Billions in aid brought East Timor little

Posted in Other | 31-May-06 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Australian peacekeeping soldiers stood guard Tuesday at a food distribution point in Dili, East Timor.
DILI, East Timor In their hand-to- mouth existence from a sack of rice, and nightly sleep snatched in a windowless abandoned building, Antonio Almeida, Lucia Morut and their seven children personify the poverty in what was supposed to be the world's model new nation.

They have always been poor, but in virtually every way, the couple says life has gotten worse since billions of dollars of assistance and thousands of aid workers were dispatched to launch East Timor out of the ashes of two decades of occupation by Indonesia and four centuries of colonial rule by Portugal.

"We thought we would be better off, now this is what we have," Almeida, 42, said of life in the four years since independence as he sat in the derelict compound, bouncing his baby twins on his knees.

An insurrection in East Timor's security forces and gang warfare in the streets of the capital sent families, terrified they would be targeted and their homes burned, to makeshift shelters around the city in the past 10 days.

As food and fuel ran low, many of the people said they had lost confidence in the rulers who had fought for independence and then promised a glorious new world on the back of outside financial assistance and advice.

In the early going, some of the best brains at the United Nations and World Bank were sent to set up the government, the army and the police force, as well as economic structures and education and health programs.

From 1999 to 2002, when the United Nations administered East Timor, Sergio de Mello, a UN official who was later killed in Iraq, served as a kind of pro-consul, lending panache and enthusiastic support for the ambitious nation-building project.

It has not worked out as many envisioned. Seven years later, the United Nations and the World Bank acknowledge in recent studies, the people of East Timor are poorer. An economic uptick during the three years of UN rule collapsed after many of the foreign advisers left.

Little headway has been made in improving basic services, the reports say. More children go to school but only 30 percent make it to secondary school.

Very few of the 10,000 students who finish school each year find jobs, leaving an angry group of hardcore unemployed male teenagers who have formed the gangs.

Most adults work the land, which, unlike other countries in the region, is arid with poor soil. Gifts of tractors lie broken and disused because of a lack of fuel and poor maintenance.

Complicating the picture, in a wave of post-independence exuberance, more babies were born than before, boosting the population to nearly one million and giving the women of East Timor the highest fertility rate in the world - 7.8 children per woman.

In a recent assessment, the U.S. Agency for International Development noted that the population was 98 percent Roman Catholic "with far higher rates of regular religious observance than many other countries with nominally Catholic majorities."

The agency said that foreign aid for East Timor had not helped check the child mortality rate - among the highest in the world - because little provision was made for free community based health services.

On the upside, East Timor possesses considerable oil and gas deposits. But that industry does not create many jobs, and the revenues, now growing faster than expected because of high oil prices, are yet to be felt by people like Almeida and his wife.

Almeida's story is not uncommon. A driver, he is illiterate and cannot find a full-time job because he is unable to fill out log books or present a résumé, requirements for getting decent work in the capital since the UN came.

As an office manager, Morut holds what is considered a good job: She is paid $150 a month, earning far more than the average income of $370 a year. But that salary is less than the $200 a month she earned when she cleaned the home of an expatriate family. Like many of the foreign aid workers, the family left after East Timor gained independence in 2002.

Morut saved enough from her cleaning to build the family a two-room tin roofed, concrete house where they have lived for the past two years. The family has a television and she carries a cellphone.

Like many East Timorese couples they now have more children: Four of their seven children were born in the last four years; the twins, Deolinda and Deomizia, arrived 10 months ago.

The couple said life was better during the Indonesian occupation, even though the period has been documented by human rights organizations as being particularly brutal, with widespread killings.

"It was easier to get things in those days. Now there are many unemployed, and many people have come to Dili," Morut said. "It's difficult for my husband to get a job. The government just promises but does nothing. They say: 'We will do this.' But they don't."

The World Bank warned last year that the government was high-handed in its attitude to the people, ignored the "lack of professionalism and experience" in the security forces and adopted a "statist style."

Prime Minister Mari Alkateri, now at the center of a power struggle with President Xanana Gusmão, spent many years in exile in Mozambique when a leftist government was in power.

After returning home, he has favored state ownership over private enterprise. In a simple example, the fee for registering a business is more than the annual $370 per capita income.

Below the ministers, the country lacked people with enough experience to fill essential jobs to run things on a day-to-day basis, said Sidonio Freitas, a senior manager at the Timor Sea Designated Authority, who was educated overseas.

"We have ministers but no middle managers," Freitas said. A good deal of the responsibility for the nation's mess lies with the foreign donors, he said.

More than half the foreign assistance was spent on salaries and consultancy fees for the foreign advisers, the East Timorese government asserts.

In essence, Freitas said, the foreigners were too impatient. They came, spread their money around and left. "They all had a time frame - one year, two years, four years," he said. "You can't build a country from nothing in that amount of time."