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Activism and Aid


The ‘Young Generation’ of Timor-Leste

Driving out of the capital Dili, the road rises sharply and we follow its tortuous route on appallingly degraded roads across the mountain spine of the mythological crocodile that is Timor-Leste. The 180 kilometre journey took some eight hours to reach Suai town on the southern coastal plain. It was the setting for a conversation with two Timorese activists, one driving and discussing animatedly with another about the situation of the younger generation Timorese and their hopes and dreams for the new nation. As student activists in the liberation struggle, they had channelled their passion for justice into civil society organisations. One had established the Covalima Youth Centre in Suai in remote Covalima district, while the other, originally from Suai, worked in an international non-government organisation (INGO) in Dili and later became a member of parliament. Like others in my research, these activists were still seeking ways to contribute to the development of their country, explained as follows:

‘Youth of the liberation struggle now are looking for ways to contribute to development. We are continuing as leaders of youth organisations because we have the ‘spirit of youth’ to do something for our country’.1

Identifying as ‘youth’ because of their membership of the clandestine youth movement, they are known as the gerasaun foun meaning the ‘young’ or ‘new’ generation educated during the occupation in Indonesian institutions. The gerasaun foun does not refer to the youth of today, but to those born in the 1970s and 80s who, like ‘Generation X’, are a generation that gets older each year. The participants in this research were civil society activists who were educated in Indonesian institutions and had played an important role as student activists during the Indonesian occupation. By independence, most were in their early 30s, and engaged in the humanitarian aid programs that were being established by international agencies, or setting up their own civil society organisations.

Members of this generation have their own ideas about appropriate strategies for the development of their nation, which differ from those of the older political leaders. Some describe themselves as the ‘intellectual elite’ of their generation. For them, citizenship of this new nation is a powerful motivating force; engaging in civil society organisations is a vehicle to contribute to the development of the new nation. The suffering endured by the Timorese during years of struggle provided the motivation and commitment for an independent East Timor2 free from poverty and oppression, and the activism related to national development, is an extension of their long-standing struggle for national liberation.

The national leaders that established the key Timorese political parties in 1975 and continue in leadership positions today are from the Portuguese speaking ‘1975 generation’. Many of the Timorese political leadership lived overseas during the struggle, particularly in Mozambique and Australia.

The Timorese youth born after 1990 are distinguished by having graduated from the Timorese education system and have been described as the gerasaun milênio or the ‘millennium generation’ (Soares 2007).3 They are too young to be bound to the ideals of the clandestine struggle, and have expectations of a better life than that of their parents.

These three generations are thus marked by different periods of Timorese history, resulting in learning in different education systems and facing very different life experiences. An activist from a student organisation in Dili explained:

Our members are from the liberation struggle – they feel they are the ‘lost generation’ because of the choice of language. The government doesn’t give any special attention for students who left education to be involved in the struggle and they feel abandoned. Even though Tetum is an official language, it is not used in the administration. The Government announcements say that Portuguese is the identity of Timor-Leste – this is the wrong story for Timor-Leste.4

That gerasaun foun continued to think of themselves as ‘ joventude’ (youth) perhaps reflects their continued role as activists and their felt exclusion from national government due to the language of administration which contributed to their sense of being ‘a lost generation’, ‘marginalised’ and ‘outsiders’5. Being raised in the heart of Timorese culture, many of them were the first of their families to gain an education, motivating them to be part of the process of overcoming poverty and oppression. Their ideas about appropriate development for the country embrace an allegiance to customary practices as well as a commitment to international standards of human rights.

Timorese activists interviewed in this research were influenced by the arrival of hundreds of English-speaking international agencies in 1999, becoming translators or establishing their own organisations to contribute to development in the lead up to nationhood. At that time a two-tier society emerged – the capital Dili, where resources were concentrated, rapidly westernised, while rural areas, with customary structures and way of life, remained largely unchanged. Sovereignty for the new nation of Timor-Leste was obtained on 20 May 2002, a day which officially marks the Restitution of Independence. The anniversary of the declaration of independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975 continues to be celebrated as Independence Day.

These development activists have often been critical of both the national leadership and of international aid agencies that have been influential in deciding the nation’s trajectory and, as the 1975 political leaders move towards retirement, the alternative ideas, attitudes and perspectives of this next generation will become of increasing importance.

Citizenship and Active Citizens

Timor-Leste is a small half-island state sharing its westerly border with West Timor, part of Indonesia. However, one of its thirteen districts is Oecusse where the Portuguese first landed and which is now an enclave surrounded by West Timorese territory, only accessible from the capital by sea or air transport. Sandwiched between their giant neighbours of Indonesia and Australia, the formation of this new country is a story of tenacious struggle for self-determination in an entanglement of global politics, international aid and the lure of oil under the sea bed. For twenty-four years, from 1975 to 1999, Timor-Leste had been so isolated and abused that only minimal elements of an existing physical and administrative infrastructure were available to be drawn upon at independence. This first new nation of the new Millennium faced enormous challenges: not only were 70 percent of its buildings destroyed, but there were high levels of poverty, low levels of literacy, a high fertility rate and 62.5 percent of its population under 25 years (NDS 2010). The international aid community played a major role in the process of conceptualising and building a new nation with the hope of transforming the lives of the people and helping them to overcome poverty. The first years of independence focussed on reconstruction and establishment of institutions of state.

This book draws on the experiences of people of East Timor, who have been citizens of their own nation, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (Repùblica Democràtica de Timor-Leste – RDTL), since just 2002. For the first time there was a national government which purportedly sought to understand Timorese culture and work to meet the needs of its citizens. What one could observe taking shape in Timor-Leste reflected a broader transition in development practice, in Timor-Leste as in Cambodia and elsewhere, ‘international interveners’ such as the United Nations and other international agencies were engaged in peace enforcement and nation-building activities through the implementation of ‘democratic’ models of governance and electoral processes as part of ‘complex build-building operations’ (Hughes 2009:1–2). Such processes in countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America are not new and indeed include Mozambique, which I myself experienced, as did the Timorese political leaders living there through the Indonesian occupation. In Timor-Leste, as power was transferred from the United Nations (UN) to a sovereign government, ideas of citizenship took place within diverse imaginings by the people and the international development industry. This book demonstrates, however, that development idealism of both political leaders of Timor-Leste and international development agencies was often out of touch with local realities and diverse aspirations and ambitions influenced the way of doing development and the way that one could be a citizen in this new democracy.

Citizenship as simply the formal membership of a nation state has been analysed and problematised so now it is considered that active citizenship must reflect the fact that rights and citizenship are attained through agency, and not simply bestowed by the state. It therefore includes social processes in which individuals and social groups engage in claiming, expanding or, in some cases, losing rights (Isin and Turner 2002; Gaventa 2006). Further, people’s participation and agency in affairs that affect their communities are closely linked to the development of self-identity as a citizen (Kabeer 2005; Eyben and Ladbury 2006; Gaventa 2006). In general, political activism has been positioned as a critical and indispensable part of nation building. ‘Active citizenship’ is a relatively new contribution to the development lexicon. In particular, the development principle of people’s ‘participation’ in issues and activities that affect them, is now well accepted but also subject to transformation as ‘active citizenship’ reframes the social meaning of ‘participation’ and places it in a framework centred around the notions of human rights and equality. As such, the dominant view to emerge is that people’s participation in development needs to extend beyond participation in discrete activities to participation in the processes of state, enabling a sense of belonging as a citizen with rights and obligations. Active citizenship is supposed to enable people to participate in their own development, rather than that which is thrust upon them; it is supposed to encourage, rather than predetermine, the expression of their views pertaining to the official structures of state; it is supposed to make them ‘agents of action’ and ‘advocates’ for achieving human rights.

Not often is there a chance to study the first years of the development of a new nation, perhaps one reason that Timor-Leste attracts such attention. This book analyses Timor-Leste’s first ten years of development through the experiences of younger citizens of the new nation state, examining their views with respect to the nation building process and their role within it. It also makes a critical assessment of the application of development knowledge and the role of international development agencies in this process. It explores the entangled nature of development theories, national economic development, civil society, gender and development, education and development, youth and conflict, and customary society and democracy. In each of these areas this book not only offers insights on the successes and failures of international development in the first ten years of Timor-Leste’s existence, but also traces these processes of doing development bringing relevant lessons to diverse processes of post conflict development. It is important to distinguish between the process of state building, that put in place the physical and institutional structures of state, and nation-building which requires the establishment of shared values of its people (Harris and Goldsmith 2011:7). Much analysis of the state building processes has recognised the flaws in the top down processes but few have focussed on the bottom-up perspectives of a significant demographic of citizenry.

The focus of my study was the ‘younger generation’, but in the process of research the current day youth, termed the millennium generation by Soares (2007), became a new focus of concern in Timor-Leste, as a demographic ‘youth bulge’ resulted in large numbers of post-school youth facing an economic environment which had little capacity to offer them gainful employment. That Timor-Leste’s population is extremely young is seen in table 1.

Table 1: Demographic Breakdown of the Generations. Source: (NDS 2010).

Generational group Age range % of population
Children 0–14 years 45.0
Millennium generation youth 15–24 years 17.5
‘Gerasaun Foun’ 25–44 years 20.0
Senior adults 45+ 17.5

A concentration on the technical tasks of state building in the early years eclipsed the needs and expectations of both former freedom fighters and a growing cohort of disengaged youth, arguably factors in the politicalmilitary crisis that broke out four years after independence in 2006. Just days before the political crisis broke out, the Country Director for the World Bank made an address stating:

In these four years as an independent nation, Timor-Leste has been successful in maintaining peace and stability, a remarkable achievement, and an unusual one among post-conflict countries. This accomplishment is a tribute to the strength and commitment of Timor-Leste’s leadership and the wisdom of its people6.

The crisis which lasted from 2006 to 2008 was a wake-up call for both the Timorese leadership and the international community to realise that many of its citizens felt disregarded in the development process. It also resulted in an immediate shift of commentary from Timor-Leste as a major ‘United Nations success story’, to suggestions that it was a ‘failed state’, neither of which reflected the reality. These positions made a complex story simple and newsworthy for international consumption, but did little to explain the real tensions between the internationally promoted development taking place and the respective aspirations of the Timorese leadership, the rural population or younger generations.

This book promotes the concept of active citizenship as a means of engagement in the affairs of a state, including avenues of participation through civil society and governance processes. It employs the voices of younger generation activists to provide diverse perspectives which speak to those ‘doing development’ at the top, as well as drawing from the views of those purported to receive and benefit from the outcomes of development at the grassroots. Analysis of the perspectives of Timorese women’s feminist struggle on the one hand, and the disengagement of the millennium generation of youth on the other, enrich the understanding of this complex society.

This case study of Timor-Leste demonstrates that governance processes based on Western democratic ideals can inadvertently create parallel systems to existing customary processes, based on different understanding, logic and principles of community values, rights and responsibilities. Citizens’ participation and local understandings of appropriate development are principles of effective development, but development practice has too often failed to live up to these principles both in Timor-Leste and elsewhere.

Where development interventions are devised and brought in from outside without due consideration for local views, they sit alongside existing forms, rather than nurturing and developing existing knowledge and resources. ‘Development’ in Portuguese ‘desenvolvimento’ and Tetum ‘dezenvolvimentu’, means unravelling, opening the potential like a bud unfurling into a flower in full bloom. This describes development as something that starts from the potential that already exists at the core, a process by which new knowledge and resources can be absorbed to grow bigger, stronger, or in a new form. This book argues that participation in development, as it is theorised from development experience globally, provides a solid foundation for effective development. It also shows how in practice, a limited understanding and acceptance of the pre-existing culture can de-validate the voices of different groups in the society, resulting in development outcomes that fail to realise the potential that would be available if working in harmony with the existing cultural landscape.

The lessons from Timor-Leste’s development experience are in some aspects similar to experiences in other post-conflict countries. Cambodia and Mozambique both faced complex peace-building interventions in which the UN and major international development agencies played a role in state-building and democratisation. The emergence of two-tier development in urban and rural areas is seen in small nation states such as Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands where large numbers of youth face limited opportunities on leaving school and high levels of violence and entrenched gender inequality exist. The experiences of Timor-Leste are not unique, but as a newly emerging nation in the twenty-first century Timor-Leste is a unique case study.

Genesis and Synopsis of the Book

My first visit to East Timor was in 1997 during the Indonesian occupation. I was working with Caritas Australia as Senior Program Manager, and the fact that I spoke Portuguese due to my seven years living in Mozambique made me an obvious candidate for managing the East Timor program. I have worked in the NGO development sector for over twenty-five years with agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children and International Women’s Development Agency across southeast and south Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and Africa, including seven years living in Mozambique. My development work was interspersed by study, gaining an MA in Development Studies from Monash University in 1994 and a PhD from Victoria University in 2010. My doctoral research, which provides core material for this book, was carried out in mid-2006, just months after the worst of the violence had significantly changed the discourse about Timor-Leste’s progress. From my original intention to focus on civil society initiatives there emerged a bigger picture, drawn from Timorese activists’ perspectives that challenged the mainstream approach to development and democracy, resulting in my thesis ‘Becoming Citizens: Civil society activism and social change in Timor-Leste’, which was completed in 2009.

I visited Timor-Leste regularly for various assignments with international or Timorese NGOs which provided me a rich depth and breadth of engagement with Timorese civil society organisations. In addition, I undertook several research assignments which further contributed to the analysis in this book. A number of my activist friends also visited Melbourne for short or long term study, so I have been fortunate in being able to continue to engage with many activists whose perspectives inform this analysis, as they have continuously engaged in Timorese civil society to contribute to the development of their country. Their passion and commitment to a free, independent and just Timor-Leste was the inspiration for this book.

This introductory chapter is followed by an outline of the historical context of Timor-Leste’s independence in chapter one. The occupation of East Timor over 450 years by Portuguese colonisers and twenty-four years of traumatic and contested Indonesian rule resulted in very different lived experiences for different generations of Timorese. The youth movement was central to the clandestine activities that supported the independence struggle. When humanitarian aid agencies arrived in 1999, Timorese students and activists became involved in international programs as interpreters, field workers and local partners.

The chapters that follow each focus on a thematic issue, underpinned by theory and the practice as experienced in Timor-Leste. Chapter two analyses the impact of humanitarian aid and the growth of local civil society organisations in post-conflict Timor-Leste. Civil society theory is used to analyse the humanitarian response and young people’s participation in the transition, growth and transformation of Timorese civil society, which contributed to reconstruction and development in the county.

The roles of the international development institutions and how ‘development’ is understood is discussed in chapter three. The United Nations and the World Bank together played a major role in establishing the development trajectory of the new nation, but not without dissent from sections of the Timorese leadership and population. This chapter shows that some of the early decisions made about Timor-Leste’s development failed to adequately involve the perspectives of the Timorese.

Customary practices which dictate the lives of the majority of the population are described in chapter four. Gender and development theory is used to analyse how customary roles constrain the participation of women and girls in activities outside the domestic sphere and how change can differently affect young men and young women. Meanwhile the women’s civil society movement in the capital gives expression to women’s perspectives concerning development and rights in Timor-Leste.

The impact of unequal development which drives urban migration by young people and the consequence of a large number of unemployed youth in the capital is considered in chapter five. The youth role in the political crisis of 2006–8 and its causes and consequences are presented, analysing the status of youth and culture of masculinities in the context of social change.

Chapter six analyses how the diverse educational experiences of different generations of Timorese impacted both on the quality of education and the self-identity of the participants. It analyses the kind of education required to facilitate rural development, build capacity to respond to existing conditions and enable young people to improve their quality of life.

Issues of people’s participation in governance and development are analysed in chapter eight. People’s access to governance and decision making is through the three layers of government, national, district/sub-district administrations and local Suco7 councils. Recent research analyses the contribution of women and youth in local governance. The role of civil society in promoting community participation is also found to be critical in creating partnerships that best support effective aid-funded development.

The concluding chapter seeks to draw out some of the lessons from Timor-Leste’s development trajectory and the influences that active citizenship can have on the development of the country. It highlights how inclusive development requires citizens’ engagement and dialogue to build understanding between the new and the old, and a co-existence of international principles of individual rights and respect for indigenous practices. It is argued that civil society activists have contributed to bridging a gap in understanding between customary values and national policies which are being put in place. Younger generation Timorese will have increasing influence as more of them move into leadership positions but it remains to be seen how this next generation of decision makers will incorporate respect for Timorese culture while increasing equality of opportunity for women and girls in a maturing Timor-Leste. It concludes that development progress depends on citizens striving for change in a context where new pathways are open to them and donors recognise that mutual learning is needed to bring about effective, inclusive development.

1     Interview, Vicente, Suai, 7 August 2006.

2     In this book the term ‘East Timor’ is used prior to independence and the Portuguese version of the name ‘Timor-Leste’ used for the post-independence era.

3     Dulce de Jesus Soares was at the time a Masters student at Victoria University in Melbourne, where I was also a doctoral candidate. From 2012, Dulce became Vice-Minister for Education in the 5th and 6th Constitutional Governments.

4     Interview Gusmão Soares, Dili, 29 July 2006.

5     Interviews with Gusmão Soares, Dili 29 July 2006; Vicente, Suai, 7 August 2006; Lemos, Dili, 11 August 2006.

6     Opening statement of World Bank Country Director for Timor-Leste, Zhu Xian, at Timor-Leste’s Development Partners Meeting April 3-4 2006, Dili.

7     The smallest administrative unit at the village level is the Suco (village) and the aldeia (hamlet). In the rural areas the Suco may be comprised of a number of dispersed hamlets. In Dili a Suco is comprised of several bairros (suburbs).

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth