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DEVELOPMENT: East Timor, Fragile States Compare Notes on Aid

Matt Crook

DILI, Apr 2 2010 (IPS) - When the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations hold meetings, the first thing many people think of is protests. But when the g7 – with a lowercase G – get together for their first meeting in East Timor next week, it could revolutionise how donor countries give assistance to fragile states.

It will be a big week for East Timor. On Apr. 7, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is set to unveil his government’s draft Strategic Development Plan for the next 20 years.

The next day, the g7 of fragile states — East Timor, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and Ivory Coast — will meet in Dili to pool their experiences of peacebuilding and statebuilding.

Then, the East Timorese capital of Dili will host the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding on Apr. 9 and 10, which will give those g7 countries centre stage to tell more than 100 delegates from around the world how the relationship between developing countries and fragile states could be bolstered.

“We would like to work harder, work better and have a good coordination with development partners in East Timor so that what they have promised — in particular ownership, alignment, harmonisation, managing for results and mutual accountability at the country level — can be improved,” Helder da Costa, the national coordinator of fragile states initiatives from the finance ministry’s Aid Effectiveness Directorate, said in an interview with IPS.

The dialogue will produce a Dili Declaration, which organisers hope will influence future discussions on peacebuilding and statebuilding.

“The first high-level forum was held in Rome in 2003 where it called for better aid coordination, and also it stems back to the historical background when in 1944 after the Second World War, aid was starting to flow in,” De Costa added.

“The theme right now is how we can use aid to reduce poverty,” he said.

The second high-level forum, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, took place in Paris in 2005, while the third, the Accra Agenda for Action, was held in Accra, Ghana, in 2008. The fourth is to be held Seoul, South Korea next year.

East Timor has only been formally independent since 2002, after emerging from a bloody 24-year occupation by the Indonesian military. Development aid continues to pour into the country, but civil society, the government and donors have typically had different ideas for how that assistance should be best used.

Members of civil society in East Timor will be watching closely to see what the results of next week’s meetings will be.

“About nation-building and peacebuilding — this is the role of the government, not the role of the donors,” said Dinorah Granadeiro, the director of the East Timor NGO Forum, known by its local acronym FONGTIL.

“Yes, we need help from outside, but the government should make the decisions for this, not from the outside. We have a country, that’s why we have a government,” Granadeiro added. “We have a strong government to make decisions, but we need consultation from other countries or other donors.”

Granadeiro says that what East Timor needs most of all from donors now is support in establishing a strong justice sector and weeding out corruption — two of the country’s national priorities for 2010.

Rebecca Engel, associate research scholar with Columbia University’s Centre for International Conflict Resolution, said: “There are many indications that approaches to development have improved over the past decade. At the same time there remain significant obstacles given limited funding and limited timeframes designated to achieve desired results.”

“There is a need for more strategic thinking with regard to how international support can be more coherent and relevant to national actors,” she added.

This is where the International Dialogue comes in. Since 1999 when the East Timorese voted for independence, more than 8.8 billion U.S. dollars in aid funds has been allocated to the country, but unemployment remains high at up to 50 percent in rural areas and 20 percent in urban ones. Half the population is illiterate and infrastructure is in tatters.

Poverty actually rose 14 percent between 2001 and 2007, according to the government. Engel says that looking at aid as one big donation does not get to bottom of what has actually been happening in this country of over one million people.

“There are so many different types of aid. Making broad generalisations about how aid is spent is not particularly useful and does not help the international community to differentiate between positive and negative aspects of assistance,” said Engel.

“There is quite a lot that we as an international community can do to better understand local contexts and analyse the impact of aid,” she added.

One person who is convinced that all aid money could have been put to better use is President Jose Ramos-Horta, who has said that poverty “would have been all but eliminated” if more aid funds had filtered down into the economy.

During a state visit to Ireland recently, Ramos-Horta unleashed a tirade against donors for wasting money and said that one of the lessons East Timor has learned is that peace “has to come from within”.

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