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The Role of Civil Society Organisations in Sustainable Development in East Timor

Arsenio Bano, Executive Director, NGO Forum


Civil Society organisations in East Timor

Civil society organisations are organisations that are formed in society, separate from the government and private sectors. They are involved with social issues that are the concern of all members of society. Civil society is composed of community organisations that are distinct from the government apparatus.


Non-government organisations (NGOs) and community organisations play a key role in society. A fundamental role of NGOs in sustainable development is advocacy, monitoring and influencing government, and ensuring people’s participation in the democratic process of government. Good governance is the domain of civil society, with a focus on democracy and human rights. Civil society also pays a key role in monitoring judicial institutions that are the foundations of democracy and fundamental to the protection of human rights.


Environmental groups espouse the principles of sustainable development.  Sustainable development ensures equity between the current and future generations. Consumption of natural resources by the current generation should not threaten the quality of life of future generations - consumption should only be at the level needed to meet current needs.


East Timorese civil society is experiencing rapid development during this period of transition.  The situation has been transformed from one of oppression and fear, to one where people are empowered to claim their rights and responsibilities as citizens.


This transformation involves the shift from resistance organisations fighting for the nation’s freedom into organisations working hard in preparation for the independence of a new nation.


Many civil society organisations here in East Timor are community based organisations that worked underground during the Indonesian occupation. New associations, student groups and newspapers have now also been established, not only in Dili but also in several districts. In the past year an umbrella organisation for civil society organisations has been formed.  It is called the East Timor NGO Forum.  The NGO forum now has 60 national NGOs as members (according to the minutes of the NGO Forum General Meeting of 12-13 December 2000). In the last 18 months, more than 130 national and 73 international NGOs have registered at the NGO Forum.


Over the past few months, members of the Forum have discussed and put forward their opinions on draft regulations that have been issued by UNTAET/ETTA.  This is an effort to advocate for the community, and influence the policies of the transitional government. In the past several weeks, several community radio stations have been established. The community radio station that is run by the Student Council at the University of Timor Lorosa’e (UNTIL) is a reflection of efforts to enhance the role of civil society organisations in East Timor.


The role of civil society organisations during the transitional period

It is difficult to measure the achievements of NGOs in terms of the preparation of a strong civil society in East Timor. The future will show how successful community organisations have been. There are still many opportunities, and much still needs to be done. NGOs and community organisations still have time to develop short and long term strategic plans. Keeping in mind the many limitations, it is important to remember that one of the roles of NGOs in sustainable development is to encourage participation and mobilisation of individuals and groups in the planning and implementation of development programs. It is hoped that the work of the non-government sector will foster partnerships between government, the private sector and civil society in the development of East Timor.


In discussions about the development of the strategic plan for the NGO Forum, in August 2000, it was recognised that one of the evident weaknesses during the transitional period is the low level of community participation in influencing the transitional government’s policies. This means that many regulations have been put in place without comprehensive community consultation.


The Annual General Meeting of the NGO Forum was held on the 12-13 December 2000. It was attended by more than 140 national and international NGOs.  Since that time, the Secretariat of the NGO Forum has examined several means whereby the relationship between the government and civil society can be developed. Possible scenarios of relations between government and civil society are identified by Alison Van Roy (1998) in her discussion about the development of civil society in Hungary. According to her, the worst situation is when a good relationship between government and civil society organisations becomes confrontational and the government subsequently tries to block the work of community-based organisations.


The second scenario is where NGOs’ role is only as contractors delivering services for government. In such a situation, the government only aids those organisations that are in its favour. In this situation, the non-government sector essentially functions as an extension of the arm of government in delivering services to the community. Meanwhile the government ignores those NGOs that aim to influence policy and decision-making processes that have a bearing upon the lives of the people.


The third scenario is the ideal situation.  This is where the government regards community-based organisations as partners in identifying and fulfilling the needs of the community. In this situation, NGOs work together with government in preparing, developing and implementing policies that influence community life.


This year the NGO Forum along with other national NGOs has been focussing our work upon increasing the capacity of the Forum and other NGOs in information dissemination, advocacy, research, training and coordination. In terms of advocacy, the Forum aims to increase the involvement of local communities in the monitoring and analysis of programs being prepared by government and other major bodies.


 NGOs in East Timor have a key role to play facilitating and building relationships between civil society, government and the private sector.  It is crucial that this is done well, so that a confrontational relationship does not eventuate. Stronger partnerships also need to be built between NGOs in order to develop East Timorese civil society itself.   Relationships between local NGOs as well as between those from the North and those from the South are vital. In a new nation such as East Timor, developing the role of civil society organisations is complex, not only in terms of social programs, but also in regards to developing partnerships with international NGOs, donors, and government. Developing such relationships is very important because East Timorese NGOs are very dependent upon the donors and international NGOs that are now in East Timor.


The role of the transitional government, UNTAET/ETTA in developing civil society

One of the advantages of this period of transition in East Timor is that it provides us with the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the future. An important issue that should be emphasised by UNTAET/ETTA is the need to design plans now that will still be relevant in the future. This should be achieved by emphasising the participation of civil society as much as possible, and ensuring that civil society organisations have an opportunity to be involved in the development of government policies. The practice of decision making in the transitional government, however currently does not involve the community in a broad sense – it is inclined towards centralisation. We are in strong agreement with Emilia Pires, the Head of the National Planning and Development Agency (NPDA) that action must reflect the ideas, opinions and will of the people of East Timor in terms of their wishes for the future, for their individual communities and their nation as a whole.



Sustainable development will succeed if development programs reflect the wishes of the people of East Timor. Thus NGOs must participate in the design and implementation of development programs. This will occur if there is an increase in cooperation and coordination between ETTA, NGOs and donors.  The involvement of grassroots organisations, particularly those in the Districts is crucial. Sustainable development is equitable development that has long term relevance. Development programs should be designed and implemented with full participation from community-based organisations, the government, and the donor community.



Alison Van Roy 1998 Civil Society and the Aid Industry, Earthscan.