Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Activism and Aid launch speech

By Pat Walsh, Human Rights Advocate and author, AM, OTL
Victoria University Library, 300 Flinders Street, Melbourne
 6.30-8pm 17 March 2016

Pat WalshFirst of all I’d like to thank Ann for kindly inviting me to launch her book. We’ve been in touch over the years but the last time we collaborated on a major project like this was 1999 when we represented Australian civil society on Australia’s official delegation to observe the 30 August Popular Consultation in Timor.

Ann modestly does not mention this singular honour in Activism and Aid but it’s worth noting because, apart from the thrill and importance of the occasion, it fits with the book’s principal thesis which is that participation or active citizenship is the key to authentic and effective development. What we witnessed that historic day was a people exercising self-determination, deciding its own path for itself not, after 500 years of colonialism, having that path decided by someone else, and with the international community both respecting and facilitating the exercise of that right. It was or should have been the template for everything that was to follow.

The official delegation was led by then Deputy PM Tim Fischer, resplendent in stockman’s hat. Tim used to disappear in the evening to, as we learned later, write up notes that became his little book Seven Days in Timor. We stayed at the famous Turismo, now the Novo Turismo, and I recall fetching Tim to the phone to wish parabens late on 30 August to Xanana Gusmao whose number I’d managed to track down in Jakarta.

Others in the delegation included Laurie Brereton, the shadow Labour Foreign Minister, whom I recall presenting a box of Cuban cigars and several bottles of revolutionary red vinho to Comandante Ular at his cantonment base in the mountains; also Senator Marise Payne, now Minister for Defence, and, most surprising of all, Ann and me, representing ACFOA.

Why surprising? Because Australian civil society and ACFOA had been at loggerheads with successive Australian governments over Timor policy for more than 20 years but here we were now, not only on the same page, but fellow-travellers.  It was also a bit embarrassing because we flew in then Prime Minister John Howard’s jet and in considerable comfort and style while all the other Australian observers had to make their own way to Dili.

I’d like to congratulate Ann on the achievement this book represents. Producing a book is no small thing. Talking words that blow away in the wind is easy and you can always say I didn’t say that or what I meant was. Writing down what you want to say and publishing it takes courage and self-confidence because there’s no way back once its on the record and your words stand alone and are out there to be praised, scorned or, even worse, ignored! Even JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, admitted on ABC recently that she is thin-skinned and always nervous about the critics and the reception her books are going to get. So congratulations Ann for having the courage to share your experience, knowledge and insights, of which there are many as I will point out a bit later.

Writing a book like Activism and Aid also involves an enormous amount of research. I am in awe at the amount of territory Ann has covered – history, anthropology (lisan, marriage custom), issues (domestic violence, decentralization, gender, Timor gap), economics, Timorese politics and personalities, development literature etc, and the numerous published sources read and quoted. Finding and reading them then deciding which ones and what to quote is a big task that at times can drive a writer to drink. Activism and Aid is, however, a sober book. 

Activism and AidLastly, doing a book involves good writing. Activism and Aid is clearly and compactly written. As someone associated with a 3200 page report, I am very impressed that Ann has been able to get it all into a neat and portable 150 pages, and that she has avoided trying to impress us with the esoteric terminology beloved of many academics and PhD scholars. Activism and Aid is very readable. I would add that I think it is a very handy reference and update on a number of perennial issues that continue to be raised whenever Timor comes up. These include Ann’s account of Timor-Leste’s choice of Portuguese as its leading official language (chap 6 Language identity and education for development), her wrap up on domestic violence (pp. 118-121 in the chapter on Participation in governance and local development), her summary of the Timor Sea resources issue (pp. 53-55 chap on building a state and nation), and especially her account of the 2006-2008 crisis (chap 5 Youth, conflict and urbanization). The explanation of those issues alone makes the book well worth purchasing, even though, as a Darebin City rate payer and supporter of Baucau, I must register my objection to the none-too-subtle promotion of the City of Port Phillip on p. 126 where a handsome young Timorese is shown wearing a t-shirt with the City of Port Phillip logo displayed on his left pectoral.

Let me now turn to some of the insights in the book that caught my attention.

The title of the book is Activism and Aid: Young Citizens Experiences of Development and Democracy in Timor-Leste. A key word there is citizens. Ann has chosen it deliberately. For us or donors to see the Timorese as citizens and for them to see themselves as citizens represents a massively important paradigm shift. They are no longer subjects – of feudal liurai, Portugal, Indonesia, the UN, the Catholic church, political parties or any other totalitarian institution, but citizens. Timor might be poor and small but its people have a new status as citizens in their own country. To be seen and to see yourself as a citizen is to up-end the relationship between ruler and ruled embedded over centuries by transferring power to the people. Ann spells out what this means in her section on understanding civil society, pp. 31-34.

This principle was brought home to me in a simple way the day I went for my UN driving licence in Dili. Four of us were tested in a big Land Cruiser. We took it in turns and had to demonstrate that not only were we mechanically competent but socially responsible. The UN instructor, an Egyptian, failed two of the candidates because they did not take enough care around Timorese civilians. ‘I don’t care if they walk across the road in front of you without notice’, he yelled. ‘We are guests in their country. They make the rules not us. We have to respect how they do things’.

A related insight is chapter 2 entitled A new invasion. On page 43, Ann writes: ‘when the international aid community arrived in Timor-Leste they replaced and displaced Timorese decision making’. In other words, during this malae period, as Ann refers to it at one point, the Timorese were not treated as citizens who had just exercised their right to self-determination.

Given Timor’s history, one might question calling it an invasion, but the point is clear.  Timor had had a similar experience in the late 70s in response to the famine when CRS in particular, a church agency, offended local sensibilities by ignoring their partners and acting like a US government corporation. The justification used by CRS was similar to that advanced by agencies in 1999, namely that a large scale emergency demands a large and rapid response. Maybe that was true in 1999 but it aggrieved the Timorese and set a pattern. I recall Xanana telling me in December 1999 how deeply unhappy he was that the international humanitarian agencies were ‘doing it all’ separate from the East Timorese who were left as observers on the sidelines. In a piece I wrote at the time I commented that the international community knew all the dance steps but couldn’t hear the music - the music being that Timor-Leste’s struggle had all been about self-determination and independence, a point that Ann emphasizes by quoting verse by Filomena dos Reis called a Long Journey to Independence at the very start of her book. Managing the relationship between the international community and Timor-Leste has been a recurring tension ever since with Xanana in particular more often than not taking a nationalist line in favour of Timor’s perceived national interest, on issues such as, for example, justice for past crimes. 

This leads me to another important point Ann makes. On p. 136 she writes “In order to promote ‘development’ international agencies must know the history”.  She quotes Sergio Vieira de Mello saying the UN ‘was starting from scratch’ in Timor. We know what he meant in terms of institution building etc but any suggestion in the comment that Timor was a ‘tabula rasa’, that the Timorese had nothing to contribute and that the international community had all the answers, is, as Ann emphasizes repeatedly, bad development thinking.

Development is about adding value to existing assets. In a particularly striking paragraph on p. 7. Ann writes: “Where development interventions are devised and brought in from outside without due consideration for local views, they sit alongside existing forms, rather than nurturing and developing existing knowledge and resources. ‘Development’ in Portuguese desenvolvimento and Tetum dezenvolvimentu means unravelling, opening the potential like a bud unfurling into a flower in full bloom….. in practice, a limited understanding and acceptance of the pre-existing culture… can result in development outcomes that fail to realize the potential that would be available if working in harmony with the existing cultural landscape”. 

Timor’s history, including the large footprint left by Indonesia on Timorese mindsets, not just by its military but in terms of the Soeharto era model of development, public service and education (‘banking education’ to use Paulo Freire’s term quoted by Ann on p. 108), is an integral part of this pre-existing landscape that development practice must understand and take into account. And further back in Timor’s cultural landscape and history are the pre-colonial elements of Timorese identity that, as Ann points out, young Timorese are increasingly interested in as they search for authenticity. My favourite quote in Activism and Aid is the gerasaun foun Timorese who says (p. 122): ‘Timor-Leste needs to bring back the tradition and culture of respect for nature and respect for each other. Otherwise we are flying in the air but never landing. We need to revitalize local knowledge not just depend on the outside world’.

Many more thought-provoking insights caught my attention. Let me briefly mention the following:

  • On Apodeti, the much maligned historic pro-Indonesia party. ‘The Apodeti party had a small following of people that favoured local autonomy under Indonesian rule. According to Molnar, this party was led by the liurai of Atsabe, whose kingdom extended beyond both sides of the Timorese border and who sought unification of his people’. (13)
  • On language: ‘the young tend to see language exclusively as a practical tool’ (98) Youth struggling with Portuguese are laughed at by the older generation when they speak badly. (98). ‘Tetun, although an official language, is treated as a poor relation to the ‘superior’ Portuguese language’. (101)
  • On the challenges to agriculture: subsistence agriculture ‘is of little interest to economists because of its limited contribution to the market economy’  (110)  Young educated Timorese ‘are not interested in agriculture’ (108). Agriculture, one might say, is infra-dig!
  • On civil society: ‘a strong civil society is an essential component of nation building’ (131) but ‘Timorese civil society is struggling from limited support’. I recently heard Fidelis Magalhaes make the same point at the European launch of the English Chega! report in Oslo. One might add that something of a power struggle between the 1975 generation and the gerasaun foun is playing out in Timorese politics as we speak.

I hope I’ve done enough to whet your appetite. The sign of a good meal or performance is when the patrons ask for more!  Though it’s outside the scope of Activism and Aid which focuses on the third or community sector, what I’d like to see more of is a critical account of the private sector and the contribution its making, for better or for worse, to development in Timor-Leste. I feel it’s the forgotten sector, overlooked by the UN, NGOs, donors, academics and the media although it is arguably an expression of economic self-determination or external intervention like foreign aid that is critical to the future of Timor-Leste and its youth as the country heads into the deeply worrying post-oil future.

In conclusion, I hope that Activism and Aid is launched and made the subject of a solid seminar in Dili for donors, UN agencies, consultants and government. I also hope that it will be translated into Tetum and published in Timor-Leste so that the wider Timorese community can access its important insights and recommendations.

Congratulations Ann. I now declare Activism and Aid launched and urge you all to buy and study it.

Pat Walsh,
Human Rights Advocate and author, AM, OTL