Dependency On Foreign Advisors: Implications For Timor-Leste’s State Capacity, Sovereignty And Development

Photo : Fundasaun Mahein

This article explores some issues and controversies surrounding the Timor-Leste Government’s reliance on foreign advisors for drafting laws, policies and other official documents. While foreign advisors play a key role in supporting the basic functioning of the state, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) is concerned that the Government and other state institutions are over-reliant on foreign advisors to perform key governmental functions, as we see that this dependency has serious implications for Timor-Leste’s state capacity, development, sovereignty and security. These include limited development of domestic legal capacity, exclusion of Timorese officials from important decision making processes, financial sustainability, wage inequality, resentment and dysfunction within the public administration, and legal conflicts and incoherence due to the lack of adequate oversight by Timorese advisors and policy makers.

This article does not seek to blame foreign advisors for these problems. Rather, FM sees that the state’s dependency on foreign advisors is rooted in political decisions related to the official language policy, the failure of the state to invest adequately in developing domestic legal and language capacities, and the incentives which have resulted from these decisions and capacity limitations. FM is also concerned that some Timorese decision makers have become comfortable with delegating difficult and time-consuming work to foreign advisors, rather than working to increase their own capacity and reduce dependency on outside assistance. Therefore, FM has produced this analysis to inform the public about this issue, and to suggest potential strategies which Timor-Leste’s state decision makers can adopt to address the problem.

Portuguese is one of Timor-Leste’s official languages, and our legal system is heavily based on Portuguese laws. As many Timorese policy makers and civil servants have limited Portuguese ability and knowledge of Portuguese laws, the Government, Parliament and other state institutions rely on assistance from native Portuguese speakers to produce complex legal documents. Foreign advisors therefore play an important role in supporting the development and functioning of Timor-Leste’s state institutions. Nonetheless, based on FM’s observations and conversations with Timorese officials, Timor-Leste’s current over-reliance on foreign advisors has several implications for the state’s development.

One obvious issue is the high cost of paying dozens of foreign advisors to perform duties which should ideally be done by Timorese advisors, which is especially relevant in the context of Timor-Leste’s looming financial crisis. While FM does not have access to specific data on foreign advisor salaries, it is an “open secret” that foreign legal advisors working in state institutions in Timor-Leste are extremely well-paid by international standards. At a minimum, the Government spends millions of dollars each year to pay these advisors. Arguably, it would be more beneficial to national development – and more financially sustainable – if this money was spent on training and hiring Timorese public servants. This would develop domestic capacity, reduce government costs and ensure that most of this public money stays in Timor-Leste rather than being repatriated to foreign bank accounts and investments.

The relationship of dependency and wage disparities between Timorese and international workers also contribute to resentment and dysfunction within both the public administration and society in general. Timorese civil servants are well aware that foreign advisors receive salaries which are many times greater than theirs, which likely harms the functioning of the state by demotivating Timorese staff. FM has heard reports that foreign advisors tend to work by themselves rather than sharing responsibilities with Timorese colleagues. While this is understandable due to heavy workloads and time constraints, it also erodes Timorese civil servants’ sense of ownership over their work and the functioning of the government.

FM sees a parallel between this situation and the sense among many Timorese citizens that international donors spend large amounts of money on projects with little clear benefit for ordinary Timorese people, while international agency workers receive most of the benefits. Such disparities contribute to many Timorese citizens believing that some foreigners are “taking advantage” of Timor-Leste’s limitations for their own benefit. Furthermore, research suggests that wealth inequality is a key driver of insecurity and socio-political instability. This is not only because poverty destroys people’s wellbeing and dignity, but also because visible inequality breeds social resentment, distrust and crime. This is especially dangerous in contexts with a history of violent conflict and where a large proportion of the country suffers from inadequate living standards. Growing wealth inequality – between rich and poor Timorese people and also between Timorese and foreigners – is therefore not only unjust, but it also presents a serious risk to public security and safety.

In addition to fuelling material inequalities, FM is concerned that language and knowledge gaps between foreign advisors and Timorese government officials are leading to exclusion of Timorese decision makers and advisors from important policymaking processes. FM has heard from many Timorese civil servants and advisors that when internal government discussions are held in Portuguese, they are usually dominated by foreign advisors and a few officials with adequate knowledge of Portuguese. In these situations, many Timorese officials and advisors are excluded from the discussion. Even if they have important contributions to make, many do not feel comfortable to speak in a meeting held in Portuguese.

Timorese public servants and advisors with limited Portuguese ability and legal knowledge also play a reduced role in legal drafting processes, while foreign advisors take on the most important legal responsibilities. As a result, new laws are often based on laws from Portuguese-speaking countries. As FM has noted previously, laws are sometimes are simply “copied and pasted” from Portugal, without adequate consultation, analysis or adaptation to Timor-Leste’s context. Many foreign advisors also lack understanding of Timor-Leste’s unique context, and the legal changes they recommend and produce often do not adequately reflect our reality. These practices are therefore leading to incoherence and conflicts between Timor-Leste’s state institutions, formal laws and the existing social reality, while also deepening the state’s dependency on foreign legal advisors. The adoption of Portuguese laws also means that simple policy changes require extensive legal work, which limits the options available to Timorese policy makers and creates bureaucratic delays.

While some foreign advisors try to work together with their Timorese counterparts to increase their involvement and capacity, this is challenging in practice due to time and other pressures. When Timorese officials are less involved in discussing and drafting laws, they will struggle to develop their legal and language capacities. This in turn makes it impossible to reduce the dependency on foreign advisors, contributing to a cycle of dependency. FM therefore believes that mentoring, capacity development and delegation of responsibility to Timorese counterparts should become a component of foreign advisors’ work. To achieve this, work contracts could be adjusted to include activities and targets for increasing the involvement and skills of Timorese advisors in specific areas. However, until now FM has not heard of any plans to take such an action.

The state’s dependency on foreign advisors is also driven by the gap between the official language policy and the daily reality of most Timorese people. In reality, most Timorese people discuss issues using Tetum, while Portuguese is only spoken natively by a tiny minority. Portuguese is widely seen as an “elite” language, while unfortunately some Portuguese-speaking elites view Tetum as a “primitive” language. Using Portuguese as the official language also excludes emerging leaders from the younger generation who were educated in Indonesian. These inequalities contribute to many ordinary Timorese feeling alienated and excluded from the state for which they sacrificed and suffered so much. Such injustices are a major source of anger and resentment towards established elites, which can be a source of major political instability in the future.

To resolve this problem is extremely challenging. One important step would be to implement a rule that Tetum will be used in all government proceedings, which would ensure adequate participation of Timorese decision makers and civil servants in important internal discussions. Laws, official documents and communications should all be translated to Tetum and made widely available. Many people have also promoted the idea of developing the Tetum language so that it can be used to adequately express complex technical and legal topics. However, there has been little progress achieved in this area: there is still no single standard for Tetum spelling and grammar, while spoken Tetum is a blend of multiple languages, and dependent on each person’s age, education and life experiences. Technical discussions about complex issues still require borrowing many words from Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia due to the lack of Tetum vocabulary, while there are few written materials available in Tetum. Thus, it is still an open question whether it is feasible to develop Tetum so that it can replace Portuguese as the official language of government, at least in the medium-term. Such a transition also requires serious political will and efforts from the state and national linguistic institutions, including the formalisation of vocabulary and mass production of dictionaries and technical textbooks. However, the lack of discussion of this issue among Timor-Leste’s leaders and the public indicates that it is not a major priority.

As long as the current official language policy requires laws and most other official documents to be written in Portuguese, it is necessary to increase the level of Portuguese across a significant minority of Timorese society in the short-term. Timorese people are multilingual by nature, and most are already familiar with Portuguese, so it should be possible to improve the population’s understanding of Portuguese with relatively small investments. Sadly, the state’s efforts to increase use of Portuguese across society have so far achieved limited success. Despite adopting Portuguese as the language of instruction in public schools and providing Portuguese classes to civil servants, the level of Portuguese language ability across the population is still limited. This is the result of various factors, including inconsistent language policy in educational facilities, limited Portuguese ability of most teachers and the wide availability of English-language foreign scholarships since independence. The presence of Portuguese-speaking advisors working within state institutions has also likely reduced pressure on policy makers and public servants to learn Portuguese, while it seems that young Timorese are more interested in learning English than Portuguese.

In conclusion, it is clear that Timor-Leste’s dependency on foreign advisors to perform basic functions are creating challenges for the state’s development, while putting pressure on Timor-Leste’s limited finances and contributing to socio-economic inequality, resentment and dysfunction in the state bureaucracy. The exclusion of Timorese policy makers and civil servants – along with the general public – from important policy processes which require adequate knowledge of Portuguese threatens our national sovereignty and democracy. Various factors are contributing to this dependency, including the official language policy, limited knowledge of Portuguese among civil servants and wider Timorese society, the adoption of laws from Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking contexts, and inadequate political will among Timorese leaders to improve domestic legal and language capacity.

At the most basic level, resolving these – and many other – problems requires improving the educational standards within Timorese society. At the same time, FM believes that the Government must evaluate the implementation of the Portuguese language policy in educational facilities and across state institutions, which can help to understand the extent of Portuguese language development in the country and identify measures to strengthen it. Leaders should also revisit the question of developing Tetum to enable it to replace Portuguese. However, this is a difficult task which requires significant political will, time and investment. Therefore, it may also be necessary to achieve Portuguese fluency among a sufficient proportion of the population to reduce dependency on foreign advisors in the short term. To achieve this, more scholarships to study in Portuguese-speaking countries should be made available, especially for high school students and those aiming to work in government. Likewise, the Government must invest in legal training for Timorese people and collaborate with Parliament and the President to simplify and harmonise Timor-Leste’s laws.

To improve collaboration and mutual learning between foreign and Timorese staff within state institutions, FM suggests that mentoring and capacity building should be included in the basic job description of foreign advisors. Furthermore, in the interest of both justice and financial sustainability, we ask the Government to review all foreign advisor salaries so that they are based on realistic standards, including the cost of living in Timor-Leste and remuneration for similar work in other developing countries. Contracts for advisors should also be strictly time limited and subject to thorough evaluation, rather than being renewed year after year, while the practice of hiring advisors based on internal recommendations from other advisors must be ended. These changes would help to change the existing incentives and ensure that foreign advisors are recruited in a way which minimises conflicts of interest, while enhancing state capacity rather than maintaining dependency.

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