Growing Pains or Worse?

Local business on the beach front in Dili

I have been interested in development issues ever since high school. A huge book for me was The Ugly American. I went off to Northwestern University in 1968 with the idea of entering the Foreign Service. I was determined to change the way that the US related to the rest of the world. That dream didn’t happen, but the idealistic impulse and strong interest have remained.

One of many vendors along the road to school. Most are more upscale, sporting a bamboo structure and table. The produce is sold by the "pile", usually 50 cents or a dollar. Looking them over by handling them is frowned upon. Bad tomatoes are positioned to hide their defects.

Timor is an amazing place to work if you are interested in development, because there is so much of it going on. The world’s heart was captured by the Timorese struggle for independence. In its aftermath nearly $8 billion in aid has been spent in a country with one million people. Rory and I joke that there is more development per capita here than anywhere else in the world. We were told by somebody in a position to know that there are over 400 NGOs! A local study stated that much of that money has been spent on the salaries of relatively short-term consultants. Unfortunately, from our vantage point, though done with good intentions, much of the spending appears to be ineffectual. It hasn’t accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. Development is complicated, as they say.

Our Turkish baker hard at work. Great artisan whole wheat bread is available Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays

Among the complications is systemic corruption. Among Asian countries Timor was ranked as one of the worst. Even the prime minister has been implicated, to no effect. To be fair, it is a major fact of life in many other places and seems to haunt all nation-building efforts. We hear about it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though money is not the primary cause, it is certainly fuel thrown on the fire. In Timor’s case, besides the international aid, there is oil money. This tap, comprising 95% of the government’s budget, was opened up further this summer in an effort to make more of a difference. One difficulty is that there just isn’t the capacity to handle all of those dollars. Institutionally, these are relatively huge contracts that need to be awarded, monitored, and enforced competently and justly. Transparent, above-board government just isn’t happening.

Selling coral like this is prohibited. We wondered who would buy it. It gives you something of an idea of what we see when we snorkel.

Another glaring need for which there is no easy solution is the lack of technical and production capacity. Our friend, Andrew, explained the exorbitant costs of road-building by pointing to the fact that there were only one or two contractors capable of doing the job. China solves this lack of local talent by importing Chinese workers to build the several major buildings they have given to Timor. Needless to say, this fact is not lost on young male Timorese, 40% of whom are unemployed. President Ramos-Horta wants a natural gas processing facility built on the south coast. Very few of those jobs could be done by Timorese. As with other projects, they would be given to foreigners brought in to do the work.

The soy sauce section at Kmanek, the most together grocery that caters to the ethnic Chinese

If you don't buy fresh fish on the beach, you go to Kmanek and buy them like this: frozen and whole.

More from Kmanek.

Another complication is the tension between the values and structures of traditional culture and the requirements of a modern economy. This is clearly seen in the form of nepotism and tribalism. The lack of competence due to nepotism is a common theme in stories we are told about the bureaucracy. It isn’t that there are no qualified people for these positions. The related issue of tribalism was the underlying cause of the trauma of 2006-2008 in which dozens of people died and 150,000 were displaced. One of Rory’s top students told her about “failing” a university entrance exam because he was not part of the “in” group. I wondered if it was just sour grapes, but the details about the incident were suspicious and ominous. The pervasive cultural assumption here is that one’s connections are more important than competence and performance. This attitude is frustratingly obvious in our students and is a fact of life that they must face as they make their way.

Rory with her Saturday hiking buddies. They often begin at first light to avoid the sun.

A final pressure that I will mention is the heightened expectation following independence. Here in Dili the hopeful signs of growth and building are everywhere. The reclaiming of burned out homes has extended even into our neighborhood. Mobile phones are common, a problem in our classrooms. Relatively rich high schoolers with motorcycles make the school road quite dangerous. Western fashion has made inroads with the girls. The first mall is nearly complete. This apparent prosperity is just a thin veneer, unfortunately. The reality is that the critical needs of nutrition and food security, adequate health care, competent education, and lack of water, electricity, and roads, especially in the districts, have not been addressed. We think that the real ticking time bomb is the high level of youth unemployment. We have been told that as long as the UN and the Australians are here, the earlier violence will not be repeated. That is hardly reassuring for the healthy long-term development of Timor.

An ant colony. The dark patches on the tree, including the trails, are the structure that they built.

Timor recently attracted attention with a reported 10% growth in GDP, one of the best in Asia. I am unmoved. We know too much. There is much more to the story. I firmly believe that a nation’s health and prospects are not adequately represented by growth rates and economic data. [posted by David]

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