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Lessons to Be Learned: International Interventions in Timor-Leste


The Timor-Leste experience highlights the need for political economy and conflict analyses to ensure that interventions in fragile states are properly contextualised.

The time has come to learn from international interventions in Timor-Leste: Political economy and conflict analyses must be applied in support of countries in transition. 

Sitting at a long table in a quiet pedestrian street soaking in the Portuguese sunshine, I recently caught up with a former colleague who was in town from Myanmar for a short holiday. I was eager to speak with him and hoped he would challenge reports I had read that claimed that Myanmar’s internal political, economic and conflict dynamics were not being factored into international development programming strategies in the country.

In one such report, Rachel Wagley of the US Campaign for Burma, suggested that “[World] Bank representatives tactlessly stated that they are not considering Burma through a conflict or fragility lens” (Wagley 2014). This is despite its complex history, myriad social tensions and on-going violent conflict. I did not want to believe the report. Surely development agencies and practitioners had accumulated decades’ worth of ‘lessons learned’ that should have been applied to policy making in Myanmar as a matter of course. I took the opportunity of our meeting to verify my doubts. I was dismayed but not surprised when he corroborated the reports I’d read and indicated that bilateral and multilateral aid agencies from the Bretton Woods Institutions to USAID were ignoring conflict dynamics, including mass displacement, in favour of unlocking business opportunities and promoting the growth of the private sector.

Conflict-affected states undergoing transition must contend with political rivalries, armed groups or other threats to national unity and stability, a war or conflict-driven economy, and the need for political, social and institutional reforms. But they are also saddled with the burden of navigating and answering to the international community, in particular the Bretton Woods Institutions and bilateral donor government agencies. These institutions can have substantial influence, through a multitude of channels, as countries navigate their inclusion into the global economy.

In the lead-up to and following independence, Timor-Leste received an unprecedented amount of international assistance for reconstruction and development, not only in terms of dollars per capita but also technical advice and expertise. International ‘best practice’ called for a streamlined, efficient state that would regulate private sector driven growth and development. In this model donors funded an ad hoc assortment of non-state actors to provide some basic services while they gradually introduced fee-for-service projects in key sectors of the economy.

Yet, despite this substantial and well-intentioned assistance, four years after independence – in 2006 – a political crisis emerged that led to widespread violence and displacement. That crisis shattered the image of Timor-Leste, which had been lauded by international diplomats as a shining model of successful international support to countries in transition. What can be learnt from this crisis and the impact of development partner assistance so that the international community can ensure that the same failures are not repeated in countries such as Myanmar?

Despite good intentions, international development partners failed to analyse the context-specific political economy and conflict dynamics when crafting Timor-Leste’s transition strategy. As a result, they delivered ‘technocratic’ policy advice that undermined the state’s role as an agent of development and as an essential element in fostering political and social cohesion in a country that had never possessed a single independent political identity. Development partners established Timor-Leste’s macroeconomic policy framework in a way that kept the state on the side-lines of its own development, undermining its capacity to meet the expectations of its citizens and, as a result, creating a vacuum of legitimacy that was eventually exploited by competing factions.

The Timor-Leste experience highlights the need for political economy and conflict analyses to ensure that interventions in fragile states are properly contextualised. Political economy and conflict analysis can assist development partners in identifying the historical, social, political, economic and external factors that underpin social relations essential for stability and ‘development’.

Historical experiences in Timor-Leste – including the complex legacy of Indonesian occupation – had a profound impact on intra-East Timorese relationships that continued to resonate among the leaders and the population well into independence. Despite the abuses and atrocities committed by the Indonesian military, heavy investments were made by Indonesia in infrastructure, roads, schools, health clinics and other services. Clearly these efforts were not always done with an altruistic intent: for example, the military required roads to secure the territory and schools to promote the adoption of the Indonesian language. Yet, over time, many came to equate certain functions with the ‘proper’ role of a state. As one of my East Timorese colleagues noted: “I’m not saying I want Indonesia to be here. But what I am saying is that Indonesia is bad on one part, but on the development side they are very, very smart. The problem is that their development is done jointly with their killing people and human rights violations.” A common sentiment was that independence would usher in a new era of East Timorese sovereignty, an end to human rights abuses, and would otherwise enable economic life to continue, presumably with gradual improvements. The East Timorese did not envision a drastic reduction in the services to be provided by the State.

By failing to consider the particular historical dimensions of socio-economic and political conflict in Timor-Leste, development partners neglected to promote dialogue about the nature of the state being established. In line with the prescriptions from the Washington Consensus, international advice resulted in a drastic reduction in the size of Timor-Leste’s civil service, and the withdrawal of subsidies and extension support to the agriculture sector, without anticipating the tensions associated with the simultaneous contraction of the economy that resulted from the retrenchment of the State. Development partners did not have a realistic strategy for transition. In addition, the emphasis on private sector driven development and ad hoc support to non-state actors resulted in fragmented service delivery, competition between state and non-state actors and the perception that the state was not interested in – or was unable – to provide services to the population.

Rather than adapting interventions according to a nuanced political economy and conflict analysis, Timor-Leste was considered a tabula rasa, and the perfect laboratory in which to apply the best technocratic advice the international community had on offer. According to a senior UN official, some diplomats would refer to the devastation and destruction in the wake of the Indonesian withdrawal in 1999 as a “wonderful opportunity” for development partners to imagine a country. Foreign expertise could be applied in this context, devoid of institutional and historical precedent. This approach failed to seek an understanding of – or even acknowledge – the human dimension of the multiple tragedies of colonialism, civil war, occupation and a divided society. The Timorese point of view and problem solving strategies were considered ‘quaint’, naïve or corrupt.

Macroeconomic policies promoting a market economy with a limited role for the state did not consider national expectations, experiences or the impact on contested power dynamics in the wake of the Indonesian withdrawal or the capacity of the private sector to deliver on the promises of growth. As discussed in greater detail in Engel and Vierira 2011, the democratisation and marketisation paradigm limited the developmental role for the state, and its capacity to effectively drive the evolution of the country’s changing political settlement. Newly established institutions did not incorporate social protection mechanisms, thus further distancing the state from its citizens and alienating important constituencies from the government. It was only after domestic revenues were secured from oil and gas reserves that Timor-Leste’s leaders were able to remove the shackles and exert their sovereignty, often against international advice. The state established a pensions programme, for example, and provided funds for veterans and other vulnerable groups. The grave consequences of early fiscal constraints imposed on Timor-Leste served also to undermine relations between development partners and the state making even valid concerns about these and other new government programmes fall on deaf ears.

Before the crisis, development partners were embedded in the institutions of the state, approved the state budget prior to its presentation to parliament and determined the funding parameters of civil society organisations. In effect, the donors determined both the size and scope of the state.

In Timor-Leste the international community pre-empted what the state could or could not support and undermined its capacity to address the concerns of diverse constituencies. When the 2006 crisis erupted, many analysts rushed to blame domestic political immaturity, failures within and rivalries between the security forces, youth unemployment and weak and corrupt governance institutions. This discourse was representative of the dominant analysis at the time and remains prevalent today. While certainly important factors, the degree to which the international community was embedded within the institutions of the state – and determined the financing parameters of state and non-state institutions alike and thus played an important role in the outcome – was not acknowledged. Perhaps presciently, a World Bank consultant acknowledged that the UN administration was essentially “setting up structures, rules and budgets…with various binding consequences for the East Timorese government when constituted in 2002-3” (Nunberg 2003). The policy framework and mechanisms employed by international institutions helped to establish the underlying conditions that resulted in a political confrontation and violent contestation in 2006.

When the East Timorese leaders requested technical assistance from international development partners, they trusted that international expertise would advance the welfare of the newly sovereign nation. Yet, the combination of peacekeeping missions with development initiatives in conflict-affected states does not necessarily imply that interventions are designed for or oriented toward peace-building and conflict prevention. Rather than designing tailor-made strategies that reflect local social, historical, political and economic realities, development interventions have become synonymous with liberalised markets, democratisation and institutional strengthening. The oft-touted local partnership and ownership paradigm have become empty, if not sarcastic, slogans.

Development interventions in conflict-affected states remain limited to technocratic, apolitical, time-bound and compartmentalised exercises. Conflict prevention and peace-building considerations are essentially absent from international development frameworks. Clearly there is much work to do so that the lessons from Timor-Leste are incorporated into practice and development interventions reflect domestic political economy and conflict dynamics rather than merely addressing the needs of the market masked by new institutions. Discussions in the past few weeks with colleagues returning from Myanmar, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau do not leave me with much hope.


Engel, Rebecca E., and Luiz Vieira. 2011. “International Contributions to State-Building in Timor-Leste: The Undermining of State Legitimacy?” August. http://www.peacebuilding.no/Regions/Asia/Publications/International-Contributions-to-State-building-in-Timor-Leste-The-Undermining-of-State-Legitimacy.

Nunberg, Barbara. 2003. “Civil Service Modeling: Simplifying the Complexities of Civil Service Pay and Employment Presentation to World Bank Seminar on Below the Surface of the Civil Service Wage Bill, Thursday, May 29, 2003.” May 29.

Wagley, Rachel. 2014. “World Bank Blundering Through Burma.” DVB, May 4. http://www.dvb.no/analysis/world-bank-blundering-through-burma-myanmar/40279.



Rebecca E. Engel has a PhD in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She lived in Timor-Leste between 2002 and 2010 where she directed programming for Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR).


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