Somebody tell the Pilot

[Dear readers, My guest blogger rightly fears reprisals, so even a pseudonym is out.]

At the ‘development partners’ meeting a few weeks ago I was reminded of a line from a the book Outliers, where the First Officer says to the pilot “the weather radar has been very useful” suggest that other devices apart from the naked eye could be used to land the plane as they are about to crash into a mountain.

Except that not one of the ‘development partners’ would even hint that there was such a thing as a weather radar. At this meeting the government, the DSRSG congratulated the government on its excellent progress to date, especially on matters such as food security and security sector reform – what the hell?!

The World Bank also appeared to be in an extremely congratulatory mood. When the national priorities of justice and governance came up, not one ‘development partners’ raised a question about the President’s, Prime Minister’s, and Minister of Justice’s alleged breaches of the constitution with regard to the Martenus Bere case, nor did any of the ‘development partners’ raise any questions about the lack of accountability, transparency, and apparent unlawfulness and outright craziness of the misappropriation of the $70 million from the now postponed(?)/cancelled(?) heavy oil plant for pakote referendum.

The excuse appears to be that these issues are raised privately in meetings between high level representatives of the ‘development partners’ and Ministers. I know that these issues are not raised or even hinted at.

Why are the ‘development partners’ so afraid of offending their hosts? I understand that bilateral partners have a long term relationship to think about, but what about multilateral partners. What is the worst that would happen if they do offend their hosts by telling them the truth about what they are doing wrong? Would they get kicked out of the country?

Unlikely as people like the President are too cautious about their international image for that. What is the worst that will happen if they don’t inform their hosts about what they are doing wrong? The country may descend into civil unrest again. And isn’t the raison d’etre of a DPKO mission to “keep the peace”?

Why won’t the UN openly state: security and justice sector reform in Timor-Leste is a joke. Today some government civilian staff who were trying to uphold some administrative systems were threatened by senior FFDTL members and PNTL officers waving weapons in their faces because they would not just handover cash to the FFDTL and PNTL.

What can these civilian staff do?

If they complain about the unlawful behaviour of these FFDTL and PNTL to the PNTL or the Prosecutors Office either 1) nothing will happen or 2) they will be faced with reprisals by the people they have complained about.

If they just handover the cash to these FFDTL members and PNTL officers they will be accused of maladministration and may face investigation by the Provedor or the Office of the Prosecutor.

If they just handover the cash it will also give courage to others trying to violate the system.

So where is the progress on security sector reform the DSRSG was so effusive in his praise about? And what kind of lawless state are we living in when the FFDTL and PNTL can pull their weapons on civilians and because the formal justice system is so dysfunctional and both institutions are so unaccountable (despite millions of dollars of bilateral and multilateral support) that only the civilian will be punished?

Malaes continue to privately bemoan the lack of accountability and responsibility of Timorese for anything – whether it be for not turning up to work, stealing fuel from generators and vehicles, handing out millions of dollars of contracts to companies which only exist in the scrap of paper in the back pockets of Minister’s wives/husbands/brothers/sisters/sons/daughters, paying tens of thousands of dollars in spurious medical costs of convicted murderers who tried to overthrow the state, or providing clemency to mass-murderers.

And malaes also complain that Timorese will not honestly tell each other “NO, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. YOU CANNOT TAKE A 50% CUT OF EVERY CONTRACT THAT COMES THROUGH THIS MINISTRY.” But why should Timorese be accountable, or responsible, or honestly tell each other anything, if their malae ‘partners’, and especially the biggest malaes – the UN, World Bank, and other ‘development partners’ will not provide the same courtesy?

“Ukun rasik an” is a term that many in the Timorese in power like to bandy about. I am not sure what is so rasik about the fact they still have malaes to police the state, malaes to provide external security, malaes to write the budget, malaes to manage the country’s wealth (the Petroleum Fund).

The only thing that seems to be done rasik is to fail to execute the budget, fail to tender for or oversee contracts, and to violate every single law in the country on a daily basis.

As one commentator has suggested, if the Minister of Finance and Prime Minister are so delusional as to believe that Timor really can ukun rasik an, maybe its ‘development partners’ should let them do it for a while and see how they go.

How much more of the Petroleum Fund is left?

This fund that was supposed to last more than 50 years (and probably would have if Fretilin had not been forced out) will be lucky to last 8 years.

Who will pay the FFDTL and PNTL then? (let alone all the other civil servants). How many other countries have descended into civil war because the government was so corrupt and so inept that it could not only not provide basic services, but could not afford or was incapable of paying the people with weapons? What will the UN and other ‘development partners’ say then? Sorry, we knew this was going to happen but because we held your delusional ukun rasik an in such high regard we did not want to offend you?

The plane is still descending through the storm clouds, and there may still be time to remind the captain about the weather radar and even better suggest an alternative means of landing before the plane crashes, and everyone on board, development partners included, becomes incinerated by the flatulence of their own egos.


This photo is dated October 28, 2009 – it was taken by NASA’s Earth Observatory. Interest of course was directed to the oil spill in the sea southwest. But take a look at central Timor, at its driest moment on the eve of the rainy season.


If we needed any further proof, here is NASA’s 10 day “Fire Map” showing fires between October 17 – 28. Timor is essentially all fire.


Palm Tree Index

I remember once, as the Merpati flight was winging its way into Dili, a UN staffer told me how excited he was to be back in Dili. Port-au-Prince was god-awful, even though it had a tropical clime, it was too dangerous, too complicated. Kabul was a boring dustbowl, while the per diem was high, there was nothing to do. He smiled as he told me he was happy to be back in Timor for a short stint. There he could scuba dive, things were calm (relative to Port-au-Prince), and Bali was close by.

I recently tweeted about the “elite of poverty development” (a nod to the painfully “real” NGO Inepd). Somebody asked me to clarify what I meant.

Here goes. International altruists tend to congregate, and stay longer, in places that are nice to live. I met more than one person in my last trip to Dili had more than a passing interest in moving to Maputo – a city with a similar “Palm Tree Index” to Dili.

Is there really anything so strange about this? People want to eat camembert, go scubadiving, AND save the world. Being honest, at age 24, I probably would have stayed longer in Dili if instead of scuba, there were bookstores, art-house cinemas and a better live music scene. And of course, I left before IKEA started delivering to Dili.

And, not to be overly cynical here, but Timor’s seesaw of conflict only adds to the attraction. The moment people get too accomodated and bored with the scuba diving and claustrophobic nightlife, a conflict erupts, and they get an adrenaline rush and big boost in their per diem. And of course they get to join the Facebook group “I Got Stoned in Dili“.

I scoured the internet for some old OCHA (?) NGO coordination maps from the UNTAET-UNOTIL periods. Unfortunately I couldn’t find what I was looking for. But I distinctly remember seeing that the number of international NGO projects in Lospalos was much higher than say, a mountain district like Manufahi. Lospalos has some of the most beautiful beaches in Timor, namely Kom and Tutuala.

Some highly populated central mountain areas hardly had any “coverage” at all, as compared to numbers of projects dotting less-populated areas of Lospalos, district with the highest Palm Tree Index. (For the record Lospalos is not any poorer than other parts of the country, nor was it disprortionately wrecked in 1999.)

There are other local factors that define where the BINGOs put their money and people. If I were to do statistical analysis, I would figure in social factors including something to capture the “entrepreneurial spirit” of local people, and their friendliness to outsiders. Any oral history of Lospalos, our palm-treed, INGO-favorite district, would show that people have been constantly invaded there for the past 150 years (at least) by outsiders, so they have probably learned to make the best of this. (So, friends from Lospalos, take this as a compliment!)

I also believe that the Palm Tree Index affects the way donor countries treat recipient governments – or “relations between development partners” – but I will leave that for another tirade.