Capacity building in Timor Leste: a work in progress

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It is difficult to track down who first made the observation – ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Some feel that it is a Chinese proverb dating back to the ninth century or even an American Indian proverb. A reference is made to it in 1885 in the novel ‘Mrs. Dymond’ written by novelist Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie.1 Irrespective of its origin, it is a reflection on the power of capacity building.
The role of a donor in outreach projects in the developing world is a difficult and sensitive one. If the focus is solely on service provision, a system that is coping poorly can be rapidly turned into one that is entirely dependent on external support. This creates a ‘cargo cult’ and is clearly a poor outcome. It is unsustainable.
Timor Leste is a case in point. In October 1999, the Indonesian military withdrew after 24 years of forced occupation. The retreating forces destroyed most of the infrastructure but fortunately the hospitals and churches were left intact. There were only 20 Timorese doctors left to care for a population of 700 000 people.2 Many will recall that the UN forces who took initial control of East Timor were led by our current Australian Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove.
We have a long‐standing debt to the Timorese people dating back to the Second World War. In February 1942, the Japanese made a major push to secure Timor as a launching point to assist in gaining control of New Guinea on route to invading Australia. Some will recall that the ‘Sparrow Force’, comprising predominately of men of the 2/40th infantry battalion, became isolated as a result of this push. They were a force of less than 2000 men recruited mainly in Tasmania. They fought a rear guard commando action that was credited to have kept over 20 000 Japanese troops busy for 6 months who were destined to be deployed in New Guinea. The 2/40th losses were minimal. A total of 151 soldiers died.3 Sadly my uncle, Robert, died on the first day of action at the age of 19. Ambushed and beheaded.
The success of the ‘Sparrow Force’ was credited not only to their bravery but also to the support and protection provided by the Timorese people. It is thought that 40 000–70 000 Timorese were killed by the Japanese in reprisal.3 If the Japanese had controlled Timor and then reinforced New Guinea, it is quite likely that Australia would have been invaded.
We are indebted to the Timorese people.
As a nation and a College, we can be truly proud of the RACS programme in East Timor. An account of the first 10 years is published in this issue.2 It reflects the significant contribution made by a number of Fellows to a strategic programme under the direction of David Scott and Glen Guest and managed by Daliah Moss. It is a story of capacity building but it has not been straight forward or easy. It has taken a great deal of energy and imagination. It is a story of collaboration and commitment, and despite its difficulties, it has provided a model for future programmes and others colleges to follow.
It is an excellent read and I recommend it to you.
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