Voices of a Better Normal

Voices for a Better Normal #1: Reimagining Decentralization Policy in Timor Leste


Alexandre Rosa Bruno Sarmento

Alexandre Rosa Bruno Sarmento is a Timorese and has worked in various organizations in Timor-Leste. He has led and coordinated several studies related to rural development and environment including decentralization. The views expressed in this article is fully his own and does not, in any manner, represent the institutions/programs he may be associated with. He can be reached at alexsarmento2009@gmail.com

Although recent parliament discussions on local power and municipal election put decentralization under intense scrutiny, decentralization policy remains less at the forefront of broader public debate in Timor-Leste. This article seeks to unmask the current policy by revealing realities faced by its biggest city of Dili.   In 2015, Dili, the capital city of the half-island state, had a population of 268,005 inhabitants (excluding Atauro island). This number represents 23% of the population of the country. Towards the end of 2022 (based on preliminary census data), the number of Dili residents soared to 324,296, with an additional 56,264 people. This roughly equates to 8,000 new residents being born and/or settling in Dili every year. This figure further represents an annual population growth rate of nearly 3%, the highest of all municipalities. As Dili’s population is increasing, other municipalities like Viqueque are shrinking, percentage wise (in spite Viqueque’s nominal increase in overall numbers). Furthermore, this population trend has seen increase in urbanization of Dili’s rapidly rising, and sometimes uncontrolled, population growth.   Although Timorese population is predominantly rural, the upsurge of human inhabitants in the city has in turn, triggered even bigger demand for basic rights and services that often can only be delivered by public institutions.  Almost on daily basis numerous Dili residents have been complaining about lack of running water, unreliable electricity, dilapidated public infrastructure, long line of queues in obtaining public services and particularly inadequate land to build their houses on. In certain suburbs, there are already some residents building their homes one on top of another. This lack of space has been exacerbated by sea level rise of 9mm annually since 1993, (Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Program 2015). Furthermore, according to recent ADB report (Solid Waste Management in the Pacific Timor-Leste Country Snapshot, June 2014), Dili produces 18,564 cubic meters of waste per day.There is also a proliferation of house construction on hillsides surrounding the city. Many of these houses are built on slopes that are unstable and evidently vulnerable to landslides during heavy downpours. Still, many more are built along flood-prone riverbanks. If this uncontrolled building continues unabated, Dili is poised to become home of a new generation of slum dwellers, with all the associated problems of disadvantage and potential illegality and criminality.Restriction in general population movement to and from major cities like Dili due to Covid-19 pandemic (school closure and physical distancing), have further complicated the smooth implementation of programs that have been delegated to municipalities. Livelihood activities specially of urban poor were hardly hit. Students’ education has also been immensely affected This is compounded by the country’s limited technological support for virtual learning. (Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of Covid-19 in Timor-Leste, Round 2, 2021). On 4th April 2021, after days of endless rains, floods occurred throughout the country. Dili was not spared. Numerous shanty houses on the hills were swept away as expected, as were those built along the riverbanks. More than 40 people were reportedly killed or missing. Those who survived, abandoned their houses, and sought refuge in makeshift camps. In total more than 31,000 households were affected throughout the country of which 82% are in Dili. Search and rescue efforts were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the calamity (UNICEF Timor-Leste 2021 Floods Response Report). To curtail the spread of illegal occupation of public land, the government has occasionally resorted to eviction. The evicted families received compensation to return to their villages. However most, if not all of them, simply relocated to other parts of the city. The government has neither effective policies nor resources to control this trend, leading to a spiraling cycle of evictions and removals. The urban homeless are not motivated to return to their original rural homes. In their villages, there is less opportunities for paid employment and most have insufficient skills and resources to set up their own businesses or farms.Although this problem is relatively minor in scale in comparison to other mega cities in the region, it does pose a problem for policy makers.  One of the solutions could be effective decentralization. Decentralization is a set of policies that delegates competencies and financial investments of public services from central government to sub national governments or autonomous agencies or even to private sector. According to World Bank, what motivates governments to decentralize varies. It can be due to the need to accelerate economic transformation, to reinforce transition to democracy, to ease local tension or a combination of all these factors. In many countries the main aim of decentralization is to enable decision making process and to provide public services faster and closer to local communities particularly in remote areas.  (James Manor, “The Political Economy of Democratic Decentralization” World Bank Washington D.C. 1999)  Decentralization is not new in Timor-Leste. During the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999), selected socio-economic decision-making functions were devolved to local municipal government. Municipal assemblies known then as Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or DPR, functioned both at provincial and municipal levels with relatively sufficient funding awarded to them to implement local policies and programs.  (https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timor_Timur)  Since Timor-Leste gained independence (2002), some progress towards a decentralized state has been achieved with the creation of the territorial division law in 2009 (Decree Law No.11/2009). In its efforts to devolve more power to local government, the government adopted a new administrative decentralization in 2016 (Decree Law No. 03/2016).  This brought considerable changes to municipalities. Municipal government was restructured and for the first time, funds were allocated directly to municipalities. Although rural-urban migration in other countries is almost always a natural phenomenon, when implemented correctly, decentralization can be a powerful tool for local employment creation which may help halt the trend. Under the current framework, municipalities can implement key programs that include among others, education, health, agriculture, public works and water and sanitation. The municipalities can also implement infrastructure projects up to half a million dollars. Current decentralization policies enable municipalities to procure basic services in health sector such as maintenance of ambulances and fuel for vehicles. In education sector, municipalities can offer meals in schools under their jurisdiction and implement school infrastructure improvement projects. However delegated functions have been thwarted by insufficient funding. Recent decentralization reviews (Organizational and Functional Analysis of Municipal Structure and Decentralized Municipal Budget Analysis, June 2022) have pointed out that funding to municipalities were merely adequate to cover salaries and travel costs for employees. Implementation of programs that produce tangible benefits to local communities remains to be seen. While this can be explained by successive years of political deadlock compounded by the effects of Covid-19 pandemic and natural disaster, municipalities find it hard to comprehend why many planned activities remain unfunded by the central government. Central government’s treatment of sub-national governments across the country have been uneven, to put it mildly. Many municipalities on the mainland receive much less budget than their counterparts in the enclave of Oe-Cussi and Atauro island. In the 2023 state budget, Oe-cussi alone received $120 million USD which is almost twice as much as the budget of all 12 other municipalities combined. Surprisingly, Dili, the biggest municipality by population, has the smallest budget allocation per capita in 2023.  This favoritism obviously creates regional imbalance and tends to breed social jealousy. Resentment over this disproportionate treatment has been expressed by municipal authorities but they have been largely ignored.Despite local competencies, overlapping and lack of coordination of activities between national and sub-national government continue to occur. The current decentralization program is weak, in that, it allows central government to voluntarily relinquish and retrieve its promises to local government at its discretion. In addition, there is also lack of clarity on various program implementation at all levels. Multiple decentralized programs are only prescribed in paper but are not seriously implemented in reality. One explanation for this is that the Central government wants to retain power and status quo by controlling financial resources. This becomes apparent in the continued reluctance of the central government to allocate sufficient funding to municipalities, for example, in agriculture and public works sector. This lack of funding is coupled with the fact that human capacity building programs remained stagnant. Furthermore, there is often confusion between the division of labour between national and sub-national governments. Municipalities have often complained about overlapping of program implementation. All these reasons combined can potentially make decentralization programs counter-productive to socio-economic progress in municipalities. Moreover, there has been no feasibility studies carried out to determine what levels of capacity exists in different municipalities to indicate what programs municipalities can deliver efficiently and effectively. Current decentralization policies and programs seem to have been implemented based on study tours to foreign countries. The decentralization strategy was less tailored to the needs of local communities.  Furthermore, there is no strong evidence to support that Timorese public had been adequately consulted.  The current decentralization framework was largely based on hasty consultation with elected politicians who may have been motivated merely by sectarian interests than sound socio-economic analysis. The current decentralization policy seems to be mainly political in nature with the view of strengthening local democratic institutions and less on creating economic opportunities.There is only one decentralization law that is applicable to all municipalities, (excluding Oe-Cusse but including Dili), without consideration given to unique socio-economic conditions that individual municipalities may possess. Municipalities should have been clustered according to their common characteristics in agricultural production or geographic landscape. Allocation of financial resources need to be customized to the unique and specific needs of each municipality and based on their capabilities to implement them. Not all programs should be decentralized to all municipalities as not all municipalities have the same capacity to implement them.The current decentralization framework needs to be thoroughly rethought and reconfigured if necessary. Creating decentralization legal framework should be preceded by a comprehensive local governance policy that was aligned with real needs of people and their communities. The laws must then be accompanied by clear implementation guidelines, laws that are common to all and yet flexible enough to allow municipalities to rediscover their unique potential for creating their own socio-economic vibrancy. Allocation of funding should follow this basic rule to ensure the most efficient use of dwindling petroleum resources. Dili, by virtue of its proximity and home to national government offices, must not be treated in the same way as other municipalities. Dili’s population is more than six times the size of other municipalities and as such it deserves a special decentralization regime. Public investment should be proportionately granted to municipalities according to their socio-economic potential. When proportionate investment is applied in municipalities, it will stimulate economic activities that pave the road for preventing further internal migration to Dili. Dili will gradually become less congested and the strain on infrastructure and services reduced. Against the backdrop of the government’s projection of an imminent fiscal cliff and declining resources, a carefully well thought decentralization policy should be a strategic imperative for government, otherwise the decentralization silver bullet may as well miss the target.Bibliography: 

  1. Timor-Leste Population and Housing Census 2015: https://dataspace.princeton.edu/bitstream/88435/dsp015q47rr25x/1/DSTimorCensus2015DataSheet.pdf 
  2. Timor-Leste Population and Housing Census 2022 Preliminary Results:  https://timor-leste.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/censuspreliminaryresults2022_4.pdf Pacific-Australia 
  3. Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Program: https://www.pacificclimatechangescience.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/5_PACCSAP-Timor-Leste-9pp_WEB.pdf  
  4. Solid Waste Management in the Pacific Timor-Leste Country Snapshot, June 2014: https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/42661/solid-waste-management-timor-leste.pdf 
  5. Government of Timor-Leste Decree Law No.11/2009 (LEI N.O 11/2009 de 7 de Outubro DIVISÃO ADMINISTRATIVA DO TERRITÓRIO)  https://estatal.gov.tl/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Lei-n.%C2%BA-112009-de-7-de-Outubro-Divisa%CC%83o-Administrativa-do-Territo%CC%81rio.pdf 
  6. Government of Timor-Leste Decree Law No. 03/2016 (DECRETO-LEI N.º 3 / 2016 de 16 de Março) https://mj.gov.tl/jornal/public/docs/2016/serie_1/SERIE_I_NO_11.pdf  
  7. Organizational and Functional Analysis of Municipal Structure and Decentralized Municipal Budget Analysis, June 2022 (commissioned by Australian Funded PARTISIPA Program) 
  1. Timor-Leste General State Budget 2023 https://www.mof.gov.tl/publicationdetails/lei-orcamento-geral-do-estado-para-2023 
  2. Manor, James “The Political Economy of Democratic Decentralization” World Bank Washington D.C. 1999 https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/386101468739238037/pdf/multi-page.pdf 
  3. https://timorleste.un.org/en/170064-socio-economic-impact-assessment-covid-19-timor-leste-round-2-2021 
  4. https://www.unicef.org/timorleste/media/4581/file/UNICEF%20TL%202021%20floods%20response%20summary%202Feb2022.pdf 

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