Government Growing Pains

Log Entry Location: East Timor

February, 2003

Since East Timor has only been an independent nation since May of 2002, it is probably not entirely surprising that they haven’t exactly figured it all out yet! Prior to May of last year, the UN was administering all of the government services (from Customs and police functions to vehicle registration). The Government of Timor Leste, is at least theoretically, now in control of everything.

The challenges are huge. They are essentially creating an entire government from scratch, with meager resources that are controlled by the UN and other donors and with personnel who are not trained or educated for government work! (No wonder our boxes are still being held by customs and our visas have expired.)

Dean tested out the state of the bureaucracy by registering our new little car (actually, starting the process of registration since it isn’t complete yet). The first stop was an office near our house, where the title registration process happens. Imagine a cartoon version of a factory assembly line. Person one counts the pages and stamps them. Person two confirms person one’s work, adds an additional page, takes US$2.50 from Dean, and stamps all the papers. Person three enters documents into the computer. Person two then takes the papers back, confirms with Person four, and tells Dean to go make six copies. (Interlude: Dean leaves the building to find the copy kiosk and then attempts to haggle with the attendant in Tetun. Unfortunately, the attendant speaks no Tetun). Dean takes 6 copies to person two, who staples everything together and sends him to person 5, in line 3. Person 5 records the payment in a written logbook and tells him to go across town to have the vehicle inspected! Interestingly enough, the vehicle inspection consists of testing only the things that Timorese drivers never use (the blinkers, the headlights, and the windshield wipers). Dean is hoping to get into line 4 (and speak with person 6) back at the first location on Monday.

For those of you who have lived in the developing world, the above will sound remarkably familiar! What’s amazing to us is that the UN is still teaching the Timorese how to do this. It is very clear that they themselves have no idea what all the various steps are actually about. (The attached picture shows our soon-to-be-registered little car, next to the monstrous government agency vehicle which we were driving before we got our own wheels.

The seemingly simple issue of national language is another good example. Due to the fact that most political elites were in exile in Portuguese-speaking countries, the official national language is Portuguese. That means that all official documents, forms, street signs, and so on, should be in that language. Unfortunately, approximately 5% of the Timorese population actually speak Portuguese and most of those are people over the age of 50 (or those that were in exile in Portugal, Mozambique, or Angola during the resistance struggle). The official “working language” of Timor Leste is Tetun, a creole that developed so that members of the many different ethnic groups in the country could communicate. Unfortunately, Tetun is mostly a spoken language, not a written one, and it does not have a very elaborate technical vocabulary. The other option, Bahasa Indonesian, is widely spoken by almost everyone in the country but since it was the language of the oppressor, Indonesia, it is now considered inappropriate to use it within the government.

What this means in practice is….life is very complicated. Patti went to a typical meeting at the Ministry of Health. The PowerPoint presentation was in Portuguese. The expat advisor giving the oral presentation did it in English. A Timorese colleague provided simultaneous translation into Tetun. Several government representatives from rural regions quietly listened to yet another simultaneous translation from Tetun into Bahasa Indonesian in the back of the room!

We could go on but you get the general idea. Creating a government (and national identity, including language) is tricky!

Both the Timorese we’ve met and most of the foreigners we know agree that despite the obvious challenges, if anyone is up to the task it will be President Xanana Gusmčo. Older Brother (Maun Boot) Xanana, as he is called by virtually everyone, is part cult figure, part demi-god, and the single-recognized leader who managed to keep the country together during and after the resistance struggle. The US Ambassador to East Timor has compared him to George Washington – former military leader, resistance fighter, and reluctant politician who was chosen by national acclaim. He seems to be like a hybrid of Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, and John F. Kennedy…..all rolled into one. You see his picture everywhere – on virtually every house in the country.

Overwhelming Malae (Foreign) Presence

From where we sit in Dili, it is difficult to get a sense of what life is really like for the Timorese people. The city is so dominated by international relief and development workers that it would be easy to live here and never interact with a Timorese person. The hundreds of UN workers, plus the dozens of other agencies, all drive the standard malae vehicle – an oversized, white, 4WD SUV, preferably with a huge satellite antenna. (See our government agency vehicle above for a good example.) The streets of Dili are literally swarming with these oversized vehicles and it is virtually impossible to park (or sometimes to even ) on the streets where expats eat, drink, and play.

Many of the expats who are here are on very short-term contracts with the UN. As a consequence, they don’t feel the need to integrate into Timorese culture and tend to spend almost all of their time eating Greek salads at the City Café or having pizzas and burgers at the Dili Club Restaurant on the beach. A friend told us a telling story of a conversation she had with a UN employee over dinner. This person, who happened to be an American, had been working as a police officer in East Timor for almost two years. As the two of them were sitting at dinner, a Timorese colleague walked by and said “boa noite.” The American police officer turned to our friend and said “what does that mean anyway?” Hard to imagine that you could live in a country for two years and not know how to say “good evening!”

The presence of all of these expats, and the money they bring with them, has also created one of the worst dual economies Patti has ever seen (its Dean’s first and he thinks it’s really bad). The volunteers recently did a little skit to illustrate the problem. It was hysterically funny and featured a malae couple paying US$10 for 3 tomatoes and offering someone $20 for a 3-kilometer ride to a market! The most obvious impacts of this dual economy are in the restaurants (most of which serve malaes) and the housing market. A single room with bath (no kitchen)in a renovated complex costs about US$700 per month (including 24-hour electricity, guard service, and satellite tv). By contrast, the average Timorese lecturer at the university makes US$200 per month. Non-expat housing (without generators, 24-hour water, and so on) is much more reasonable. Of course, since 90% of the houses in East Timor were burned out by the Indonesians in 1999, lots of folks are still living under tarps and temporary structures.

Of course, the thing that makes all of this really interesting is that we are malaes and we are, in fact, part of the international community. We are trying to integrate into Timorese society…..learning Tetun, walking or biking instead of driving, eating out at the Timorese-owned foodstalls, and doing daily grocery-shopping at the outdoor market. But we’re still malae and find ourselves in the very uncomfortable position of being neither fish nor fowl. Dean delights in being the only malae buying vegetables at our local market, but it was only this week that he felt like he was starting to pay local (not malae) prices. Patti enjoys taking a taxi (the preferred mode of transport for the middle class at a flat rate of $1 anywhere in Dili) instead of driving a personal vehicle to work….but she knows that car is available when it is raining or even if she’s just running late. We try not to run our generator (because it is loud and smelly) but we turned it on the other night because we were in the middle of a movie on our satellite tv when the city power when out! Plus, as you can see from the photo of our boxes in our air frieght shipment, we are not exactly turning down all the perks of ex-pat life. But we don’t have to like it!

Life Outside of Dili

Fortunately, we don’t have to spend all of our time in our agency-provided house in Dili. One of the best parts of Patti’s job is getting to conduct “site visits” to see existing volunteers and also getting to develop new sites in the rural areas. We both got to go on the site development trip to the Viqueque District, the same district that Patti dragged Dean to visit on his third day in the country! This time around, he wasn’t jet lagged and he was already speaking Tetun. We spent four days traveling around with Patti’s colleague, Reinaldo (who happens to befrom Viqueque), and Mike Gorman, the existing volunteer in the area.

The political structure in the rural areas is already formalized and pretty clear to most. The district level is roughly equivalent to a province or a state. Thus, district capitals usually have decent infrastructure (a hospital, a district office, a gas station, and possibly a restaurant or maybe two). Below that, you have the sub-district capitals. These towns usually have around 5000 or so people and some basic government infrastructure (health post, sub-district office, middle school) but not much else (no hotels, restaurants or high schools). Below that, are sukos (sometimes spelled sucos). We would probably call these small towns. Technically, the suco isn’t just the town but a larger geographic area around it. For example, each sub-district capital might be comprised of several sucos. Below sucos are aldeias, or small villages. It sort of works like this:

  • District Capital (Viqueque)
  • Sub-District Capital (Dilor)
  • Sucos (Dilor iteself plus Bibileo)
  • Aldeias

At each level, there is either a formal political leader (such as a District Administrator) or an informal one (such as a liurai, traditional king) or both.

During our visit to Viqueque District, we stopped in the district capital, all three sub-district capitals, several sucos, and a handful of aldeias. In each case, we first talked with the political leaders and explained what theis agency was all about. Reinaldo, Patti, and Mike spent most of their time in these meetings while Dean was usually mobbed by schoolkids on their way home for lunch. The roadtrip itself was great – including a (bridgeless) river crossing during the rainy season, interesting local fruits from roadside stands, and an exciting, moonless, night walk over a crocodile-infested river on a decrepit hanging footbridge (complete with missing slats)! The cultural experience were just as interesting – including a visit to the site of one of the more infamous Indonesian massacres in Kraras and a cultural lesson about traditional secret houses from the chefe du suco (Suco chief) in Dilor.

Patti is pleased to report that her Tetun has progressed enough that she could follow most of what was being said in most of the meetings. She could even contribute….so long as it was about things in the rehearsed script! Dean reports that he is still lost (although Patti thinks he’s making good progress and one kid even said his Tetun was “diak – good.”)


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