Thursday, May 31, 2012

Development's softer side

Volunteers abroad including the United Nations Integrated Mission to Timor-Leste (UNMIT)                
 Words and Photographs by Barry Greville-Eyres

UN Service Medal presentation to Malaysian Formed Police Unit

Having recently farewelled the pride of Malaysia’s Royal National Police Force – the Malaysian Formed Police Unit (MAL-FPU) which forms the most enduring and an important part of the United Nations Integrated Mission to Timor-Leste (UNMIT), it’s an opportune time to reflect upon the less obvious side of development. Personal sacrifice through volunteerism is the noblest and altruistic side of international development that warrants, in my view, specific mention.

Assistant Superintendent Lim Chee Teong (right) and one of his NCOs - Malaysian Royal Police at the farewell UN Service Medal Presentation in Dili recently

The MAL-FPU is a highly trained, rapid reaction force tasked primarily with policing and stabilization on the western approaches to Dili via Comoro Road. The unit also closely guards access to the all-important and only international airport and the Comoro River bridgehead which divides Dili’s commercial, residential, political-administrative and manufacturing heartland disproportionately.  Rotations are generally of a six monthly duration with a return, rest and recovery period in Malaysia of about two weeks midway through their tour of duty. Whilst in Timor, all staff receives a modest daily allowance to cover incidental and essential expenses but beyond that the ladies and gentlemen receive no additional remuneration for an absence from homeland and loved ones.

MAL-FPU perfect their crowd control techniques
I’ve been a witness to their ongoing service to Timor-Leste and the international community – one of dedication and distinction but it’s their composure, empathy, warmth, humility and Asianness – their ability to connect with the Timorese that differentiates them from all others. Their linguistic proficiency is astounding with many fluent in half a dozen regional languages and capable of picking up Tetun in an instant. Besides their conventional policing role, FPU conducts a community outreach program focussing on public health and safety. Women appear to be well represented throughout the broader Malaysian contingent although primarily in non-combat roles. I’ve also experienced their wonderful culture, camaraderie, hospitality and many culinary delights and it’s little wonder that Malaysia – Truly Asia occupies a must-visit destination on my travel list.

The newly arrived, June-December 2012, rotation of MAL-FPU relax with Pit a friendly local
Since the men are generally confined to barracks and constantly on standby, they've turned their hands and minds to many inventive pastimes including vegetable gardening, metal and wood work and  a full range of sporting activities. Their lives, on mission, are full and exciting and most seem to breeze through their time here without any problems.  

My Antipodean colleagues also deserve a special mention with Australian Army Reservists – essentially volunteers – taking a ‘service year’ to represent the Australian Defence Forces in Timor-Leste. They are an extraordinary bunch of young men who have taken time out from their private lives and personal relationships to represent Australia and support the people of Timor. One should not be misled by the notion that volunteerism is a ‘free ticket’ to representing the ADF in Timor. On the contrary, reservists serving in Timor have had to ‘earn’ their right to deployment through a series of stringent selection requirements. The right people are here for the right reasons and this is clearly the case.

'Brothers in Arms' - the blogger is flanked by UNMIT forces - Ugandan and Malaysian Police Officers respectively

Our African ‘brothers in arms’ – a geo-political world away from their continent – also deserve accolades. Small African police contingents, representing Ghana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Gambia, Nigeria, consolidated under UNMIT have also charmed and made their presence felt in Timor-Leste.

South Africa's King Air Services provide exclusive charter and medivac services for the United Nations Integrated Mission to Timor-Leste. Here the team gear up for another busy day at the office!
Dili’s thriving expat community, its own weird universal amalgam of development practitioners, has also left a lasting philanthropic mark on Timorese society. More specifically, I salute the Australian spirit and generosity; perhaps a collective conscience – whereas the significant few have conveniently forgotten – countless other ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies have remembered. Australian individuals, towns and states, schools, community groups, NGOs are rebuilding the people and institutions of Timor-Leste, often, independently and outside of the official aid program. This generates immense goodwill particularly at community level and needs are often being met, side by side, with greater impact, focus and pragmatism.   
Volunteer English tutors drawn from Dili's expat community take time out of the classroom with University of Timor-Leste students. Pic courtesy of Greg Fergin

Fund raising is a constant and aid workers and expats of all nationalities take volunteerism to a new level in that it becomes second nature and an important part of Dili's social scene. Quiz evenings, film screenings, art and music festivals, frequent formal balls; a plethora of lessons - dancing, choral, language etc all rake in the expat dollar which is, presumably, channelled  back into Timorese communities near and far. In addition, many donate their time, experience and intellectual capacity to a range of deserving local causes. In a strangely symbiotic way,  malae-sira are both producers and consumers in Dili's economy. It is hoped that through both informal (active expat community) and formal (government)  stakeholders that thought and consideration  will be given to the impact(s) that the significant reduction in aid workers / peace keepers - as a result of the planned December 2012 UNMIT drawdown - will have on Dili's economy. Its a harsh reality that must be confronted proactively and head on.

Cultural and culinary appreciation! University students enjoy a traditional, Australian sausage sizzle. Pic courtesy of Greg Fergin

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