When do good intentions to ‘help’ end up undermining people’s sense of control and sovereignty?

Visiting Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor), just over a decade ago, you would have been struck by the military presence: Indonesian forces in military vehicles trundling down the small city’s streets, bored soldiers standing at checkpoints.

Visiting now, ten years since the people of this troubled island nation voted for independence from Indonesia, one is struck by a different – but still highly visible –foreign presence.

As I sit outside my hotel, watching the early morning traffic, at least half of the vehicles are sparkly white 4-wheel drives emblazoned with various UN and international aid agency logos. Some are driven by UN officials themselves. In others, European faces sit in the back, looking out at the fish sellers, while their Timorese drivers navigate the streets.

Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest nations in South East Asia, so it seems logical that international aid is big business here. Over the past decade, an estimated $10 billion has found its way to Timor-Leste, accounting in part for the Landcruisers and palpable foreign presence.

Of course today’s foreigners, or “malae” in the local tongue, are here to support the development of the nation. But in some ways it is so absurd – so much energy and money poured through clunky, well meaning, frequently inefficient institutions into this fragile state.

Well paid advisors fly in and fly out with their highly regarded opinions. Donor funds for all sorts of well meaning areas of work are dreamed up in donor offices.

The theatre of development can easily look like farce.

It worries me that so little money trickles down to rural areas. I am stunned by how many projects re-create a dependency that they seek to reduce, by the fact that many of the brightest minds are snapped up by well paying international organisations, leaving government and local NGOs and community-based organisations with what’s left.

Of course, you can’t argue that donor funds – especially in such vast quantities – don’t make any difference. Just this July, Mario Carrascalao, Timor-Leste’s Vice-Prime Minister, insisted that progress is being made, saying the international community has helped create peace in his country.

I saw some of this progress myself. In one rural village I visited, people are now able to draw water from a nearby hand pump, instead of having to collect it from a distant contaminated stream.

But is that enough?

In all this mayhem, many of us who work in international development console ourselves by saying that we are working in partnership with ‘local organisations’, hoping that this gives us a sense of legitimacy and helps to assuage our concerns that we are acting with unilateral paternalism.

But, I ask, are these local partners fully independent – is it they who are driving the development agenda of their country and providing services that they think are important for the people they work with? Or are they marionettes jerking in time to an international tune?

The answer, sadly, is that they are frequently the latter. If an international NGO has the money and a ‘great idea’ then they can usually find a local organisation that will join in as a sub-contractor.

Then I ask myself what Progressio – an international NGO – is doing on a stage that is already cramped with scriptless actors falling over each other to play a role. To what extent do we push our own agenda? Are we adding to what some see as ‘wasted aid’?

Our approach is to support local organisations from the inside. That means finding out how we can help them to develop their vision – not the other way round. So we sit down and talk. We ask organisations where they need to develop their skills and expertise and then link them up with experienced professionals. Many of these so-called ‘development workers’ come from countries in the global South: they know what the challenges of development are.

Our development workers are modestly paid, often in sharp contrast to many of the expatriates in the country. Solidarity is at the heart of our approach and we seek to walk hand in hand with organisations doing real, tangible work, often over many years. This means change can be slow, but perhaps it is more durable.

There are many aspects to aid effectiveness – and a whole host of reasons why some aid works and some doesn’t. We don’t have all the answers – nor can we hope to tackle such vital issues as widespread lack of infrastructure or access to employment. These are huge challenges which will require long term investment.

But local ownership of development is a concept which must be taken seriously. How else will people have the power to solve their own problems? Through a skill share approach – and in close consultation with local people – I hope that we can play a small part, albeit a backstage one, in the long term development of this infant nation.

James Whitehead

Progressio’s International Programmes Director


Thank you for a very honest description of the power difference and touristic nature of some areas of international development, with Progressio set apart from the rest… from a Northern perspective.

I was left wondering how community organisations in the South see it. When Progressio’s partners are asked to write and report back to Progressio they are likely to be positive and stick to professional terms of reference, but what would they say to each other about these particular ‘malae’ off duty?

How do they see Progressio’s development workers? They are surely still gatekeepers to resources and this brings with it a power to be negotiated. It would be good to hear a similarly honest account of international development, and Progressio’s work in particular, from a Southern perspective.

Clare Jeffery
Progressio contributor