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Racist, cynical, wasteful: how UN workers 'help' Timor
8 January 2001
How you do your job counts just as much as what you do - and by this standard the UN is in need of rescuing itself, writes Denis Dragovic.
For several months I have been watching the United Nations "rescuing" East Timor. The half-term report is not promising. The UN's overzealous moves into missions where it lacks the experience, internal structural systems, or competent personnel will inevitably and regrettably lead to continuing failure - and eventual extinction.
The UN mission in East Timor, for example, is fraught with a debilitating patronage system, of personal self-interest, of ignorance and intolerance. All in all, this makes it a less-than-perfect tool to implement the will of the world's nations and give the Timorese dignity and a future. The other night I found myself dining with three Dili district administration officers. Soon the all-too-frequent conversational contest began - who can denigrate the East Timorese people the most.
The comments echoed what I imagine dinner table conversation might have sounded like 100 years ago in Australia: "They have an IQ of a dog - well, at least I can train my dog", "they don't need electricity because they don't read or wash". It's no wonder the process of handing over the reins to the Timorese has stalled, considering the attitudes rampant among UN staff. Take the directive requiring "counterparts" for all district administration positions in the hope of transferring decision-making to East Timorese.
Six months after the directive and a year after the international community entered East Timor, there were still no East Timorese in the top district jobs. Only now are a few appearing. That such attitudes are not the exception but the rule among these "ruling class" elites makes me wonder if the people of East Timor - or Kosovo and whichever impoverished, war-stricken people look towards the UN next - deserve better. It's all too often forgotten in the development industry that how you do your job counts just as much as, if not more than, what you do.
My colleagues and I sometimes wonder as we drive by places such as the PX store (tax-free store for UN personnel who, in general, earn 30 times more than their taxpaying East Timorese colleagues) how different it would have been had the money simply been given to the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance). Sure, there might be some misuse of funds, but at least we would be rid of the legitimised corruption we see today.
For every dollar spent by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) on direct assistance to the East Timorese, 10 more are spent on running its own overheads, a situation that Sergio de Mello, the transitional administrator, described as "frankly absurd". Even though the funds covering UNTAET's overheads are disproportionately large, its departments and other UN agencies are not paying electrical bills. This has meant a debilitating load on the system, causing blackouts on a regular basis and a backlog of East Timorese residents waiting to have electricity - but I guess "they don't need electricity because they don't read or wash".
The UN's work throughout the world is critical in determining what sort of world we will live in. Those who, like myself, aspire to a future where we live as a community of nations, must not fearfully accept the devil we know. We need to question over and over again any failings or shortcomings of the UN. Otherwise the UN will prove its own worst enemy.
Denis Dragovic is a Dili-based aid worker.