Further to my piece in Crikey yesterday (item 5), I’d like to make several points. First,
despite my misgivings about Dr Ramos Horta’s international ambitions, he’s
about the only member of the government tirelessly moving about among the
people, and trying to broker a peaceful outcome between the parties.

President Gusmao continues to have enormous
support, and looks (on the strength of his appearance Monday – I haven’t seen
any local media yet Tuesday evening as I write this) to be ready to deal with a
recalcitrant political leadership. It is
simply astonishing that key figures such as PM Alkitiri continue to dig in with
such devastating consequences for the people.
But a “successful” resolution
– as both Gusmao and Horta know – will still mean protracted instability. It would be wise of Dr Ramos Horta to
renounce all interest in the UN Secretary-General’s position and focus on the
long haul of nation-building. It is
clear that his people need him far more than does the rest of the world, and
will do so for a long time to come.

Second,
PM Howard and others should cut the “failed state” stuff. East Timor’s government – including much credit due
to Alkitiri – has acted strongly in a number of ways in tackling the important
issues of human survival and development.
Health and education indicators have been improving at a very good
rate. Remember the utter vacuum that it
inherited. They’ve had just four years
so far; Australia and
the USA
even opposed an extension of the UN Mission after just three years of
independence!

Of course the Timorese Government achieved much because of lots of help
from others, but so what? The Timorese
people suffered because of the silence of lots of others for a much longer
period. The Fretilin Government has been
committed to development; and any blame for any failure also has to be shared. It sounds like the international community is
too ready to take the praise for the successes, but to attribute all the blame
to the government.

Nevertheless, it is
undeniable that the current leadership has made utterly unacceptable errors in
the latest unrest, and are so much a part of the problem they can’t conceivably
be part of the solution (although Xanana’s likely proposed government of
national unity or alternative transitional measures through to next year’s
national elections will probably allocate them current leadership roles as a
means of bringing the different forces together).

Third,
evidence of the capacity of areas of the government is on show. For example,
the continued functioning of the police and health services and schools in the
districts where things are calmer, and the roles being played by government in
the current humanitarian effort. Of
course, there’s been panic among people desperate to get food from the
warehouses, but there’s more evidence of civil order in food distribution (I know
it’s not great stuff for TV). I
watched food distribution in one of the camps yesterday afternoon: piles of
boxes of water, piles of sacks of rice, lots of people queued waiting to have
their names ticked off a list to be handed their rations. All handled calmly by a couple of people from
the main humanitarian relief team, and several designated Timorese guys living
in the camp who diligently maintain the lists for the team.

Fourth,
the statements by Tim Costello when he returned to Australia on
Monday night have been insulting to many people working in humanitarian
relief. Let me describe the situation (I
repeat some of what I said yesterday) – an Inter-Agency Humanitarian Assistance Group has been established. It
comprises the Timorese government (in a coordinating role, under Labour and
Community Reinsertion Minister Arsenio Bano), seven UN agencies (WHO, UNICEF
etc), and five international NGOs (Oxfam, Plan International, HealthNet, Red
Cross and Care). I’m
told World Vision was invited to join the effort.

These
various agencies are cooperating in their coverage of food distribution
and
health and sanitation monitoring across all camps. Apparently World
Vision is doing the same. According to Tim Costello on ABC’s
Lateline on Monday night, “There’s only about three or four aid agencies still
functioning. The
UN’s gone, many other aid agencies, because of the security situation have
gone”. I’m not involved in any of this,
so I don’t mind saying it has not gone down too well with many people working
long hours.

It’s
hard to feel sympathetic with his calls for stretched Australian
military
forces to provide “double cover”. As I
said yesterday, the Australian troops are not only securing and
protecting
loads of essential utilities, and restoring order in the face of
violence springing up in all sorts of places, but ensuring safety to
the
political leadership, UN facilities and officers, and the joint
humanitarian
efforts in the field (there are lots of camps in Dili).

The
important issue here is that there’s an opportunity for international agencies
to not repeat the errors of the past.
Cooperation is essential. So I
see a few vehicles driving around flying their own flags and others wanting to
ensure their own “brand recognition” for TV viewers back home. Of course UN agencies have also been under
pressure from their head offices to get good footage for impressing potential
donors. To their credit, they’re
generally focusing on what’s necessary on the ground at present.

Listening
to people displaced and impacted by all this is also essential. Sitting and listening to various people in
the camp yesterday afternoon was more informative than any UN briefing I’ve
been to in the past few days. Groups
can’t just come in and start doing their thing or operate in relative isolation
from others; this is a lesson which apparently has to be learnt over and over
again.

This
is one of the positive outcomes I hope arises from the current tragedy. East Timor can
be described as a “failed state” in the sense that everyone, in some way, has
failed it. Are they going to fail it
again? What lessons have the different
agencies learnt?

I still hear people in different agencies (UN,
international NGOs, etc) talking as if they need to get back to what
they were
doing before, or do what they were doing but with more resources. Stop!
From now on it has to be different. There’s been too much of importing
“solutions”, of paternalistic “development”, of wasting donor resources
due to inexperienced “advisers” or
forgetting to focus on outcomes.

Fortunately, there are now many people in the Timorese Administration
who can – and must – be more assertive about what is needed as East
Timor does what it couldn’t do post-1999: to undertake “emergency” and
“development” roles side-by-side rather than the latter being viewed as
a
logical successor to the former. Despite
the destruction and current dejection of the national psyche, the
foundations
for doing so continue to survive. The
biggest challenge is to those agencies – UN and others alike – which
continue
to operate here: how are you going to change this time around? And when
the dust settles, it will be more
than the Timorese leadership that will have some questions to answer.

Peter Fray

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