Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao recently announced that the government would end its practice of granting preferential treatment to veterans when it comes to approving construction project tenders in Timor-Leste. The announcement comes in response to Timor-Leste’s untenable contract-bidding system, which for years has put favoritism ahead of legally mandated standards and Aprovizonamento Dezemvolvemento Nasional (ADN) regulations.
The declaration was met with a wave of backlash from veterans criticizing Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao of hypocrisy and political posturing. They claim that the prime minister has no right to blame veterans for carrying out projects that he endorsed them to carry out. Instead of using each other as scapegoats, however, both the government and the veteran’s association should own up to the role they each have played in corrupting the legitimacy of Timor-Leste’s construction industry.
Parties on both sides of the issue share a measure of the blame. Although veterans must pass a screening conducted by the ADN just like any other bidder, veterans who are unable to meet the minimum requirements for ADN approval are often still able to bypass the screening process by acquiring a letter of endorsement from the Prime Minister’s Office. As a result of this favoritism, a rash of unqualified veterans are given approval each year to conduct construction projects throughout Timor-Leste.
The repercussions of these mismanaged projects are clear. The development of infrastructure and the quality of projects carried out in Timor-Leste is notoriously poor, and is clear that the Timorese public bears the brunt of this burden. The traffic caused by overdue road construction in the streets of Dili is just one glaring example of this. FM estimates that as many as 80% of construction projects in Timor-Leste are of low quality, a figure which includes a large proportion of projects carried out by veterans.
Furthermore, the involvement of veteran groups in construction projects has been destabilizing to not only the construction sector but to national unity as well. There have been numerous cases reported of veterans arguing amongst themselves in hopes of securing construction contracts, even after the contract in question has been assigned. This often takes the form of intimidation, arguments and the actual obstruction of projects. Aside from hampering infrastructural development, these disputes also lead to the intimidation of professional, qualified firms who should be competitive bidders for infrastructure projects in Timor-Leste. As a consequence, community residents see little progress while veterans fight amongst themselves in hopes of increasing their profit from projects that should be designed first and foremost to benefit the residents themselves.
Both the government and the veterans association must take steps to respond to this issue. The government has urged veterans to organize themselves into an association, but has done nothing to support the veterans association since its formation. In moving forward, the government must do more to enable veterans to lead successful projects.
For their part, veterans must accept that the preferential treatment they have enjoyed is now a thing of the past. Their projects will now be held to the same standards as those led by non-veterans, and they must do far more to ensure that they are capable of meeting those standards. In addition, the veteran’s association must take steps to end disputes over contract rights and claims to territorial ownership between veterans. These territorial disputes are a threat to national stability and security, and veterans must pledge to end them if they wish to receive support from the government moving forward.
FM recommends that the government organize capacity building and training for veterans so that projects led by veterans will meet professional standards. Providing project oversight training to veterans will enable them to lead projects knowledgeably, and will prevent them from being exploited by construction engineers and contractors. In this way, veterans will be able to utilize construction engineers as employees instead of partners.
The government must also uphold its commitment to ending the practice of approving projects led by unqualified veterans. It is essential that veterans meet or exceed the ADN’s criteria for approval, and that they are not given the preferential treatment they have enjoyed in the past. Correspondingly, the prime minister’s office must discontinue granting letters of endorsement to veterans.
Finally, the government should refrain from making generalizations about veterans in the future. If a veteran is to blame for a faulty project in the future, the punishment and criticism should fall on the individual, not on veterans as a group.