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Timor: From "Scorched Earth Operation" to "Humanitarian Operation"

Note: The Dili-based Yayasan HAK (Human Rights Foundation) is the main East Timorese human rights organization
(A note on the conduct of international NGOs and UN institutions in post-referendum Timor Lorosa'e)

"Here there is no luxurious house, bar to drink beer, discotheque, how can humanitarian workers want to stay here", an indigenous leader said when he was asked for his comments about the lack of health services by international NGOs and UN institutions in sub-district Alas, Same.

"Do you have an identity card? Does your institution have any experience in distributing food materials in this area?" This was the question asked by WFP (World Food Program) staff when a local/national NGO which has operated for a long time in Timor Lorosa'e saw him in his office to arrange coordination for distributing food in Baucau, Timor Lorosa'e.

I. Introduction

The Scorched Earth operation in Timor Lorosa'e by the pro-integration militia and Indonesian military caused extraordinary damage. Lives and property were lost as a result of that operation. From the international political perspective, it can be said that the UN representative office in the area at that time was slow in taking action. As a result of the "ignorance politics" of the international community (UNAMET and UN in particular), the militia and the Indonesian military freely launched their operation after the announcement of the result of the ballot on September 4, 1999. After becoming the victim of this scorched-earth operation, now Timor Lorosa'e faces a new operation, i.e. "humanitarian operation".

The destruction of Timor Lorosa'e after the referendum has created new problems. Even though it has to be admitted that Timor Lorosa'e was able to drive away Indonesian military, it appears that the destruction was meant to open a road for several groups to launch another "operation" in Timor Lorosa'e. Under the facade of humanitarian aid, various international NGOs as well as intergovernmental institutions are competing to carry out their programs in this burned-down country.

The flood of humanitarian aid through different NGOs and intergovernmental agencies in Timor Lorosa'e does not necessarily end the chain of misery of the East Timorese. On the contrary, it appears like it will become a new chain which will tie the East Timorese to external dependence in perpetuity.

The number of international NGO operating in Timor Lorosa'e has reached about thirty. There are also a number of intergovernmental agencies, such as UNHCR, UNICEF, UNESCO, FAO, and WFP. While the local NGOs are only about 20. These humanitarian organizations have come with all sorts of programs, like food distribution, health service, shelter, refugee service, distribution of seeds and many others.

It is interesting to examine how these international organizations have coped with the crisis in Timor Lorosa'e. Before we discuss the various problems faced by the NGOs and intergovernmental agencies in carrying out the humanitarian operation, we will first discuss the politics of humanitarian aid.

II. Politics of Humanitarian Aid

History notes that there has been enormous amount of humanitarian aid given to African countries. Whenever there is an upheaval, as a result of internal or external politics, various groups, international NGOs and UN agencies, each with its own method, entered the conflict under the name of humanitarian aid. Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, Somalia, and many other countries in that continent have become a frequent recipients of a "humanitarian operation." Despite the abundance of aid, the mortality rate in the region due to starvation and disease has not decreased; it has actually increased.

We can identify several specific problems that arise when humanitarian aid is distributed through international NGOs as well as through UN agencies. The source of the problems are as follows :

First, the problem of transparency in financial matters. In executing their programs, most international NGOs make use of funds supposedly given to the government of the country suffering from the catastrophe. For instance, in 1989 Mozambique suffered from serious conflict which led to starvation. International NGOs and UN agencies began to enter the conflict area and address the problem. Apparently, the largest single source of funding for this operation was taken from the aid/grant given to the government of Mozambique.

Second, the problem of dependence. Bangladesh is an excellent case study of the effects of humanitarian operations organized by international NGOs and UN agencies on the country's self-sufficiency. For some time, the society was flooded by humanitarian relief so that when the aid stopped, the society was shocked and was not ready for self-sufficiency. Besides, such an operation often times marginalizes people in the remote areas due to the ineffective mechanism of distribution. The aid, on the contrary, enriches certain groups of people in either urban or suburban areas, and make the poor become dependent on the nouveau riche.

Third, problem of lack of coordination. Many international NGOs and UN agencies conduct their operation in different places with a minimal coordination with local organizations. As a result, local/national NGOs or other potential groups within the society become "second class" people. Even worse, in order to carry out their programs, the local NGOs have to beg from the international NGOs or UN agencies to get their share of the aid granted to the local government for handling the catastrophe in their own country. At this point it seems like the governments which pledge their support or international donor agencies are more interested in contracting the humanitarian work to international NGOs, especially those which have special connection with the UN as well as various UN agencies themselves. Thus, the aid or grant promised to the local government in turn is mostly spent by institutions outside the country which suffers the catastrophe. It is often the case that the donor country even looks to the international NGO itself to carry out the humanitarian operation and design the blueprint of the program. Therefore, international NGOs and UN agencies involved in humanitarian relief works are often defined as Private Voluntary Organization (PVO). As Joseph Hanlon observes in Mozambique, many international NGOs, such as World Vision or Care International, act more like big enterprises or transnational corporations that have branches in different countries. As such, the interest of these NGOs are disbursal of money, distribution of food, and emergency aid. For the overhead cost of the institutions, they can either receive interest from the aid/grant aside from their own fundraising effort. Without consulting local/national NGOs, these multinational institutions design and attempt to launch colossal projects, but these might not be the priority of the target groups they think they would help.

Fourth, the problem of "hidden message." Many big international NGOs have a hidden agenda to send to the target groups in the countries facing problems. For instance, World Vision, when operating in Mozambique, was part of the US government effort to sabotage the FRELIMO government. It is an evangelical, anti-Communist organization that was opposed to the socialist government and in favor of the bandits and terrorists of Renamo. It openly stated that Renamo should seize power from the government. World Vision also has close relationship with repressive military regimes in Central America. Another example is the work of Care International, especially Care USA, which assisted the US government gather intelligence in Mozambique during the 80s. In some cases these international NGOs have more complete information about the society than the local groups, even the government of the country where they work. This information is first shared with the US government as the donor country, instead of the local organizations or governments.

II. The Case of Timor Lorosa'e

How have international NGOs and UN agencies operated in Timor Lorosa'e after the Indonesian military left the area? As it was mentioned before, international NGOs and UN agencies swarmed into the area, operating from the capital city of Jakarta or Darwin, and attempted to reach the remotest areas in Timor Lorosa'e. They either worked to aid Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or provide general humanitarian assistance.

In order to understand the conduct of these international organizations or institutions in Timor Lorosa'e several factors need to be considered :

1. Misleading Perspective

Misleading perspective is the fundamental problem of all humanitarian operation of the international NGOs in Timor Lorosa'e. These institutions perceive that the East Timorese at this moment "need food," so all they have to do is just provide them with food. They have an assumption that the East Timorese are not able to organize themselves to overcome the emergency situation and they need "help" to get the food. With such a perspective all they care about is dumping food in an area. The East Timorese now are good at inquiring "when is the rice going to be distributed?" instead of "when are we going to be able to produce our own rice or corn?" Aside from the misleading assumptions on providing aid, there is also a degrading perspective about the East Timorese in general. In their eyes, the East Timorese are only capable of menial work. Therefore, in these organizations East Timorese are purely treated as wage workers and there is no attempt to transfer the knowledge or technology to the local people. The use of "local" in this humanitarian operation is limited to the hiring wage workers (about whom more will be said below). There is no partnership and no cooperation between the international agencies and the East Timorese; the latter are viewed only as passive recipients of the activity of the former.

2. Lack of Communication with East Timorese

It is bad enough for the international agencies to view East Timorese as passive recipients; it is even worse for them not to consider these passive recipients worthy of being told basic information of the aid they can expect to receive. Similar to experiences in other places, international NGOs and UN agencies involved in the humanitarian operation in Timor Lorosa'e tend to treat the local NGOs as second class people. A large part of the problem is that the international agencies simply do not communicate with the very people they are supposed to be helping.

One example occurred last year during the UNHCR/IOM repatriation program from Jakarta, Indonesia. On October 25, 1999 about three hundred East Timorese, some of whom had lived in Indonesia for years and some of whom were refugees who had fled the post-ballot violence, came to the Soekarno-Hatta Airport, Jakarta with all their cargo for repatriation to East Timor. After waiting for several hours, they heard from the UNHCR staff that the flight was canceled. No further information was provided as to why the flight was canceled and when the next flight would be. When the refugees asked the UNHCR staff about it, they said they did not know and suggested that the East Timorese get all their luggage and return to their original place. UNHCR did not appear to care that among the refugees there were people who had to hide and disguise themselves while they were in Jakarta to avoid being chased by pro-integration militia and the Indonesian military. The international staff simply did not bother to communicate with the refugees to figure out what to do. The flight was delayed for 24 hours and the refugees were left with nothing, not even food. UNHCR and IOM staff were not even present at the airport most of the time.

What happened in Jakarta was just a minor problem compared to the treatment of refugees within Timor Lorosa'e. After arriving in Dili, many of them were left without any information at the emergency shelter for a long periods of time. People were packed into the Don Bosco dormitory in Dili where the facilities, such as bathrooms and kitchens, were minimal. Some of the refugees were severely sick but they had to wait for days, sometimes weeks, to return to their original place. The only bit of information the refugees learned from the UNHCR was that the UNHCR would wait until the number of people from a particular zone reached 100 before transportation would be provided. "We can't go home because our total is less than one hundred people, that's UNHCR requirement," a refugee from Same told us when we saw her at the Don Bosco shelter.

Once the refugees were in East Timor and at Don Bosco, it was not clear whose responsibility they were. Apparently, other international NGOs besides the UNHCR were supposed to be responsible for health care but they provided very little. We went to visit Don Bosco shelter and one refugee from Ermera who suffered from malaria shared her story, "Four days ago they gave me six tablets, but after two days the medicine was gone and I haven't yet recovered". This is only one of many, many complaints we heard from the refugees who slept on a tarpaulin mat for a long time at Don Bosco dormitory in Dili.

Refugees in other places had a different story. On December 28, 1999 about 400 refugees from Atambua arrived in Beikala village, Hatudu sub-district, Ainaro district. They said that from Atambua they had been transferred to Suai district and had stayed there before leaving for Ainaro. They had been in Timor Lorosa'e for weeks but it seemed like there was no coordination between UNHCR and other international NGOs working for humanitarian relief. The UNHCR had dropped off the refugees in the village without making any arrangements with other organizations for the delivery of aid. The refugees had received a certain amount of rice when they were in Suai. But once they were taken to Beikala they only had about one to two kilograms of rice left for each person. They did not know where to go because all their houses were burned down. They also did not know where to get food. In Beikala itself there is no public shelter, because the only elementary school in the village was burned down. None of the international NGOs responsible for distributing food and providing shelter for the refugees were around Beikala. A CNRT local leader commented that probably the area was not a priority for the international institutions. Meanwhile the UNHCR made it sound like the repatriation was a great success even when the refugees were treated more like luggage. They dropped off the refugees and provided no explanation as to where they should stay if they do not have houses anymore and where to obtain food in the transition period. The refugees began to panic as the rainy season started.

A similar case happened to refugees from Lolotoe sub-district, Bobonaro district who returned from Atambua in November 1999. On November 26, 1999, because the road was damaged, UNHCR dropped off the some 300 refugees in the middle of the road in Tapo village, about 30 km before entering Lolotoe area. This was the second time they had been dropped off without explanation. Before that they had to wait in Maliana for several days. They were left with no food and none of the international NGOs accompanied these refugees. After waiting for several days and no action taken by UNHCR, finally the people from the village chartered a private car owned by the locals to carry the refugees to Lolotoe. It turned out that there was no problem with the road at all; their vehicle could pass through without any hassle. Each family of the refugees had to spent at least Rp. 500,000 to rent the cars.

Other case was the repatriation of the "Indonesian people" from West Timor to Kampung Alor area in Dili on January 1, 2000. Without consulting other parties, such as CNRT, churches, or UNTAET, UNHCR brought back the Indonesians who used to live in Timor Lorosa'e. They fled the area along with other refugees before the scorched earth operation. A youth in Kampung Alor said that repatriation of these Indonesian people took place at the wrong time. The East Timorese were anxiously waiting for their family members to come home, but what they saw was the return of unexpected "guests." The East Timorese were understandably in an emotional state. For them, most of these "guests" were the beneficiary of the "integration cake" during the occupation of the Indonesian military. The UNHCR did not realize that people actually began to suspect that the UNHCR had intentionally arranged the repatriation of the Indonesians in order to prolong the conflict within the East Timorese society. Such a careless action created new problems. Again, UNHCR behaved as if it was just transporting "units," lifeless bits of unthinking flesh.

3. Inadequate knowledge of East Timor's needs

Before the international agencies had stepped onto the island, they had already devised a six-month plan. They had not made any assessment about the real problems in the field. As a result, some of their programs have not been able to be implemented and some have been implemented in poor fashion.

There has been a lack of knowledge about the rice needs of the society. In some places refugees received rice several times. Meanwhile, in other places refugees or the local population did not receive rice at all. In Waitama village, Uatulari sub-district, Viqueque district, since December 1999, the local population has not received anything. According to them, they still have a small supply of rice, but it is insufficient and not all families have rice, only those who work in the ricefields. They complained that international NGOs do not seem to have comprehensive data about the local conditions. Just because some families have a supply of rice, the CNRT, international NGOs, and UN agencies assume that everybody has a sufficient supply of food. Besides, they also think that the people can fulfill other needs such as a medicine, toiletries, spices, and cooking oil. In reality, these are rare items in the villages.

In Atelari village, Baucau sub-district, Baguia sub-district where the population is mostly Moslem and Protestant, the people have not received any aid. This is because the distribution of rice was coordinated by WFP with Caritas International as the implementing partner. Caritas only gave aid to Catholic community groups in accordance with the data compiled by the Catholic church which understandably did not have data about the Moslems and Protestants. Besides the problem of unequal distribution of rice, the coordination with local leaders is also minimal; the CNRT leaders in various regions have complained about the unequal distribution of rice in their regions.

The distribution of corn seed for planting was done in a very careless manner. The seed was distributed when the planting season was largely over. So the people began to eat the seeds, not knowing that the seeds were covered with chemicals and were not meant as food. The sacks of seeds did have printing on the outside warning against ingestion of the seeds but the people were either illiterate or did not know the language of the warning. As a consequence, many people became sick.

Because the international agencies only had pre-packaged programs, they could not respond to what the people actually needed. For instance, in certain villages in Maliana and Baucau, the people cultivate rice, not corn. What they need is mechanical equipment to start working on the rice field. But none of the international NGOs and the UN agencies were geared to meet this need. The people of Maliana complained that there were neither tractors nor draft animals to work on the field, "Our oxen and water buffalo were either killed or taken away by the militia and Indonesian military," a farmer from Ritabou village, Maliana told us when we saw him in his house. It is ironic that there are so many vehicles being transported to Timor Lorosa'e for use by the international agencies -- some are even left unused in the warehouse. But there are no tractors which are crucial to East Timor's ability to overcome the food crisis.

Part of the reason the international agencies lack adequate knowledge of the society's needs is due to their lack of cooperation and coordination with local organizations. The international agencies have divided up East Timor between themselves; certain agencies are responsible for certain zones. They then expect East Timorese NGOs, who have always worked throughout the country, to follow the bureaucratic divisions they have set up. East Timorese NGOs are also supposed to restrict their work to particular zones. When a national NGO came to the WFP office to coordinate the distribution of rice, he was asked by the WFP official "What is the identity of your NGO? Does your institution have any experience in distributing rice in Baucau?" As if there were any NGOs in East Timor that had specialized in rice distribution in the one district of Baucau!

The international agencies running the rice distribution, WFP and World Vision, have set up a rigid bureaucracy that East Timorese NGOs and small foreign NGOs have had difficulty working through. Their proposals to distribute rice are not handled quickly. Usually, it is not even clear when the proposal might be processed. These unnecessary delays have led to prolonged waits by many communities for rice deliveries.

NGOs have continued distributing food in regions where villagers are engaged in cultivating crops instead of helping the ongoing production process. In Aileu the population wants to harvest their rice but none of the international agencies have any program to assist them. In Turiscai the population has saved a considerable amount of coffee, but due to the collapse of the distribution network and the lack of transportation, the people do not know where to sell the coffee. A similar problem occurred in Bubususu village, Manufahi district. According to the community leader there, about 40 tons of coffee are stored there but the community does not know how to market it. They raised the issue to the international NGO operating in the area and they were told that there is no program for marketing coffee for the time being.

International agencies are now in East Timor following their pre-packaged project proposals. They are not adapting their work to the particular needs of East Timorese society.

4. Dependency on foreign aid

Humanitarian aid has begun to engender a problem of dependency. This phenomena is not due to the aid itself, but the manner in which it has been distributed. The lack of aid for cultivating rice or selling coffee noted above has meant that villagers have not been able to provide food and income for themselves. Without the needed aid to do their own work, they are left dependent on rice deliveries.

The method of rice delivery has actually encouraged people not to work in the fields in the villages. Because of the unpredictability of supplies in the districts, people have decided to stay in Dili to obtain rice. Many people do not want to return to their villages to work in their farm where they would be able to contribute to East Timor's own food production.

In Liquiça, several fishermen groups tried to organize themselves into a cooperative. They submitted their proposal to a Japanese international NGO, Peace Winds, working in the area. These fishermen groups never got any response from Peace Winds. "Maybe fishermen affair is not part of their concern," they complained when we asked for comments. If the fishermen were aided to get new boats (to replace the ones destroyed), they would be able to earn income and would not be wholly dependent on food aid from WFP and World Vision. But the international agencies don't have any program for fishermen.

5. Lack of Transparency in Finances

Most people of Timor Lorosa'e do not know that the international NGOs and UN agencies are carrying out their operations by using the money pledged by the World Bank-led consortium. This is money meant for the interests of "the people of Timor Lorosa'e." Through an agreement between the World Bank and donor countries in Tokyo on December 16-17, 1999 a grant of US$ 520 million for three years has been pledged for Timor Lorosa'e. But there is no information about how this money is being spent and how much of this grant is going to fund the operations of the international NGOs and UN agencies. Meanwhile, these international NGOs and UN agencies act like "saviors" who have come by virtue of their own fundraising.

People have no idea where they money is coming from for these international agencies nor any idea about their budgets. One international agency, World Vision, told a group of East Timorese that it had no money to transport rice to their village but that the villagers could transport the rice themselves from the warehouse to their village. This was the experience of the community from Leorema village, Bazartete sub-district, Liquiça. World Vision claimed it did not have a vehicle. On January 6, 2000 the villagers, on their own, chartered four trucks for eight million rupiah (about $1,150) to get their share of rice from World Vision warehouse located in Liquiça city. Why is it that ordinary villagers were able to find four vehicles to rent while World Vision could not? And why is it that World Vision, in possession of far greater resources than such villagers (who used their last savings for the charter), could not afford the transportation?

We, like all East Timorese, are disturbed to see the way in which the international agencies are spending money. The cost of maintaining the foreign staff is obviously very high with cars, houses, hotel rooms (reportedly near $200 per night), imported food and beer, transportation in and out of the country. If the foreign staff consisted of a small core of necessary officials such expenses would be unobjectionable but the size of the staff appears terribly bloated. If the international agencies relied on more East Timorese staff they could save money, put earnings in the hands of East Timorese, and gain far more diligent and hard-working employees.

6. Mistreatment of Workers

As noted above, the local component to the international agencies consists only in the drivers, servants, cooks, and menial laborers they hire. Even in this aspect of relating to local East Timorese society, the international agencies have showed themselves to be incompetent. Again, a large part of the problem is the refusal of the international agencies to communicate with the workers, to summon the human decency to consider these workers as people who deserve explanations about the terms of their work. All the workers that we have spoken to have complained that they have not received explanations about their wages, working time, or any other aspect of their work. We find no reason to justify the kind of labor practices that the international agencies have followed even if the country is in a crisis period.

a. Use of day labor: The international agencies treat nearly all their warehouse workers as casual, day laborers. Workers are only told to report at a certain time in the morning. If there is work they will be called, if there is none, they will not be called. This means that if workers invest money in the transportation to get to and from the warehouse, there is no guarantee they will be hired for the day.

b. Late payment or no payment of wages: Some workers have worked for many days without receiving a wage. For instance, nine East Timorese working for the rice warehouse owned by WFP in Viqueque worked from October to December 1999 without receiving a wage. Each one of them only received three kilograms of rice as compensation for a month of work. Three other workers working in the WFP and Timor Aid warehouse in Betano, Same experienced similar ill-treatment. One said: "We just keep working. Once we asked about our wage, but that white boss told us to wait, the wage will be given after we work." These three workers only got three kilograms of rice whenever they unloaded rice from the ship and brought it to the warehouse. After two months, three of them received about one million rupiah. Workers in Liquiça have a similar experience. About 10 workers working in World Vision warehouse since the past two months have not received wage until the end of December 1999. According to our source of information, World Vision only paid their wage on January 14, 2000. During the time they worked, they only received 10 kgs. of rice per month. There is no contract between the workers and management of World Vision. Workers at the WFP warehouse in Vila Verde, Dili went on a hunger strike in the beginning of January, 2000 to demand a wage increase. They had been receiving only Rp. 20,000/day but they had to spend about Rp. 6000 to Rp. 7000 for transportation per day and at least Rp. 10.000 for one meal. By the end of the day the workers only had Rp. 2000-Rp. 3000 to bring home. Cooks working at the kitchen of public hospital in Viqueque have worked for weeks and they have not received any payment from MSF which is responsible for managing the hospital.

c. Physical Abuse: Workers at the WFP warehouse in Vila Verde, Dili have actually been physically abused. Some of them were beaten up by the chief of the warehouse, a foreign staff member of WFP, because they were late in coming to work.

d. Safety conditions at job site: Workers who work in the rice warehouses do not get necessary protection such as masks, gloves, boots, etc.

We find it shameful that an organization such as Worl