February 29, 2024

World Bank Faults Itself for East Timor’s Struggles

WASHINGTON — A frank evaluation by the World Bank’s internal auditors of a decade of efforts to help East Timor underscores the challenges facing international organizations trying to assist struggling nations.

The draft report, not yet released publicly, assigns much of the blame for slow progress in East Timor, which emerged in 1999 after a quarter-century struggle for independence from Indonesia, to the World Bank itself.

But it also illustrates the problems that arise as development agencies try to meet urgent needs while ensuring that donors’ money is not misspent.

The review by the auditors, the Independent Evaluation Group, which reports directly to World Bank directors, covers the period from 2000 to 2010. Among its findings are that the bank delayed the opening of four desperately needed hospitals for a year because it adhered too rigidly to its own procurement rules, even though East Timor’s child mortality rate was among the highest in Southeast Asia and life expectancy was barely over 55.

The report also says efforts to support education were unsatisfactory. The bank did help build and repair schools. But at the request of the new government, which was trying to dismantle the Indonesian education system, it distributed teaching materials in Portuguese, which had been the main language of instruction before the Indonesian occupation, when Timor was a Portuguese colony.

The new government restored Portuguese as an official language along with Tetum, an indigenous language. But Portuguese was spoken by only 5 percent of the population, and few younger teachers could understand the materials.

It might have been more useful, the report says, to have developed texts in English or indigenous languages.

One result, the bank’s report says, was that by 2009, more than 70 percent of the students tested at the end of the first grade “could not read a single word” of a simple text in Portuguese, “a dismal record after 10 years of efforts.”

The report asserts that at the urging of the bank — which provides loans to developing countries with the explicit goal of fighting poverty — East Timor saved too much of its petroleum revenues rather than spend them on social projects, an approach that contributed to high levels of poverty.

Poverty in East Timor, already at a rate twice that of Indonesia’s level, “rose significantly through most of the evaluation period and declined only after 2007, when the government, against bank advice, increased its spending using petroleum resources,” the report states.

Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s director for East Timor, said it was against the bank’s policy to comment on an evaluation that was not final. But he said the country had made “tremendous progress” in the past decade, building or rehabilitating 637 schools and helping to increase life expectancy to 61 in 2008, from 56 in 2000.

When East Timor became independent, an estimated 70 percent of its economic infrastructure had been destroyed in years of fighting.

“It’s a lot easier to look backwards,” said Scott Guggenheim, a former World Bank adviser who worked in East Timor. “The country had been burned down. You had half the population in refugee camps.”

Difficult compromises are often necessary, specialists say.

“You are going to want to try to move as quickly as possible, even though you recognize that maybe some things are going to be used less efficiently,” said Michael Morfit, a professor at Georgetown University who worked in Indonesia for the United States Agency for International Development. “You just accept that as the trade-off.”

The case of the Portuguese school texts in East Timor poses a somewhat different challenge: knowing when to resist policies if they seem ill advised.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f53a5459ca6e22c7859d95988478a924

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