The morning rush: men in short sleeves and women in strappy sandals carry laptops, mobile phones and ID into gleaming offices, while others head for a latte and breakfast. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is London. But this is Dili, capital of East Timor, and the United Nations consumer class is going to work.
In the conflagration that followed the popular vote for independence last August, East Timor lost more than homes, livelihoods and lives; the heavily subsidised Indonesian administration disappeared too. When the UN apologetically returned in late September, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was mandated to fill the vacuum. At the time, the World Bank and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted the consequences of a large foreign influx, creating the fourth foreign administrative class in 60 years (after the Japanese, Portuguese and Indonesians). UNDPs suggestion was that UNTAET make itself redundant as soon as possible.
Yet last years prophecy has been fulfilled: an international consumer class is distorting the socio-economic fabric of an already damaged country. Now, the disgruntled populace are making their disaffection known through labour disputes, near-weekly demonstrations in the capital and the fledgling popular press.
The changes to East Timor are highly visible. For every 100 East Timorese the country boasts one foreign soldier. The official tender is the US dollar. In Dili, streets are full of four-wheel drives bearing the standards of UN agencies, peacekeeping forces and international NGOs, while 500 UN staff live on a huge floating hotel moored opposite the UNTAET headquarters. The large expat community almost exclusively patronise foreign-owned establishments, where hard currency gets transferred, via beer and burgers, directly to Darwin or Singapore.
Rapid price rises mean that the mostly rural population, who in 1998 lived on US$300 a year, are getting poorer. The international presence is a major inflationary factor. Add to that damage to local food production and labour lost in the violence or to international organisations that pay more, and it is easy to see why food has become costly for the average East Timorese. In June, a 30% jump in fuel prices led to more demonstrations, mostly a result of the UNTAET triple whammy of import duty, excise duty and sales tax.
Jobs are another contention. Under the Indonesians, the civil service accounted for a staggering 20% of the economy. The new civil service will be one-third of the size and the sustainable wages on offer dont reflect the rising cost of living. Irregular payment and the insecurity of UNTAETs three-month contracts add to the burden.
Certainly a few East Timorese entrepreneurs are doing well in Dili, sporting cars and mobiles to rival the foreigners. Elsewhere, members of the unemployed armed resistance (Falintil) are too proud to stand in line for food aid. The new East Timorese elite, mainly members of the pro-independence front, CNRT, and those in position for top civil service jobs, are accused by the local people of social climbing and empire building.
The administration explains these frustrations as understandable, nay inevitable, given the difficulties of transition. But Lao Hamutuk (Walking Together), a Dili-based NGO that monitors international activities, says development is too slow, East Timorese participation is inadequate and international institutions are insufficiently transparent.
The onus is now on UNTAET and the World Bank to prove their worth. Cutting the most visible waste, such as district helicopter shuttles, would help public relations, but the key thing would be the publication of milestones for measured withdrawal.
[note: The heading -- email Kelly Morris@Dili -- is as it appears in Guardians online edition]