Tuesday, August 08, 2006

When the modern meets the feudal

Is it possible for a person from a modern society to work together with those from a feudal society where the benefits of the former society are sustainably conferred on the latter?

For the past year, my partner Daniel worked for a leading legal human rights NGO in Timor; today just before he resigned, he learned that the Director sent an email to AVI telling them that Daniel’s services were no longer required and that the new six month contract they were currently in negotiation about was not necessary. Why? Because both the Director and many of the mainly male Timorese staff believe that one male colleague’s possession of child pornography on its organisation’s computer (a fact he does not deny nor try to justify) merely warrants a warning and that Daniel’s protestations that it constituted a serious offence that should be met with the sacking of the offender, meant that the head of a Timorese human rights NGO decided to get rid of the whistleblower in order to protect the offender and anyone else like him that works at this so-called human rights NGO.

The offenders first documented warning was of the sexual assault of a colleague which came on top of an undocumented warning of being so drunk that he was unable to drive colleagues to the districts to undertake human rights training, that he sent a friend and inexperienced driver in his place. This event potentially endangered the lives of his colleagues. Furthermore, this person engages in corrupt work practices such as abusing the organisation’s resources. But when the Director does likewise, who is going to hold him to account?

Within this organisation there are two units which work on issues of sexual assault of children and women. From experience, they have come to learn that within Timorese society, the sexual assault of children is only taken seriously when a girl child is vaginally raped with a male’s penis. Everything else is considered of no real consequence. The reason being that within traditional Timorese society, girls and women are considered simply an asset, not much different from owning a cow or a pig, except that their (bride) price brings in more income. When a girl’s virginity is “stolen”, her price is markedly reduced. If the family (father and his brothers) decides not to pursue the assault through the formal (modern) justice sector, then they will do so via customary law which inevitably awards the girl child’s family animals in compensation for their “loss”.

Daniel has been told by some of his mostly male Timorese colleagues that he is simply a trouble maker; that he should just chill out, have fun and stop trying to make things difficult. Others (notably most of the Timorese women) are appalled that the organisation they work for, an organisation whose mission is to uphold the rule of (modern) law and human rights conventions, could, when it comes to its own (male) staff, fail to hold them accountable to these very same principles.

Compounding the situation is a highly stratified traditional Timorese culture. Despite the fact that most of the Timorese staff hail from the privileged class and hold university degrees in law from Indonesia, they cannot escape their deeply entrenched patriarchal culture as exemplified in the relations between the ema boot and ema kiik. The staff simply will not question the authority of the director even when they feel he fails to show any leadership on such a serious issue as child pornography. They do not see it as their place to do so. Timorese are also loath to confront problems head on, instead employing the very strategy which freed them from their Indonesian oppressors: passive resistance. Furthermore, with a high unemployment rate, they cannot afford to lose their jobs and confronting an ineffectual Director, might very well get them fired. Thus, any challenges to corruption and contravention of human rights standards, has to come from the malae, but even here there are serious problems.

The other three malae women Daniel currently works with believe the possession of child pornography is a serious matter. Only one of these women has been working at the NGO for more than a year, the other two having commenced work within the last month (Daniel is currently the second longest serving malae and during his time there said goodbye to five malae and three Timorese, yet the latter outnumber the former by 3 to 1).
However, this very fact demonstrates the incredibly high turnover of malae staff who stay just as long as it takes them to get their next better paid position in some other third world country or secure a scholarship to do their masters in law at some top Western university. As we have both come to learn from our time in Timor, there are many many malae here who simply come to Timor to glorify their CVs and fatten their bank accounts and couldn’t really give a fuck about the very principles to which they purportedly hold dear nor the long term interests of the organisation, the country or its people. Some even go so far as to say that they “love the lifestyle” Timor affords them. What “lifestyle” might that be I ask when the country is so impoverished? “Lifestyle” and poverty are incompatible with each other. Moreover, they enjoy the power of being a big fish in a little pond. They use and abuse this country while enjoying the benefits of modernity but live in the midst of a society that denies them, in practice, to the Timorese.

A number of Daniel’s male Timorese colleagues have told him that he is nothing like the other malae they have worked with. That none of the previous malae “caused trouble” and as a consequence enjoyed working with them. But how many of these previous malae really showed any real commitment to the organisation, their colleagues or Timor? How many of them have been like Daniel, worked as a volunteer for a year and then after being mandatorily evacuated due to the deteriorating security situation is told that the program he is with is suspended under further notice, return to Timor under their own steam to work on a greatly reduced allowance because they passionately care about the organisation, their colleagues and the work they do? How many malae are willing to put their neck on the line for an issue or cause they believe in? Many internationally paid malae in Timor seek nothing more than there own glorification. The irony is, Daniel’s Timorese colleagues believe that it is these very same malae who care about the organisation!

How can the work of a leading Timorese NGO be reconciled with the behaviour of some of its staff? Why should the community listen to what these very people have to say when they themselves contravene these very principles? When these people teach its citizens about the law and human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and then return to the office to view child pornography, sexually assault or harass their female colleagues? What is the consequence of impunity within a human rights NGO which publicly condemns it?

The Director can argue that it is not a crime in Timor to possess child pornography. The Indonesian Penal Code (to which Timor still adheres) is ambiguous on possession but clear on manufacturing and distributing child pornography. However, the new Timorese Penal Code which is waiting ratification by the government, states that the possession of child pornography is punishable by one to six years imprisonment. Shouldn’t this legal human rights NGO uphold both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the local law which will soon come into force?

Complicating matters is the fact that it was malae staff who decided to hand over the reigns of the organisation as a malae to a Timorese managed one. It certainly looks good on one’s CV when you can say that you “successfully transitioned” an NGO to local staff, while you then never get to experience the consequences of this decision but do go on to continue climbing the career ladder of your chosen field. What potential Western employer is going to telephone a local NGO in Timor and ask whether the transition was a success, when the person they will inevitably talk to (the Director) is the very person who should never have been elevated to the position in the first place? And who subsequently went on to sexually harass one of his junior female colleagues and admitted to her that he had on at least one occasion, had sexual relations with a sex worker while attending a conference on human rights in Asia?

Ultimately, one has to draw the line somewhere. Capacity building is a fraught endeavour when the people involved are from two very different cultural and educational backgrounds and all to frequently with conflicting motivations. Both the NGOs we have worked for include many Timorese who are not terribly interested in the issues the organisation espouses, and certainly are not passionate about human rights, but simply need a job to support themselves and their substantial extended families. Given that the NGO field in Timor is one of the biggest (and one of the best paid) industries, it is inevitable that many of the staff do not work for an organisation with the same level of commitment to the principles of that organisation that one might expect in the West where we have more opportunities and a far greater range of industries to chose from for paid employment. In fact in the West, the NGO sector is one of the worst paid industries and tends to attract highly motivated and passionate people who are prepared (and able) to sacrifice a more highly lucrative position elsewhere. In Timor, the situation is frequently the reverse.

Just imagine a modern Westerner trying to capacity build a feudal European from the medieval period about human rights. (Take just one example, Children’s Rights. In Western feudal societies, children were considered mini adults and sexual abuse was rife; there was simply no understanding about its consequences. With the benefits of education and research, we now know that it is incredibly damaging to the child and the future adult they will become.) Now throw in conflicting motivations and a multi language environment and you get a pretty good sense of how difficult and perhaps even futile it is. As one of our malae friends says, the Timorese have a very good theoretical understanding of human rights but the gap between theory and practice is enormous. I would also add that the same applies (albeit it manifests itself in different ways) to many of the malae who come here. One could even argue that given all the privileges and education bestowed on malae, it is they who should be held most accountable.
For those interested in how to live a practically ethical life, I take this opportunity to draw to your attention the work of the philosopher Peter Singer. I highly commend his book Practical Ethics.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Possessing pornography on one's computer is a serious offense! this should be highlighted! in fact, you need to warn the UN agencies which might be working with this human rights NGO so that they know better whom they are partnering. It's not about snitching etc. but informing.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:20 pm  

Possessing pornography on one's computer is a serious offense! this should be highlighted! in fact, you need to warn the UN agencies which might be working with this human rights NGO so that they know better whom they are partnering. It's not about snitching etc. but informing.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:21 pm  

Name the NGO please???

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:43 pm  

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