East Timor, CRS and USAID

The Partnership, after employing me for two years, wanted to increase its local staff, and so it was time for me to move on. I was offered the opportunity to work in East Timor by Catholic Relief services, which had won a two year cooperative agreement from UAID for a program called ECSP (Encouraging Civil Society Program). The main purpose of the program was to encourage East Timorese CSOs to expand their thinking from working in the fields of disaster relief and human rights abuse, to working in long term development for the people of this new country. There were many donors who still considered that CSOs should work in these two fields, and were ready with money for such work, and few who considered the long term place of CSOs in the future of the country. The purpose of the ECSP was thus not an easy sell, and many CSOs felt that their job was to persuade the program to support their disaster relief and human rights advocacy work.

In an environment in which CSOs had been outlawed under the Indonesian regime, and in which the new government of independence arrived with ideas formed by Frelimo and Fretilin of a revolutionary government of the people which represented the people. and in which there was no room for CSOs who were seen as competitive and probably subversive, suggesting that CSOs had a useful role to play in the country was not easy. The Government, through gritted teeth, was prepared to accept the foreign NGOs, of which there were very many, but was not enthusiastic about the training and strengthening of local CSOs.

The ECSP had two strategies – the first to try and educate interested Timorese about what a CSO was, and what it could do in the long term in the country; and the second to try and educate Timorese who were in CSOs that more could be done than just emergency service delivery – they should concentrate on listening to the expressed needs of the people, and advocate to the government authorities on their behalf.

Unfortunately, as I have mentioned , foreign agencies tended to encourage Timoese to think of themselves as victims who deserved outside assistance: this, together with the great poverty of the country, and the foreign NGOs being one of the avenues by which local organisations could get funds for themselves and their kin, made the relationship with local CSOs to be very complicated as the “santa claus” mentality infected so many dealings with East torese CSOs.

Another problem was that the only model of a civil society organisation that Timorese were exposed to by foreign agencies was a model that came from the west – CSOs like OXFAM, Save the children, even CRS itself. A closer sociological and anthropological investigation into the people of the country revealed very strong associations of people around sacred places and traditional leaders, as well as groupings derived from the days of anti-Indonesian rebellion. These bodies were indigenous, grounded in local society, voluntary, and sustainable – but no foreign agencies ever considered that the strengthening of civil society should target such groups.

There were so many difficulties in East Timor which were glossed over at the time that i was there, and unfortunately erupted into civil war shortly after I left – the decision to enforce Portuguese as the national language which created a Portuguese speaking elite; the avoidance of addressing land disputes which were, it is true, extremely complicated given the Indonesian occupation and the destruction of land records, the need for assimilation back into society of people responsible for terrible crimes against their own people; the need for a local government structure which was interested in talking to its citizens through CSOs.



  • Clarifying for Timorese what a development minded CSO looked like and needed in terms of competences
  • Understanding the difference between service delivery and advicacy, and learning how to practice advocacy
  • Opening up the discussion as to what was Timorese civil society



14 Booklets on different aspects of Civil Society Organisations jn East Timor
by Richard Holloway for CRS 2002. in English and Indonesian

Handbook for Advocacy in East Timor – how citizens organisations can advocate about important issues to Parliament, Local Government, the Church, and Traditional leaders
by Richard Holloway for CRS 2003. Also in Indonesian, Tetum and Portuguese

What is Civil Society in East Timor?
by Richard Holloway for CRS 2004


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