Saturday, February 4, 2012

Breaking out of the Lethargy and Siege Mentality that Imprisons Timor-Leste

All too soon the UN and countless other agencies will pack up their kit-bags and head off to the next crisis….confident of a job well done. Boxes ticked, budgets blown, buildings built, systems in place, capacity developed, skills transferred to be farewelled by a more than audible sigh of collective relief.

Given Timor’s turbulent history (especially the accumulation of deprivation, suppression, violence, and trauma across successive generations ….. on the spirit, soul and the psyche of this nation) and the recent unprecedented change that has engulfed this country, I cannot but wonder whether there is still some very, important unfinished business at hand. Some aid initiatives, particularly through non-governmental and community-based organisations, have directly provided psychosocial, coping or change management support to marginalised groups. Despite this, there is a lingering sense that mainstream Timorese society, as resilient as it may appear, is still haunted and indelibly affected by the more and less recent past. This begs the question: has the development community done enough to support the needs of the Timorese?   
Extract from an earlier post: Poignant and life-changing markers in time, October 2011.

A derelict Indonesian occupation-era prison on the outskirts of the Oe-cusse enclave

In recent months I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a couple of first hand, WOW experiences in relation to a, potential, missing development link in Timor-Leste. This revelation answers, in part, a concern raised in an earlier posting. Whereas Timor’s telling and arguably most destructive occupations are long over, the country continues to be inflicted with a numbing siege mentality – a legacy of centuries of occupation and a post-independence occupation of ‘different sorts.’

Forced occupations by the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesians were largely characterised by a control and command orientation whereas a more recent, decade  of ‘voluntary’ UN occupation differs considerably – leaning towards a developmental approach with coaching and capacity development featuring prominently.

The nature of the command and control orientation under the respective occupiers also differs – Continental/Mediterranean Portugal (Christian Catholic) once a colonial power but very much on the wane lately. The country now languishes in the wake of the global financial crisis and is a primary member of the ‘illustrious’ PIGS financial bloc.  During the colonial period, Portuguese administrative power was concentrated at the centre (Dili) with little more than pottering around on the periphery (numerous, rural administrative districts). It’s ‘insanely’ ironic that in a few months Timorese will be ‘celebrating’ 500 years of Portuguese founding and occupation. 

Indonesia (the world’s most populous Islamic country), with its crescent waxing and  emerging as an Asian superpower simple saturated Timor-Leste with the sheer weight of military might. This practice is continued to this day in West Papua and is conveniently ignored, by the old firm, in a bizarre déjà vu. Contrast this then, with the more recent ‘international’ occupation force headlined by the UN but including a hodgepodge of donor countries that are more likely, Eurocentric in orientation.

Neatly sandwiched between this are the Timorese people and herein lies the immense development dilemma. For too long they have been trapped between the extremities of these very different development paradigms - Timorese and Malae sira (all manner of foreigners). There is little wonder that Timorese are culturally, developmentally and psychosocially shocked and confused.

As development practitioners it’s critical that we are cognisant of this and adjust our frame(s) of reference, understanding and expectations accordingly. How does one manage and tread the fine development line between doing too much – controlling,  commanding, disempowering, suppressing and stifling local initiative/self-determination; and doing too little – casting a country and people aside and setting them up for failure?  
Acceptable limits need to be set on either side of the development line where based on specific circumstances and timing, one can cross the line with impunity, yet remain within acceptable limits, to achieve specific developmental objectives. Self-correction appears to be a natural tendency that happens, over time, often with little or no direct management intervention. Going beyond ‘acceptable limits,’ denoted in diagram 1 by the dotted line, tends to lead to compromise. The compromise here can be considerable and in many forms – compromising values and ethics, political and administrative governance, sustainable development, integrity, trust, and norms and standards.

Diagram 1. The CD Continuum

The concept of the fine development line bracketed by acceptable or tolerable developmental levels is similar to that of the ecotone in a bio-physical environment.  The ecotone is a  transition zone between different habitats such as forest and grassland, often characterised by a convergence of life forms from both habitats. This invariably results in immense species richness and diversity as organisms (plants and animals), transition from their ‘specialist’ habitats to the ecotone.

Learning, especially action-oriented and on-the-job for counterparts and advisors alike is greatest and richest within this ‘devzone’ provided that mutual rapport, trust and respect has been established from inception. Initially, an advisor may have to step over the fine line and ‘do more’ in order to win credibility, trust and build rapport but will then have to self-correct once a healthy, working relationship is established. Experienced practitioners intuitively surf this devzone knowing when to assist or guide based on their assessment of the unique circumstances.  

 Without skirting around the issue and being brutally honest, Timorese leadership need to develop the confidence and temerity, based on informed opinion, to tell regional bullyboys and meddlers from further afield to butt out and bugger off. This is already happening with the Timorese government enforcing contractual obligations, related of oil and gas concessions, granted to Australian partner companies. With presidential and parliamentary elections looming; and the UN set to implement a phased withdrawal shortly thereafter, it’s perhaps the opportune time to take stock and for Timorese to work on freeing Timorese from the siege mentality that has entrapped the country.

Where to from here?? What is needed are cool heads, courageous hearts – Old school is good but if infused with the exuberance, creativity, constructive engagement and energy of the youth it’s even better! Young and old need to soldier on together – excluding or marginalising the burgeoning and highly ‘expectant’ youth will be at the peril of the old guard and the country. 

It is hoped that a decade of international development assistance has developed and installed a leadership cadre that is self-assured, analytical, critical, well read and informed capable of decision making and calculated risk taking. Of greater importance, is a leadership that will embrace and celebrate things Timorese and resist ‘cloning’ or replicating archaic administrative and political systems that are wholly and/or generally inappropriate for Timor-Leste. We all hope for a new, invigorated government that will follow a path of measured moderation and modernisation where the leadership and people of Timor-Leste find their voices, suppressed and silenced for too long, as a sovereign nation with every right to self-determination.

Timorese are undoubtedly survivors and at the very centre of this is their unshakeably, customary Uma Lulik/religious faith. The very essence of being Timorese complete with a resurgent culture and tradition that has sustained and strengthened Timorese over centuries. One would hope that within the process of UN-nisation and Westernisation, that a home-grown brand of stewardship and governance will evolve retaining attributes of the old and blending them with attributes of the new world.

My personal ‘wish list’ for Timor-Leste:   
·         Reinforce and reward Timorese uniqueness and enterprise;
·         Embark upon an aggressive ‘nation building’ program of reconstruction and development (capital works) where Timorese will be the drivers and unemployed Timorese youth will be the primary beneficiaries. This should be linked to  systematic up-skilling of the youth;   
·         Promote Timorese icons – role models;
·         Reverse the Timorese diaspora and encourage Timorese to return and to become a valuable/central part of building a new nation;
·         Urgently address critical skills needed to rebuild Timor-Leste through a clear, concise and coordinated/consolidated national skills development strategy/implementation plan;
·         Tap into the traditional system of tribal leaders/elders with a view to coaching and mentoring a new and emerging leadership in the country;
·         Establish a Presidential Leadership Development Program endorsed by the President and designed to systematically develop a ‘new generation’ of Timorese leadership for the future;  
·         Consider viability of partnerships with less traditional regional neighbours including emerging ASEAN member countries (especially CLMV);
·         ‘Re-position’ capacity and skills development at the ‘front and centre’ of all current and planned development assistance efforts. In this regard, a ‘back to basics’ approach is advocated where assumptions are ‘tested/verified’ prior to embarking upon a course of action.

Fledgling, fragile, costly and hard fought democracies, the world over, particuarly more recently in Iraq, south Sudan, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan are teetering on the brink. The reversal of such significant democratic gains in Timor-Leste is simply not an option.  

Bygone days are best consigned to history with the hope that they will never return

Postscript: Sentiments expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of others.

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