Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Activism and Aid


Development is not a simple process. There are many stakeholders, each with their own agendas, ideas and beliefs about what constitutes appropriate development. Rapid change has taken place in the last decade in Timor-Leste and the progress made by the new country in many ways is a success story, but this is not so for everyone. Lessons for post-conflict development drawn from this study of Timor-Leste highlight the promotion of positive forces of change through engagement of youth and women, and the important contribution of civil society in representing their interests in policy making and program development.

Development and Generational Change

Around the world, young people are drivers of change, wanting a life different from that of their parents and grandparents. Gerasaun foun activists sought to contribute to the nation’s development, but they also present a different perspective and analysis of national development from either the older 1975 generation or the younger ‘millennium’ generation. This generation that lived in the turbulent times of the occupation was, nevertheless, nurtured by the customs and culture of their kin. They were eager to rise above the poverty and illiteracy of their families and many became the first literate members in their families. The education by their occupiers prepared them sufficiently in English to become interpreters after the arrival of the international donor community in 1999.

Their analysis of Timorese development is often more reflective of the general view of rural Timorese than can be heard in the corridors of power. Some Timorese activists have started to integrate customary practices into their development programs, such as conflict resolution and ecological practices that have been handed down from their forefathers. As well many women activists have worked hard to bring greater equality into the lives of women. Educated young people have a great capacity to contribute to community development. In Timor-Leste it is commented that while elders are said to be the roots of the tree, keepers of history, tellers of stories and the dispensers of wisdom, young people are the branches and twigs representing the future (Babo-Soares 2003).

Democracy is a central concept of nation building and it is argued that citizens should be active players such that they have ‘the opportunity to participate in their own development within a national framework of basic human rights, including justice and freedom from fear, and equality’ (Kabeer 2005). Inclusive and participatory development is recognised as good practice at both national and local levels even though, as shown in preceding chapters, in reality much program implementation does not live up to this ideal. A Timorese academic and former activist described the situation of Timor-Leste as a ‘laboratory of democracy’.1 He observed that the Constitution recognises the existence of traditional rights, but this recognition was not built into national policies. Models of development implemented in Timor-Leste have at times produced policies and strategies that do not take into account the existing government and belief systems that dominate the lives of the majority.

Timor-Leste emerged at a time when international aid agencies had adopted the Paris Agreement and committed to a strategic approach in which donors would work with sovereign governments to define and coordinate development aid within a national planning framework. Timorese political leaders who lived in Mozambique during the period of its early independence in the 1980s–90s (as did I) well knew of the dire effects of imposed economic restructuring on the population and resisted some of the proposed strategies of the international agencies. However, the UN-managed state administration and democratic processes, as well as the World Bank’s management of the development funds for the country, resulted in many state building decisions being made before independence, in May 2002, with inadequate consultation with recognised Timorese leaders. Policies and structures for the new nation included the creation of national security forces that failed to consider the highly political nature of police and army roles, the consequences of which were seen in 2006.

Local participation enables individuals and groups in society to define and ‘own’ community development activities. For this, unlike with customary decision making, power needs to be shared so that people whose voices were previously unheard can be recognised: community leaders by national leaders; young people by elders; women by men. Youth and women are key stakeholders in Timor-Leste’s development, comprising the vast majority of the adult population, and their views need to inform processes of change.

Cultural norms are continually in a state of flux, adapting as new influences come to bear, so what is considered Timorese culture now might be very different from that at the arrival of the Portuguese five hundred years ago. For example, today young Timorese consider that eating rice is Timorese culture, whereas maize and sweet potato were the staples of their ancestors. From a development perspective, the value of that change needs to be considered: polished rice has lower nutritional value than maize and sweet potato, contributing to malnutrition. Nutritional strategies are required to reframe the preferred eating patterns that have now become seen as ‘Timorese culture’ so that the process of change is guided in a positive direction. Development is effective where it can enhance and guide processes of change.

Local civil society activists with their understanding of both the culture and contemporary development ideas, are a key resource. But Timorese civil society is struggling from limited support from either international organisations or national government. Gerasaun foun activists, who felt marginalised by the Portuguese language policy, have again been disappointed that, as civil society activists, their work has not been given due credit by government. Yet a strong civil society is an essential component of nation building.

Two-tier Development

Timor-Leste is a small but complex country, with a hierarchal social structure and many languages, that has been dissected by two periods of colonial domination and a bitter conflict. The 1999 international response to the situation in East Timor was welcomed by the Timorese, but there was disappointment at the domination of policy making and planning by Western development agencies during the initial intervention. However, the journey of independence was made possible through a collaborative effort between the Timorese government and international agencies, a large number of which continue to operate in Dili. Timor-Leste is in the happy position of possessing financial resources from oil and gas revenues that can support its development. In spite of the evident success of the creation of a viable and democratic country, there have been persistent grumblings of discontent about the foreign domination and concentration of development aid in the capital during its short history.

Although there has been a long and enduring relationship of solidarity between the Timorese and international activists supporting their independence struggle, in 1999 many of the donor community were newcomers who arrived knowing little of the history and social complexities of this society.

The experience of international development in Timor-Leste led one activist to observe that the development provided by the outside world does not touch local understandings of the traditional world. He explained that development projects which are designed and implemented in parallel to local structures are disconnected from the roots of society. Projects from the outside world, ‘flying in the air but never landing’,2 do not touch the reality of Timorese tradition and culture and are thus unable to bring about fundamental change. The Western models of development in Timor-Leste have at times resulted in a lack of connection between the lived experiences of the majority of rural Timorese and the processes of development being planned and implemented by the government and international agencies.

Timor-Leste has a high rate of adoption of international human rights conventions and with international support has built implementation strategies into plans to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The rapid change and increasing prosperity in Dili is, however, in stark contrast to the limited opportunities for participation and slow rate of change in the rural areas. Poor statistics in child malnutrition and maternal mortality continue to be of grave concern.

The newly constructed palatial government buildings in Dili sit in shining contrast to the roads which have been allowed to deteriorate to a point that they are a barrier for most of the population to reach Dili. This gives a sense of Dili being a world apart from the rural communities. This inequality of resource distribution is accompanied by a social and psychological gap in national policy making which has not built bridges to the rural reality. The ‘old’ world of customary life in the communities is dominant in rural areas, where most of the population live, but also is present in urban areas because respect of the word of the ancestors continues to influence the majority of Timorese for whom customary values are at the heart of Timorese culture. From the perspective of some of the national elite, however, animist practices are regarded as ‘barbaric customs’ and they question whether ceremonial practices such as barlake should be ‘part of the imaginings about the nation’ (Silva 2011:152,161). The notion of Portuguese culture and language being at the heart of the new nation’s identity is meaningful to only a small proportion of Timorese. Much of the population struggle with a sense of marginalisation and linguistic inadequacy in the new nation. The question of what development should look like in Timor-Leste remains a key issue that is far from being resolved in the country.

Customary leaders have complained of lack of opportunity for dialogue with national decision makers, and that national leaders and officials arrive in the rural areas, present the national perspective and leave without any meaningful dialogue. There is a perception that parliamentarians and government officials make visits to foreign countries but do not visit the rural areas to explain the decisions they are making or share their experiences and views (Wigglesworth 2013b). These are some of the factors that lead local people to feel that the government does not serve their interests well.3 Greater communication is needed between national policy-makers and local communities. The implementation of national values will require new skills in consultation and democratic leadership, which is far removed from the traditional patriarchal and hierarchal politicalmilitary forms of leadership that have been in place in the past. The decentralisation process which would enable local government bodies to have a greater input into local development strategies has been delayed until 2017. So it could be fifteen years after independence before a local governance mechanism is established for national policy to listen to the concerns of rural communities.

Timor-Leste is a functioning democracy that fights well above its weight in the international arena, demonstrated by the initiative to establish the g7+ for learning from development experiences in fragile states. It is spearheading a demand to the international community that aid should be responsive to national plans, and particularly in post-conflict interventions. Their lessons on donor–government relations may be valuable for other post-conflict nations, but a greater attention to government–people relations will be required to achieve the 2012 government motto ‘Goodbye conflict, Welcome development’ (IV Constitutional Government 2012).

Inclusive Development

Development must build on what already exists. The Portuguese and Tetum translation of ‘development’, ‘Desenvolvimento’, expresses unwrapping. That is unwrapping of existing capacities for growth and change embracing new ideas from outside, but not replacing the old by the new. Subsistence agriculture cannot be replaced as a result of a policy or a development plan, but there need to be alternatives available so that people can make choices and their livelihood activities can evolve towards greater productivity.

The inclusion of women and youth in the Suco councils reflects post-independence values of equality and inclusion. Their roles are not equal because customary governance continues to dominate community decision making. The Customary Governance law places the chief as decision makers, and women Suco representatives report that their opinions are not sought. The Suco chief implements both national policy and customary justice but the first level of decision making is customary governance where a typical chief does not consider women have a role. The consequences are particularly stark in relation to domestic violence cases. In customary governance, the abused woman will be represented by males in her family and the LADV is brought into effect only if this process does not bring a resolution. The process needs to be one that ensures the best interest of the abused woman, but neither customary nor national processes currently ensure this because the two systems are not formally integrated.

National systems and policies promulgated by the government have been criticised by community leaders as ‘globalisation’ because they do not reflect the values of Timorese culture and are seen as contradictory to Timorese customary values (Wigglesworth, Niner et al. 2015). As noted earlier, Timorese cultural values are based on social harmony, in contrast to Western values based on individual rights. To bring local practices in line with Timor-Leste’s human rights obligations this difference in world view must be reconciled by active engagement with existing practices.

In the districts, activists pointed out that the dissemination of the LADV took place without any prior dissemination of what gender equality means. Research shows that youth may say they agree with the new principles of gender equality (because they know it is law) but they continue to replicate patriarchal values in their intimate relationships.4 A real understanding of the underlying principles behind of these policies is needed and this needs to start in school.

There is much evidence globally that women’s empowerment and gender equality dramatically enhances the health and well-being of families, reduces child mortality and reduces the incidence of girls being kept out of school (UN 2005). An important achievement in Timor-Leste has been equal rates of enrolment in primary school between boys and girls. Educating girls, at least in primary school, has been accepted since independence with little opposition. For teenage women to continue their education outside their home village is more challenging because many are withdrawn from school at puberty, and married or pregnant girls are not permitted to continue in school. Education is a great driver of change. Educated and urbanised young women anticipate having relationships with partners of their own choice, with or without barlake, and working outside the home. Young women who leave for further study overseas reject the idea of being ‘exchanged for buffalo’ altogether (Wigglesworth 2012). Women activists are concentrated in the capital so it is these young women who have the potential to be promoters of an agenda for gender equality in the rural areas by embracing new national standards and adopting them within the framework of their daily lives.

Young people migrating to the towns have had a significant impact on the urban landscape. Many have just a few years of schooling and are inadequately prepared for the highly competitive and extremely small job market. The attraction of city life is, perhaps, encouraged by an education that does not reflect the reality of students’ lived experiences, while expectations of youth for a ‘modern life’ includes access to mobile phones, television and the internet. While youth set their sights on a small number of office-based job opportunities, their potential contribution cannot be channelled in a positive direction. Schools need to prepare young women and men for the world into which they live, offering knowledge about how to uphold national policy principles and to improve their own household economy. New knowledge of agricultural methods, skills for preservation and transportation of food, diversifying food for better nutrition, and how to establish viable businesses, should also be part of the national curriculum.

Gang culture and unchallenged patriarchal acceptance of violent masculine behaviour need to be challenged, and change managed through the curriculum and community structures to bring community attitudes more in line with national policy, particularly amongst the young. Internet access is now common in rural areas and youth report regularly accessing pornography. This has greater deleterious effect on their gender attitudes than any positive impact of national gender equality policies of which they have little knowledge.5

The participants in this research pointed clearly to lessons to be drawn from the international intervention in Timor-Leste: in order to promote ‘development’ international agencies must know the history and recognise the diversity of interests within society. Partnerships at all levels must be built with a mutual learning philosophy to be able to implement effective and inclusive development. Members of the society who seek change are most likely to contribute to it, thus young men and women have great potential to bring about a change in ideas within their communities. The government and donors need to support locally determined and culturally sensitive approaches to bring about that change. Personal struggles for change should be supported. The lack of such support has led local activists to challenge how institutions are delivering development. Globally, there is much evidence of the need for inclusive practices for effective development, but development practice has too often failed to live up to this ideal.

This story of a major international humanitarian intervention over more than ten years highlights the need to understand the cultural, social and political context such that technical or management decisions can be made while recognising local drivers of change within communities and organisations. It is evident that young women are starting to seek a future for themselves as leaders and that the voices of young rural women will become louder in the future. The gateway to development is local people striving for change, knowing that they have the right to expect greater equality in their own lives, and that there are pathways to achieve this.

1     Personal communication, Magno, Melbourne, 2 November 2007.

2     Interview, Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

3     Generous donations of financial aid for international disasters approved by the Council of Ministers have been criticised by Timorese activists who argue that more resources should be allocated to overcoming poverty (ETAN posting, 6 February 2014, and ensuing commentary).

4     See papers Wigglesworth and dos Santos (2016) and Wigglesworth, Niner et al (2015).

5     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.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth