Does Timor-Leste REALLY need foreign advisors?

On November 28th 2019 East Timor will celebrate it's 44th anniversary of Independence. On November 28th 2019 East Timor will celebrate it's 44th anniversary of Independence. Foto File Tempo Timor

By José Belo, editor in chief of Tempo Timor

 If Timor-Leste won its amazing struggle for independence against all odds without foreign advisors BUT based on a well-planned and well-executed strategy, could it be that Timor-Leste can also successfully develop as a nation without unnecessary influence from foreign advisors? After all, many of the same brilliant leaders who strategized and worked together to win independence are all still alive. If anything, these same leaders are even more brilliant today after many more years of experience in trying to build the State. This article is meant to provoke further thought along these lines.

In the last two weeks the fact that the government has 1,014 advisors on its payroll has become a major issue. The prime minister, the president of the parliament, ministers, members of parliament and academics have voiced their views on this matter.

Although the opinions have varied, the common thread in all these opinions is that Timor-Leste is indeed currently relying on advisors and a 5-10-year plan needs to be put into place to decrease this dependency.

There are various groups that fall under this big category of Technical Assistance or know as ‘advisors’. In order to be objective, the various groups need to be considered separately in terms of whether they are really needed and how to objectively decrease the dependency on them. There are the foreign doctors and teachers. There are the national advisors and of course the foreign advisors. This article will only explore the issue of dependency on these foreign advisors.

The foreign advisors are usually technical or legal advisors. This group consists of very highly paid foreigners who provide high level legal and technical advice to the prime minister, ministers, parliament, courts and other government linked institutions. Some media outlets have stated that the salaries of this group of advisors usually exceed US$10,000 per month.

Most of these foreign advisors are Portuguese or Portuguese speaking advisors from other CPLP (Comunidade Pais Lingua Portugese) countries. The prevailing view is that they are needed because Portuguese is the national language of Timor-Leste, while there are very few Timorese who are fluent enough in Portuguese to draft laws and other important official documents in Portuguese. It has also been put forward that Tetun is not rich enough in its vocabulary to be used for highly legal and technical documents.

On top of this, the majority of the ministers and parliamentarians themselves are not very fluent in Portuguese. This then creates the foothold for these Portuguese advisors to have deep influence in the executive and legal branches of the government as the authorities need to entrust high level and highly sensitive documents to these advisors. This presents a whole new set of potential problems for the State.

For one, Timor-Leste was already a victim of foreign intelligence operating in the highest government levels in the early years of independence during the negotiation of the maritime boundary with Australia. Employing foreign advisors could potentially be an easy open door for foreign intelligence to operate within very high levels of government.

Secondly, it is difficult to ascertain the actual quality or competence of these advisors. Many of them are introduced into the system through recommendations by other advisors who are already present or through their CV’s. Very few have actual experience and qualifications in helping a developing nation like Timor-Leste to grow up successfully.

The third problem is that these foreign advisors are usually here for the short term. They don’t come with a ‘wholistic’ (or holistic) understanding of the unique cultural and historical nuances of the country. Laws that work in Portugal don’t necessary work in Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste is a very different country in a very different stage of development compared to Portugal or most of the other home countries of these advisors. However, when they are here just for the short term, it is very difficult for them to learn these unique nuances. After all, many of these things need to be caught and not taught.

The fourth problem is the question of the motivation of these advisors. The heart of the issue is usually the issue of the heart. It is most likely that they are working in Timor-Leste because of the lucrative salaries, which exceed what they could get elsewhere. It begs the question: how competent are these advisors actually if they cannot obtain such salaries in their home countries. After all, if they were really so competent as to come halfway across the world to give advice to Timor-Leste on how to develop, shouldn’t they be able to get hold of lucrative jobs in their own countries?

Let’s say they are very competent and that they are just here because they love Timor-Leste and want to be part of the development process. Shouldn’t they then be learning Tetun, spending time with local Timorese and immersing themselves into Timor-Leste’s culture? The contrary is however observed. These advisors hang out together, gather at Portuguese restaurants, shop at the Portuguese supermarket, have very few local friends and don’t even try to learn Tetun.

If there are no other motives, they are likely here because of the high salaries. This naturally leads to them trying to create further dependencies to ensure they can continue to have these highly paid contracts.

This article is not a critique on foreign advisors. It is merely trying to state the issues as clearly as possible in order to provoke deeper thinking and real solutions. We, Timorese need to take responsibility for solving our own problems. Yes, some these problems require medium to long term solutions, but if we don’t start now, nothing will ever change!

And things must change! Timor-Leste now ranks 181 in the Doing Business ranking of the World Bank. It ranks even lower than many countries that are in active conflict. It has one of the highest global rates of malnutrition. Our children are hungry, malnourished and stunting, which is affecting their development. Our children are our future. If things don’t change drastically, our future is not going to be bright. Honestly, having so many foreign advisors in the last 17 years has not brought about significant improvement. So why not consider a drastic change? Perhaps having advisor after advisor only brings more confusion to the development process of this country, even if all of them could be well meaning.

The reason for this so-called dependency is because Timor-Leste thinks it lacks the human resources who are deemed capable enough, and therefore Timor-Leste has no choice but to employ foreigners even if it means access to confidential and sensitive State issues.

But then, why not consider a mentorship program wherein every one of these highly paid foreign advisors has to train at least 5 Timorese? IF this was implemented 17 years ago when we got our independence, we would not be in this situation of unhealthy dependency.

Why not consider allocating a significant amount of the national budget to provide scholarships to the brightest minds of our nation for them to receive the best education and then for them to return and serve the nation? Why not indicate to all our international development partners that we would like them to increase the number of scholarships they provide and we have scholarships for our children rather than more programs? Why not ask ASEAN to open the doors for ASEAN scholarships to be awarded to Timor-Leste nationals as well?

SEPFOPE has these stringent requirements on business operating in Timor-Leste to always prioritize employing Timorese first. WHY not apply the same rules to the government? Why not make it a requirement that only IF all possible options are exhausted for a suitable Timorese to do the job, a foreign advisor is brought in?

Why not offer the same high salaries, and offer the job to Timorese first? Perhaps with such lucrative salaries, Timorese who are actually very capable but based overseas will indeed return and fill those vacancies.

To provoke further thinking, what would actually happen if Timor-Leste actually stops depending on these foreign advisors? Will the country fall into anarchy? Will the country slip further in terms of Doing Business Index? Will our children get even more malnourished? We already hit almost rock bottom. Why not consider something drastic? Could it be that when we are forced to stand on our own feet and work hard to find resources within our own country that we will actually grow up as a nation?

Why not form a “Council of Elders” consisting of all the founding fathers of the nation and other qualified Timorese to provide the required direction and advice? I can’t believe that the advice of H.E. Xanana Gusmao, H.E. Dr. Jose Ramos Horta, H.E. Dr. Mari Alkatiri, H.E. Taur Matan Ruak etc. etc. is in anyway inferior to that of an advisor from Portugal! The contrary is true!

Of course, all this requires political cohesion and might not be simple. But if the nation unites together in one voice calling for this to happen, perhaps our leaders too will unite together.

Perhaps if the nation calls for them to once again to lead as a united team, Timor-Leste could, against all odds, rise up as a successful nation globally! How can such a political cohesion happen? If enough voices want this and it’s heard by the founding fathers, it can and will happen! Perhaps we, the patriots of the nation, can start a movement that will sweep through the whole country and bring about drastic change.

Let’s spread the movement: #UnidadeTL

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Last modified on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 09:26
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