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.


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