locally elected representatives at Suco level have had limited roles in local development decision making. Village level infrastructural projects (such as community centres, schools, clinics, water and irrigation projects) can be presented by the Suco council for funding by the Local Development Program (LDP) operated by the Ministry of State Administration and Territorial Management (MSATM). The Local Development Program (LDP) supports only community infrastructure projects; thus many new construction companies established themselves to bid for the construction projects on offer.

Following a pilot project for budget decentralisation in two sub-districts, the LDP was extended to eight districts with a budget of US$3.50 per head of population in 2009 for projects proposed by Suco Councils.11 The District Assembly, consisting of Suco Council representatives and District and sub-District officers as non-voting members, could allocate 30 percent, with the remaining 70 percent allocated for Suco infrastructural projects by prioritising and approving projects.12 Once funded, approved contractors bid to implement the work. The country is thus still in early stages of developing structures and mechanisms for devolved forms of governance. Although many civil society organisations are relatively well established and experienced, these were not included as potential partners to government programs at community level.

Women are involved in local governance in two ways. A total of ten women were elected as Suco Chiefs in 2009, while all Suco councils have women representatives. In a research project into women in local councils in 2011, four women Suco Chiefs were interviewed.13 These chiefs believed their election was due to having a good level of education or for their prior leadership in community activities. Membership of Liurai families was also known to be a factor in at least four of the total of ten women Suco Chiefs. Women Suco Chiefs were said to be inclusive in leadership practices, promoting community consultations and involving other council members.

The Suco women representatives, on the other hand, sometimes struggled to play their role. Some explained that male Suco Chiefs carried out their business with minimal discussion with other Suco Councillors. A common complaint was that male Suco Chiefs often did not pass on information to the council members, or that the women would not be invited to training activities for Suco Council members. One key issue was that the Suco Chief gives leadership in customary governance processes from which women members are barred. A male Suco Chief described the Suco Council as having horizontal and vertical elements, the horizontal being the core group of the Suco Chief and Aldeia Chiefs, and women and youth representatives were seen as vertical elements with lower importance in decision making (Wigglesworth 2013b).

The ‘old institutional figures’ are concurrently leaders of both the traditional and modern spheres, whereas the ‘new institutional figures’ of women and youth are limited to exercising their leadership through the modern sphere (Cummins 2011). That women’s representatives are not valued as equal members of the Suco Council is also corroborated by Timorese researchers who reported that people viewed the roles of some elected Suco council members as limited because ‘the government has not involved them directly as representatives of the people’ (dos Santos and da Silva 2012:209, 215). Different understandings and expectations about the role of the women Suco representatives resulted from the existence of parallel but not integrated customary and national governance systems. In one Suco it was noted the Suco Chief always attended training activities with the male youth representative known as the Assistant Suco Chief, or ‘secretary’ (Wigglesworth 2013b). Secretarial duties are often given to the male youth representative because men can be privy to customary laws as well as Council aspects of decision making. Thus their assistance is of more value to a male Chief than a woman in the same role (Cummins 2011).

Domestic violence is a major social issue in Timor-Leste. A Law Against Domestic Violence (LADV) was passed, in 2010, which defined all domestic violence (DV) as a criminal offence and made it mandatory to pursue cases of DV once they are reported. The law recognises DV as physical violence against the person as well as sexual, psychological and economic violence through threats, coercion, use of force, manipulation, insult and damage to personal items. It upholds the right to live without violence and provides support and assistance to victims of DV through government services including a specialised police unit, women’s shelters and health services (SEPI 2010).

Domestic violence is considered a crime, but interpretations allow for different ideas of legitimacy within communities and government. The traditional systems view DV as a minor justice issue to be dealt with customarily (dos Santos and da Silva 2012:218). Such cases are typically brought before the lia-nain and the Chefe Aldeia, and may be taken to the Chefe Suco for resolution before being referred to the police if a mutual agreement is not made within customary justice processes. The woman would be represented by male members of her family. In cases of sexual assault the victim receives no recompense, but a payment may be made to her father (Mearns 2002:39–40). A woman representative on a Suco council complained she was not permitted to play a role in the customary process or raise issues in relation to it at the Suco meeting. She believed that she should have been able to participate in the process to support women’s rights (Wigglesworth 2013b). A crime against a woman, such as domestic violence or rape, is not considered a violation of the individual, but a transgression of the social order seen to threaten the peaceful living together of members of a community. As the practice of barlake binds the two families together, the woman may be compelled to live in a vicious cycle of domestic violence because it is impossible for her family and relatives to give back to the husband’s family the goods donated at the wedding (Silva 2011 159). As a result of this and in spite of the law, all but the most severe cases continue to be dealt with through customary justice.

It appears the meaning of domestic violence is being redefined so that community justice processes are not perceived as breaking the law. Villagers have been found to ascribe a meaning to the term ‘violencia domestica’ that excludes what is considered ‘normal’ violence, described in Tetun as ‘violencia iha uma laran’ (violence in the home).14 It is suggested that some cases of DV would be locally judged to be ‘civil’, or outside the DV law, rather than ‘criminal’ because it is dealt with by lisan. Thus the mode of justice defined the severity of the case rather than the other way around (Cummins 2010:155). By redefining DV, community leaders were trying to reconcile traditional communal values in customary law with the individualistic values of the LADV, because they said the government has not yet explained to them how to resolve the contradictions.15

Many cases of domestic violence that have been taken to the police have been withdrawn on account of women’s economic dependence on their husband, threats of violence, and police referring ‘minor’ cases (where there is no bleeding or obvious injury) back to village officials to be dealt with through traditional justice processes (Nixon 2012). While all cases of DV should be referred to the police, this is not the case, indeed it would be understandable that in some less severe cases a woman would not necessarily want to charge her husband and risk breaking up her marriage. She would, however, want social pressure to be applied that could discourage his violent behaviour.

In contrast, the experience in Mozambique at independence was to replace customary justice processes with ‘popular tribunals’ comprised of community leaders and ‘lay judges’ whose function was primarily to mediate between parties ‘in accordance with good sense and justice, bearing in mind the principles that guide the building of a socialist state’ (Gundersen 1992:257). The majority of cases were family conflicts brought by women, receiving judgements in courts that were ‘local, informal and accessible’ by community leaders within the principles of the constitution. These popular tribunals would have at least one woman lay judge recruited by the party women’s organisation, often representing a rather traditional set of values (Gundersen 1992:278). This experience of modifying customary justice processes showed that social change needs to be negotiated according to local experiences and priorities, but it can be impeded by top down international processes supporting only the implementation of human rights (Corradi 2011:18).

Involving local women is shown to be effective elsewhere also. In Papua New Guinea the Australian government supported a program in which women were appointed as village magistrates in informally held village courts. Ten years ago these were mostly men but, now that women are appointed, local women have the courage to present cases of domestic violence which may previously have been unreported.16 Globally it is found that to redress underlying power imbalances in customary justice, it is women who need to be provided resources and opportunities to shape customary law through their own strategies (Williams 2011:66).

Top Down and Bottom Up Development Aid

Local engagement in development activities by local and international NGOs is another opportunity for peoples’ active citizenship. Small scale funding provides the means for initiatives of local actors to be supported and, unlike the LDP infrastructure projects, to build community capacity in a variety of technical areas.

Effective working relationships between international agencies and Timorese activists can support mutual exchange and involvement of local people in the design and implementation of a program. NGO capacity development is required to establish the skills and values needed for an organisation to survive. In consultations with local NGOs it was clear that most of the newer NGOs viewed their ability to obtain funding as a top priority, while more established NGOs had a clear vision and mission and demonstrated commitment to engage meaningfully in community development.17 To be effective, NGOs must build a constituency with communities and a constructive relationship with government. Without such a basis for ongoing development, NGO community development activities are likely to end when the funding ceases.

Effectiveness of outcomes is highly dependent on partnership arrangements. Community participation in planning and implementation of development programs has become a fundamental principle of good development planning (Fowler 2000). This is because effective development is not achieved by projects operating in parallel to local systems, but through the new and the old finding common ground through working together. This point is highlighted by a Timorese activist who argued that development projects which are designed and implemented in parallel to local structures are unable to touch local understandings and therefore do not bring about change:

Timor-Leste needs to bring back the tradition and culture of respect for nature and respect for each other. Otherwise we are flying in the air but never landing. We need to revitalise local knowledge not just depend on the outside world.18

Culturally appropriate processes can position local people as experts by integrating their knowledge into new learning, but different groups of people (men and women, young and old) may require different strategies to make changes, especially when this might challenge longstanding customs (Harris 2007). Some more mature Timorese NGOs have learnt much from INGOs regarding participatory development methods, but many newer CSOs are said to have no idea about such methods.19 INGOs can provide new strategies and tools for participatory processes to enable views of different members of the community to be heard rather than rely on the village leaders. Activists need exposure to effective techniques for inclusive community consultation, to overcome the influences of hierarchical approaches that have been part of their lived experiences, while INGOs need an understanding of local culture; thus mutual learning is required. According to one activist meaningful understanding of local culture by international organisations will produce successful activities:

INGOs can make change but they have to come through the right way. This is based on the way of life of the people. If something is very new it should be introduced through the way of life of the people so it is easy to adapt.20

Where development interventions are disconnected from the roots of society, without due consideration for the traditions and culture of the people, the introduced intervention is likely to fail because inclusive participatory processes are critical to effective community development (Mosse 2001; Fowler 2002). During the periods of emergency, and reconstruction periods, many INGOs were in intense competition for humanitarian aid resources available. In Timor-Leste the focus on competitive tendering and budget accountability gave limited opportunity for attention to understanding the cultural and historical context (Wigglesworth 2006). This resulted in models of post-conflict humanitarian responses which were imported and pre-defined and did not permit local participants to take ownership of project activities.

Since then there has been greater support for local NGOs, but many have struggled to cope due to short contracts, sometimes for just a few months. This mode of operation has resulted in excessive workloads due to constant proposal writing and being required to use multiple different reporting and accountability formats, often in English. It has placed a huge and unfair burden on inexperienced NGO staff to meet donor demands.21 Some NGOs have struggled with administrative and financial accountability systems to receive continuous donor funding and grow, especially as competent staff are often lured away to better-paid jobs in international organisations.

Building a broader range of skills and capacities within local civil society requires long-term commitment. INGOs that have supported programs with the explicit objective to strengthen the capacity of local NGOs include Irish Concern and Canadian Catholic Organisation for Development and Peace, which have now closed their programs due to their global cost cutting, a loss to Timorese civil society. In other cases, donor power can be compounded by the often stated view that Timorese ‘lack capacity’, which is so widely expressed by donors that activists frequently refer to their own ‘lack of capacity’ without defining what they lack capacity to do. Such relationships between donor and local NGO instil a sense of inferiority or inadequacy in a person rather than overcoming capacity limitations. Meanwhile Timorese’s respectful attitudes conferring power and authority to the donor are often irrespective of age and experience.

International donors need to control where funds are going and to show results, while Timorese NGO’s have to work with the money they receive in relation to external factors rather than what they need (Hughes 2009:128–130). Donors often quickly disburse large amount of funds in a fixed budget time frame, in other cases their policies limit grant giving to a particular sectoral focus. Thus NGOs may apply for activity funding in areas that they lack experience because they cannot get support for the work they most wish to do. Also NGOs may be offered money for community activities but not for staff salaries or office costs. Thus the decision making about programs does not always allow NGOs to set their own priorities; instead local NGOs are forced into a service delivery role (Hunt and Wigglesworth 2013).

A perceived lack of capacity of local NGOs sometimes results in contracts to deliver parts of programs through an approach that might be described as ‘a mechanism to deliver foreign aid, not short-term building blocks of long-term change’ (Edwards quoted in Pearce 2000:32). Globally, INGOs have been accused of cutting corners on the principles of effective partnerships, participatory processes including gender equality and active citizenship, due to ‘short-termism, control orientation and standardisation that have infected development work for a decade or more’. Edwards argues that the evidence about effective development strategies is clear:

we already know the principles of project success: engage with local realities, take your time, experiment and learn, reduce vulnerability and risk and always work on social and material development together (Edwards quoted in Pearce 2000:32).

Partnerships between international and local organisations enable mutual exchange and learning and the knowledge of each partner is valued equally, described by Fowler as an ‘authentic partnership’, in contrast with the common use of the term ‘partnership’ in contexts of unequal power relationships between donor and recipient (Fowler 2002). A Timorese researcher describes the existence of two forms of relationship – a contractual one for local NGOs fulfilling a technical service delivery role, and a partnership relationship which supports local NGO’s own values and projects (Tchailoro 2013). Local NGOs need to be conscious of the importance of bottom-up development not only in relations with INGOs but also with the communities in which they work.

Anthropologists have analysed development practice not just in relation to those being ‘developed’ but also in relation to the ‘developers’ and their projects. It is argued that development entails the simultaneous recognition and negation of difference, because Third World subjects are recognised as different on the one hand whereas, on the other, development is the mechanism through which that difference is to be obliterated (Escobar 1997). This process is described by one researcher who questions the value of the kind of development programming taking place in Timor-Leste:

The legacy of the malae22 period in which Timor-Leste is still partially embedded, is a local civil society landscape composed of institutions which have been trained to think and act as agents of development and are likely to pursue conventional development goals. The radical, the unconventional, the local, indigenous and individual, are being diluted as Timorese come to realise that ‘community empowerment’ comes with its own ‘tied-aid’ rules. Local organisational structures, processes, goals and imaginaries, even organisational identities, are reinventing themselves in the image of international development (McGregor 2007:168).

Timorese activists, however, have made a different distinction, arguing ‘development’ is where they, as Timorese, are the agents of change. This, they say, is not synonymous with ‘projects’ funded and implemented by donors. ‘Projects’ in the minds of some Timorese activists are linked with inequality, where the beneficiaries may be selected groups within the community in a process divorced from local decision making and local knowledge. In these cases, the benefits are not expected to continue beyond the funding period because the project did not correlate with local concepts of needs.

The ‘Friendship Cities movement’ is a unique solidarity program based on citizen-to-citizen relationships being formed between a group of people in Australia with people in a particular district or sub-district of Timor-Leste. This movement was facilitated by the Victorian Local Government Association and Abel Guterres, now Timorese Ambassador to Australia, to ensure that the destruction and violence against the Timorese such as took place in 1999 could not be repeated. It was sending the message: ‘You are not alone, we are with you and walk with you’ (Kehi:2005). In Australia, local councils committed themselves to support their Timorese counterparts predominantly through voluntary community committees and local fundraising, although some also supported a part-time paid staff member. A range of different development activities have been implemented in the districts through this movement. The strength of the Friendship Cities movement is that it has brought meaningful engagement to many Australians and many Timorese. A number of Timorese have identified this form of assistance as offering greater equality in relationships than the traditional donor-recipient relationship. A collaborative approach built on locally identified issues and needs is a hallmark of the friendship relationships.

Another important area of civil society action is advocacy. Ten years into independence, there are a number of Timorese NGOs that have established an effective advocacy niche for themselves. This includes NGOs which act as watch-dogs over government practices, for example, La’o Hamutuk23 which provides analysis of the national budget and critiques of expenditure patterns in relation to the budget and donor funds. Another is Fundasaun Mahein, which has done similar advocacy work in relation to the security forces since the 2006 crisis, providing constructive criticism and debate to hold the government accountable. Women’s NGOs have also engaged in public advocacy which contributed to the legislation on domestic violence, and they continue to actively work with the Secretary of State for Promotion of Equality for the National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence. Advocacy is facilitated by the RDTL government’s Transparency Portal, which follows international best practice in making national budget information available to the public, online.24


An activist and member of ETSSC as a university student in Dili, Alberto de Jesus Barros became a translator for the UN after they arrived in 1999 where he started to learn about community development. In 2005 he joined the Covalima Community Centre (CCC) supported by Friends of Suai of the City of Phillip in Melbourne, part of the Australian friendship cities movement which formed to support Timorese development after 1999. Alberto is Director of the CCC which runs training progams for youth in computer technology and English as well as community development activities.

The sustainable agriculture NGO network, HASATIL,25 with a membership of over thirty NGOs, has been successful in establishing an effective working relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). Consultative meetings have been held between NGOs and the Ministry, in Dili and the districts, facilitating dialogue in which members could challenge the government’s support of crop production for export over local farming systems and traditional food production.26 When compared to other ministries, the MoA have been more prepared to debate and collaborate with civil society.

NGOs have also promoted local community voice in relation to national development proposals. The Timorese NGO Fundasaun Haburas intervened in plans for the creation of a National Park in the district of Lautem, working with affected communities to re-establish the people’s voice in national and regional politics and planning and to enable ‘outside’ concepts to be reformulated through traditional resource management processes. The government held a ‘consultation’, at which officials presented national plans that stressed national benefits but failed to recognise local interests or to make any assessment of the community’s land and sea management capacities or practices that existed. Technical and scientific knowledge of university educated government officials was assumed to be superior to local knowledge and customs, in a process that reflected the idea that all relevant knowledge lies with the planners and not with the local people (Palmer and de Carvalho 2008). Fundasaun Haburas placed emphasise on the need for Timorese to define and develop programs building on knowledge of traditional customs and progressive understandings of individual and democratic rights.

Fewer international organisations are now operating in Timor-Leste, reducing available donors for NGOs, but the Civil Society Fund is a new source of funding established by the Timorese government. This fund is seen by some NGOs as funding non-controversial projects with NGOs that are not critical of government, with an emphasis on service delivery and Catholic Church infrastructure and programs, rather than support to community development (Hunt and Wigglesworth 2013). Timorese civil society organisations have made a significant contribution to engaging with local cultures and structures in development interventions, but the limited support they have received from the Timorese government and the donor community leaves a question mark over whether civil society will continue to grow strong and prosper.


Rural communities have been able to participate in local development both through local level councils and aid funded development projects run by international or local NGOs or UN agencies. Both these forms of engagement have tended to be driven by a top down policy approach which does not necessarily open space to work collaboratively in the design and decision making between the local, national, and international actors.

Development decision making has been heavily concentrated in Dili. Structures set up at the Suco level extended democratic processes into the communities with mixed success as party politics became a new source of division. The Suco elections delivered a significant degree of affirmation of the traditional leaders but there is no formal bridge between national policies and customary practices. Individual leaders have to manage both customary practices and national constitutional obligations of local governance, even though these are sometimes incompatible. Male elders continue to dominate, but not always to the exclusion of views of women and younger members of society. Successful female Suco chiefs claim to have gained respect because they had previously done work that benefited the community.

The relationship between Timorese civil society and international agencies has not always promoted mutual learning or strengthening of civil society capacity. Activists have been critical of Eurocentric attitudes and ‘service delivery’ approach. This has led to a declining number of NGOs engaged in advocacy. As Timor-Leste’s greater national economic self-reliance has resulted in declining interest in Timor-Leste by foreign donors, support for local civil society has reduced. Government support of and collaboration with NGOs is limited. Thus the conditions for civil society growth and impact do not support the vibrancy of civil society that was evident in the early years.

1     Ministry of Social Solidarity - Press Release, 26th November 2008. Hamutuk Hari’i Futuru program ‘together we build the future’.

2     Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Timor Collides with its future’, The Age, Melbourne 22 November 2008.

3     Personal communication, Barros, Suai, October 2011.

4     Seminar presentation by Dr Nelson Martins, Minister of Health at Victoria University, 8 November 2007.

5     UNICEF, accessed 15 April 2013.


7     Interview, Borges, Dili, 4 October 2011.

8     Personal Communication, Martins, Dili, 15 August 2006.

9     I was resident in Pemba, Mozambique, at the time of the first democratic elections in 1993 and heard these comments during work in the rural communities.

10   A film was made about Lucia’s life by a student film maker from Melbourne University, entitled Lucia.

11   The Ministry of State Administration and Territorial Management Press Release, 2 February 2009.

12   Interview MSATM staff, 22 September 2011.

13   I undertook ‘the inclusion of women in decision making’ research project in October 2011 on behalf of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). My thanks to IDEA in Sweden for permitting my use of the research for further publication.

14   Comments made during research on Attitudes and Perceptions of young men and women on gender and masculinities in Timor-Leste, commissioned by Paz y Desarrollo (PyD) in 2013. Thanks to PyD for permission to use this material.

15   Wigglesworth, A. and dos Santos, A. B. (forthcoming 2016) ‘Customary values and global influences in youth attitudes to gender and violence in Timor-Leste’, proceedings of the Timor Leste Studies Association Conference 9-10 July 2015.

16   Elizabeth James, ‘The female hand of justice’, Focus Vol 27 No 2 pp.24–25, AusAID June-Sept 2012.

17   Lessons from two of my consultancies: the Evaluation of FONGTIL (Wigglesworth & Soares 2006), and the East Timor Civil Society Strengthening Program (January-February 2008) for the Australian Council of International Development.

18   Interview, Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

19   Interviews, Former Oxfam Australia staff, 27 March 2007 and Plan Australia staff 20 March 2007.

20   Interview, Vicente, Suai, 7 August 2006.

21   Interview, Plan Australia staff, Melbourne 20 March 2007.

22   A term used by the Timorese to denote a foreigner.

23   La’o Hamutuk (‘Walk Together’) is the East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis.


25   HASATIL – Hadomi Sustentabilidade Agricutura Timor Lorosa’e.

26   Interview Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth