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Saturday, 2 October 2010

Q+A: EAST TIMOR'S PRESIDENT ON POVERTY, CORRUPTION AND FORGIVENESS


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REUTERS ALERTNET - By Thin Lei Win - 01 Oct 2010

DILI (AlertNet) - Eight years after East Timor became the world's newest nation, its president, Jose Ramos-Horta, faces many hurdles as he steers the tiny Southeast Asian country out of its violent and troubled path.

The country of 1 million people, which voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999, is still fragile. It is one of Asia's poorest nations despite being rich in energy resources such as natural gas.

There is no industry and the country's infrastructure is still in tatters after much of it was destroyed in a violent backlash to the 1999 vote by pro-Jakarta militias. Unemployment is high, many people do not have enough to eat and the government has been mired in graft accusations.

In an interview with AlertNet, Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his campaign against Indonesian rule, discusses the progress made and the challenges ahead.

Q: What has Timor-Leste achieved in the past eight years?

A: We have made tremendous progress. When I was back here (in 1999) after 24 years in exile, Dili reminded me of black and white pictures of Dresden after the allied bombing. It reminded me of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The country was thoroughly destroyed.

But the first victims are the people ... traumatised by generations of war and violence. There was no administration to speak of. No economy. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

That was only 10 years ago. We have made tremendous progress in healing the wounds of the people. You haven't seen, since 1999, a single person who in the past belonged the pro-Indonesia group that has been murdered for revenge. We still have thousands of Indonesians still living here.

We have made very strict separation about who is responsible and who is not. That, in itself, is the biggest progress for me. People can talk about GDP, per capita income and so on but the most important is healing the wounds, reconciling, and forgiving.

Besides this, the current statistics coming out end of October will show that in the past two or three years, poverty has been reduced by 9 percent. Infant mortality, child birth mortality had been reduced by 30 to 50 percent. We have expanded school feeding programme -- now every school in the country has a hot meal per child, and that means 400,000 kids.

We have not resolved all the problems. We still have rampant poverty. We still have a lot of illiteracy. But again, we are only 8 years old.

Q: How do you plan to tackle poverty, food problems and unemployment, which is often cited as being at 40 percent?

A: Unemployment now is no more than 11 percent, the data shows. Still high, but it has climbed down from a maximum of 20 percent before. It was never 40 or 50 or 90 percent. Many, many thousands of jobs are created by the government, through cash-for-work, investment in agriculture, infrastructure and what I have advocated, cash transfers to the poor.

My argument was very simple. That it is not moral to keep this money (royalties from oil and gas production amounting to $5 billion) stashed away in New York, in U.S. treasury bonds, while the dollar value is depreciating, while the American economy is sinking and our people are starving.

So, every elderly (person) in this country over the age 60 get a cash transfer of $30 per month.

(There's been) more investment in the agriculture sector -- food production went up 30 percent last year but in agriculture, you are dependent on God. If God miscalculates and sends more rain or less rain, no amount of investment you've made in agriculture can survive.

We've made more investment in health and in education, (but) we do not have enough classrooms and quality teachers. It is a monumental task. It is what you cannot explain away in sound bites or a one paragraph lead in a story.

Q: What's your response to allegations of corruption in the government?

A: I acknowledge and have spoken out about corruption, waste mismanagement but to say that this is a major stumbling block for the development of the country is a cliché.

If you go through the budget and implementation and the way our financial system is established, it's not that easy for people to get away with money. If money is not spent, it stays in the Treasury.

The problem with Timor-Leste is that we have a very weak delivery capacity -- there is plenty of money available for the Ministry of Infrastructure to build roads which are needed. But you have to have a very large, efficient, professional public works engineers, architects, planners and designers.

They don't have the staff. And how can you demand that they have the staff? This is an 8-year-old country.

Then we go back to the international community, who claimed to have spent so much money on capacity-building ... hundreds of millions of dollars. With that amount of money, either we are the most stupid people in the world, or they sent the most stupid people to teach us or worse, a combination of both.

Q: How much aid does Timor-Leste receive every year and how much stays in the country?

A: It is estimated that based on the nominal figures of the aid money - and I emphasise the nominal figures - Timor-Leste has the highest percentage in terms of per capita as recipient of aid money. Something like $200 per person as against something like $12 for Afghanistan for instance. So per capita-wise, Timor-Leste is the highest recipient and if this were to be translated into real money to help real poor people, Timor-Leste would today be like Abu Dhabi or Bahamas.

Generally, the estimate ranges from about 10 to 30 percent of the money allocated by donor countries end up in the recipient country. The worst is 10 percent, that might be an exaggeration but I would say 30 to 50 percent is what is spent in the country. Average you could say safely that 50 percent is used elsewhere, with consultants, their trips, report writings, studies - numerous studies they do. And that's not the complaint of Timor alone. It's a complaint from Afghanistan and many African countries. The critics have been there, many books have been written about it.

In the case of Timor-Leste, it is about 30 percent of the aid money that actually is used in East Timor.

Q: You've emphasised the need for reconciliation and have rejected calls for an international tribunal. What about justice for people who were killed in the struggle for independence?

A: I talk from personal experience. My family lost 3 brothers and one sister. Only a few weeks ago, I went to a remote area of Timor-Leste, following the lead of some local people, to try to identify where my brother had been shot in cold blood by Indonesian troops. We still haven't found it.

So I know what it is. I'm not part of the international NGO community that talk about justice out of Washington and London without themselves ever experiencing such tragedy.

To follow the jargon of the U.N. and Amnesty International that we have to prosecute those responsible, I ask, why the U.N. hasn't done that? It was the U.N. who was running Timor from 1999 to 2002. Why didn't they set up an international tribunal?

At the time they never once talked about it. The moment they packed and leave and dumped the responsibility on the East Timorese they start talking about justice and international tribunal.

Q: Where would you like to see Timor-Leste in 10 years?

A: I'd like to see peace further consolidated. We are already at peace but not consolidated. Institutions are still weak, like the army and the police.

We must spend more on the poor, to feed them; on the youth, to educate them, give them a chance that they haven't had up to now; to invest more in agriculture so the country is completely independent.

In 10 years, you will see illiteracy eliminated, extreme poverty ended, every village in Timor with electricity, either from the grid or solar or wind or other renewable (sources). It's not unrealistic. We have funding and we have very creative, resilient people.

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