Cold, hard cash

In the past four days, I’ve spent only three hours in Dili. I have another two days in Baucau, so I’m imagining this is sadly as close as I am going to get to some “deep Timor” experience. I have been trying, as best one can, from brief stops off of mostly paved roads, to get a feeling for the state of things beyond Tasi Tolu and the Cristo Rei.

Roadside Timor does indeed seem more prosperous. The evidence? New kiosks, painted and renovated houses from mountain Maubara all the way to Ossu. The MTCI rice appears to be reaching certain rural communities, where I have seen the odd new, full bag. But I have not seen it piled up anywhere. Mostly people seem to be recycling the bags for their own harvests.

In Ossu, there were new (since 2006) kiosks selling vegetables. Thriving bengkels and mikrolets being repainted, overhauled in Baucau district. Tons of new stickers and names on mikrolets and buses. All evidence of increased cash flow on almost every paved road.

(But I wonder: is this cash reaching the deep Timor, hours walk from the roadside? And are these merely signs of the relatively well-off getting richer?)

On the road near Bazartete, we stopped and chatted with the “dua dollar” work crews repairing the roads. This was one of the first and longest standing schemes to infuse cash into rural areas. There still seemed to be healthy competition for the work, and according to the overseer, rotation of people working. Payments were allegedly quite late.

During a chat hiking near Loe Huno, I asked about the new universal old-age pension, and our guide chuckled as he told the delight of those over 60, some of whom still remember the Portuguese head tax. He said, “Old folks say ‘Before the government forced us to pay them, and look, now they are paying us!’”

Obviously there have been major problems with the pension, which is paid out in six month blocks. In the first round, chefes de suco were apparently able to manipulate the system. In many places, people are continuing to use the voter IDs of deceased people as the government simply does not have databases linked up to prevent this.

There may be massive “leakage”, but the point is, money is clearly reaching cash-starved rural communities. These are places where before you could not even get change for a dollar in the market.

Last week in a “brown bag lunch” at UNMIT, one high-profile UN type revealed that the victims of the Passabe massacre said they interpreted the pension as a form of government reparation for their suffering.

Cash is powerful and is not a cure-all. But if there is one growing consensus, it is that not enough “nation building cash” stayed in Timor, let alone in Dili. I remember calculating how much each man, woman and child in Timor would have received if the UN never returned, and just gave the money for peacekeeping and administration to the Timorese. I think it amounted to something like $20,000 per person.

It is quite amazing how actually something as cold and hard as cash can be something so hard to know what to do with.

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