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Sustainability and Democratic Governance in East Timor

João Câncio Freitas, Faculty of Social and Political Science, National University of Timor Lorosa’e


Sustainable development strategies are gaining recognition as highly appropriate courses of action for many countries. Recent UN World Conferences and major international initiatives during the last decade (such as in Caring for the Earth and Agenda 21 from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit) have highlighted their importance, calling for a global strategy for sustainable living and development at all levels of society.


There is growing recognition of the link between infrastructure investment and sustainable long term economic growth. Governments do not have to choose between environment and development. If environment is the total stock of natural and social resources available to humans and other species, development is the utilisation of human and natural resources to advance the welfare of people. Therefore one must be planned in light of the other.


The definition of sustainable development has gone beyond mere environmental conservation to include good governance, social cohesion, and even gender equality in a holistic approach to “life systems” that stress people’s integral link with the total environment. Good governance is about the well being of the nation and the people. It is primarily based on a public administration committed to democracy, justice, liberty, equality, and efficiency while at the same time promoting a fair, safe and sustainable living environment for all. Because sustainability can only be ensured if people are involved in the decision making process, central governments can no longer act alone and need to develop partnerships at all levels of government including local governments and society in order to have these common goals effectively achieved effectively. This requires a major shift in thinking to decentralise power to the lower levels if the principles of sustainable development are to take root and to produce meaningful results.


National Plan on Sustainable Development

Decisions relating to sustainable development in almost all parts of the world are made at two levels: the policy level to provide directions for achieving the goals of sustainable development at the national level, and the implementation level which is left to the major agencies in theenvironmental field, especially those associated with conservation of the environment, pollution control, and regional and global environmental issues including communities and civil society at large.


At the policy level, in order to promote sustainable use of East Timor’s natural resources, in my view, the first step that we should take is perhaps to create a National Plan on Sustainable Development to guide integration of environmental concerns into development policies, economic decisions, and investment planning. Here, this new emerging country, at some stage, has the choice to engage itself with international conventions and policies on sustainable development. We must be committed to the implementation of Agenda 21 and related international agreements reached during the Earth Summit. Principles of Sustainable Development must become the foundation of our national development planning. To do this the state can adopt international strategies and indeed there are many international organisations to work with, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, and the Earth Council.


At the implementation level, there are a number of things that can be done including establishing various institutions and mechanisms aimed at introducing the practices, plans and programs of sustainability into development programs. This must be a participatory process involving government and non-government stakeholders. There is a strong role for the private sector to play in the implementation process of sustainable development. At the moment the promising sign of real progress is the strength and dynamism of NGO’s in the country at large (there are currently over 170 local and national NGO’s in East Timor. Among these, although a certain number of them may not be sustainable in the long run, those which are strongly committed and rooted in the community or interest groups will develop and grow). It is these NGO’s with their commitment to public participation and empowerment, that may prove the guiding force of environmental consciousness and action in the future.


Similarly, research institutions, universities and private bodies could perform the educational and research functions associated with the implementation of environmentally sound and sustainable strategies.


Democratic governance

During the past decade, new ideas have arisen which underline the importance of communities and individuals, and which highlight the relevance of civil society and human resources in the development process. The UN Earth Summit concept of sustainable development, the UNDP concept of human development and the approach to people focused urban development, have helped to shift the emphasis towards more participatory methodologies in the field of development planning.


Governance in the context of East Timor entails the building of a new nation, the role and the structure including the configuration of basic pillars of governance. Successful initiatives to promote democratisation and development depend on adequate capacity and resources being devoted to the strengthening of lower levels of government, especially local government institutions and on good communications including recognition and mutual respect between different spheres of government.


There is a need to increase public inputs into the running and direction of governance and public services. And yet, democracy denotes a political system in which the eligible people in a policy participate actively not only in determining the kind of people that govern them, but also and more importantly shaping the policy output of the government. Decentralisation is an important mechanism to ensure people’s participation in the development process. Decentralising government from the central level to other levels of government enables people to participate more directly in the governance process. This needs an effective local structure that can facilitate the participation of people in the political life and ultimately be accountable to the people, not just to the central or higher levels of government.


Only with an effective public management and technical capacity in government, will East Timor be able to sustain social and economic development in the long run. The two previous regimes (particularly the latter) were highly hierarchically centralised which, as a consequence, alienated people from decision making and they were not accountable to the people. Unfortunately the current structure of local government under UNTAET is still inspired by and essentially replicates that system. It is important to be aware of the undemocratic elements that exist from this old model of government system, which was created mainly to control people and to serve the interests of the foreign powers. If these structures are to be continued in an independent East Timor, sustainability will be in danger and people will still be alienated from decision making because the distance between the citizen and decision making processes which is reflected in this structure is felt to be great.


The big challenge for us now is to take appropriate actions including the design of local democratic structures by eliminating these unnecessary structures and bureaucracy to ensure that principles of democracy and genuine participation are promoted in all local and community governments. Civil society organisations representing all sectors of the community, which are independent of the state and the corporate sector must be encouraged to debate and suggest policies and to be actively involved in the process of decision making. Local government should be held accountable to their citizens primarily with a political role reflecting the collective interests of the community. Hence emphasis is placed on mechanisms of citizen consultation through civil society organisations that incorporate the views of local “actors” (such as the business sector, youth and women’s groups, and neighbourhood forums) in the formal policy making process. Local accountability can be strengthened by a high degree of transparency of the local government administrative process (e.g. local government files open to the public). Democratic governance must be transparent, allowing citizens easy access to information about administration and particularly about the use and allocation of public resources.


The extent to which sustainable development policies and practices are successfully implemented depends upon a number of factors including an institutional design and structure that allows the involvement of all citizens in the process of decision making, and a clean, transparent and accountable government at all levels coupled with an open, democratic and participative society in Timor Lorosa’e.