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Projects >  East Timor


After 25 years of illegal occupation by Indonesia, Timor-Leste (East Timor) eventually gained its independence in late 1999.  The retreating Indonesian troops and civil authorities did their very best, before they left, to destroy as much of the country’s infrastructure as they could and most of the primary and secondary schools were burnt down together with the majority of the health facilities including clinics, health centres and hospitals. The only large hospital left untouched was the country’s main referral hospital in Dili which was protected from destruction by a very principled and brave Indonesian general.

The Indonesians, during their occupation, had trained very few Timorese in any of the professions and there were therefore few doctors to work in and manage the health system, virtually no secondary school teachers and very few Timorese of senior rank in what remained of the civil service.  The UN was therefore brought in to run the civil service and the doctors that had been trained found themselves working in the Ministry of Health where they had to develop a plan for managing the health service.  The Ministry of Education meanwhile was mainly staffed with Timorese who had been in exile in Portugal during the occupation.

The destruction of the country’s education and health facilities (as well as other civic buildings such as government offices) necessitated a large reconstruction effort and the World Bank was brought in to manage the reconstruction fund (initially in the region of USD150 million) set up by a number of donor countries.

I was asked to join a World Bank education mission to East Timor in March 2000 and when the manager of the World Bank health reconstruction programme in the country found out that I was going to East Timor, she asked me to work on a health mission that would be in the country at the same time.

Working in East Timor immediately after independence was difficult.  The only hotels were some very basic (to say the least) ex-mining camp facilities that were shipped in from Papua New Guinea by some very smart Australian entrepreneurs,  The only place to eat at least during the first few months was the famous ‘Burnt House’ restaurant.  Things gradually improved but working conditions and travel around the country remained difficult for a year or two.

The interim government set up by the UN was of variable quality depending largely on how good the expatriate staff were and also on how good their relations were with the parallel interim government that was set up by the Timorese authorities.  The UN health ministry and its Timorese equivalent were very good (especially the Minister and the doctors running the ministry) and worked together very well and I developed a very good relationship with both ministries and their staff.  Education was however another matter and I had continuous problems with both the UN and the Timorese ministries (and relations between the two were usually fairly fraught especially over the issue of the reintroduction of the Portuguese language).  I worked on the education project for about three years until I parted ways with the Bank over disagreements over the way the project was going and for eight years on the health project during which time we constructed new district hospitals, a new central medical store and health centres and renovated the main referral hospital in Dili.

Working on construction projects in post-conflict situations is always difficult and working in East Timor was certainly that.  During Indonesian rule there had been little or no development of the local construction industry.  Architects, engineers, contractors and even artisans had all been brought in from Java or other parts of the Indonesian empire with the result that after independence there was little or no local capacity to construct all of the buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the violence surrounding the exit of the Indonesian regime or the buildings that were required by the new Timorese government.

The problems were exacerbated by the large amounts of aid money flowing into the country to fund the construction programme and the need to start the construction of new buildings for all sectors at more or less the same time.

The other major problem was the more or less complete lack of local building materials. The Indonesian regime had again done little or nothing to develop a local building materials supply industry and most materials had been imported from Indonesia.

The result was that construction companies and skilled artisans flooded into the country from Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, China etc but the quality of the management of these companies and of the artisans was very variable and full-time supervision of construction contracts by experienced architects and engineers was necessary but again these skills were in short supply.  All materials apart from large and small aggregates (and sometimes even these) for the construction projects had to be imported and this proved to be a time-consuming business.

For some of the lessons that can be learned for construction projects in post-conflict situations from the design and implementation of the first education project see the attached document: ‘The Emergency Schools Readiness Project: Lessons to be Learned for Post-Conflict Education Reconstruction’.

For details of the education and health projects see the attached files.  For some photos of the destruction of health and education facilities see the gallery below.


Projects in East Timor
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