On May 20, East Timor exulted over its independence from Indonesia. But while the nation, after centuries of colonization by Portugal followed by more than 20 years of occupation by Indonesia, had much to celebrate, hard work lies ahead.
In the past 20 years, a fifth of the population has been killed, and in 1999, Indonesian troops destroyed 80 percent of East Timor's infrastructure. In addition, life expectancy is 57 years, more than half of the population is illiterate and nearly half live in poverty.
To help East Timor in its newly attained independence, Columbia's Center for International Conflict Resolution (CICR) is administering an $895,000 grant intended to assist in bringing about a peaceful transition. The grant will fund local initiatives to improve understanding of political, constitutional and electoral developments, increase public access to information and help to strengthen local communities in their capacity to realize common visions for the future.
The grant comes from the Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation, on behalf of the World Bank, following a request from East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao. CICR will facilitate the design, organization and administration of a central fund supporting the activities of East Timorese non-governmental organizations and communities through sub-grants from project funds.
"Levels of local participation in the overall democratic development of the country are low and frustration with the slow pace of reconstruction, including the lack of broad East Timorese involvement in decision-making, is ever more apparent," said Andrea Bartoli, director of CICR, part of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). "Long-term stability depends on the direct engagement of local communities."
According to project organizers, work will be sensitive to local conditions while raising an understanding of the language and standards of the international community. A team of East Timorese facilitators will guide local communities through processes of public engagement, with the support and encouragement of CICR, and aim to become the collective broker between local and international communities. This is intended to ensure that issues of concern to the East Timorese continue to be identified, recognized and addressed both locally and by the international community. Implementation of these programs began in the spring of 2002.
"It is particularly important now to focus on the future and what steps, even if small, can be taken to sustain hope within communities," said Rebecca Engel, SIPA '01, who left for East Timor in late April and who has been to the region four times since June 2000. "I believe that we may be in a position to contribute positively toward the reduction of tensions within East Timor, incrementally, by providing access to both human and financial resources and by creating the space necessary for communities to begin moving toward the realization of common visions."