The East Timor emergency response
by Janet Hunt October 2002

The crisis in East Timor following the pro-independence ballot there in August 1999 was swift and dramatic. Yet even so, the massive donor response surprised everyone.

In January 1999, Indonesia surprised the world by announcing that the people of East Timor would be allowed to vote in a plebiscite to decide the territory’s future. That May, Indonesia, the former colonial power Portugal and the UN signed the Tripartite Agreement, which made Jakarta responsible for peace and security in the run-up to the ballot at the end of August. Despite a poor security environment, persistent militia activity and the internal displacement of between 40,000 and 60,000 people, the plebiscite itself proceeded successfully.

The result, a 78% vote in favour of independence, sparked widespread violence by Indonesian forces and pro-Indonesia militia. Destruction, burning and looting left an unknown number of East Timorese dead, and forced more than 230,000 into Indonesian West Timor. The remaining population of around 600,000 fled to the hills and mountains. All but 11 UN staff, along with refugees who had sought UN protection, were evacuated to Darwin in northern Australia.

On 19 September, Jakarta ceded sovereignty over East Timor. The following day, an international military coalition, INTERFET, led by Australia and authorised by the UN, arrived in Dili and began the task of securing the territory. Humanitarian actors followed quickly behind. On 25 October, UN Security Council Resolution 1272 established UNTAET, a transitional administration initially responsible for establishing a civil government. This was the first time the UN had actually administered a country. On 23 February 2000, the UN took over responsibility for security from INTERFET. The international humanitarian response, coordinated by OCHA, had responsibility for both East and West Timor. Whilst the devastation in East Timor was tremendous, the situation in West Timor was more complex, with very active militia and extremely poor security. The response to this aspect of the emergency was developed by the provincial government in West Timor itself, and by humanitarian agencies in Jakarta.

From a ‘silent’ crisis to a ‘loud’ emergency

The donor response to East Timor, a tiny nation of 800,000 people, was remarkably generous, and unusually rapid. At the donor conference in Tokyo in December 1999, $522 million was pledged over three years, in addition to $149m promised for emergency response. Several factors explain the speed and scale of the rapid international military and humanitarian response, but they can be summarised as intense political pressure, coupled with the capacity to respond.

The crisis was sudden and dramatic, and the destruction wholesale. Widespread media coverage showing Dili in flames stimulated a huge outpouring of public protest, especially in Australia. Thousands of people took to the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian cities to demand intervention, putting the Australian government in particular under intense pressure to do something. Above all, the Timorese people themselves enjoyed widespread international support, the result of an effective international solidarity and diplomatic network built over the previous 25 years. The Timorese leadership used all the diplomatic leverage they could muster as the crisis developed. A meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum leaders leaders in New Zealand on 8 September was the focus of active lobbying by the Australian government, the Timorese and many NGOs. This led to the creation of the INTERFET coalition, with 20 countries committed by 18 September.

Part of the impetus for the response also undoubtedly stemmed from a feeling of culpability. The UN had agreed to the flawed May agreement, and the worst fears of its critics had come true, probably with greater ferocity than even they had imagined. Calls for the early placement of UN peacekeepers had been consistently ignored, while the need to maintain good relations with the Indonesian government had inhibited contingency planning by the UN, despite the clear likelihood of violence should the plebiscite be in favour of independence.

In terms of response capacity, the Australian government had extensive military contingency plans, with troops already in place in the north of the country. It was later revealed that Canberra had detailed intelligence information about the impending events, and it certainly had the military capacity to respond quickly. Moreover, UN staff were keen to return to people they felt they had been forced to abandon, while Darwin provided an excellent base for humanitarian agencies to organise their logistics.

International response …

In many respects, the East Timor response was very successful. Many lives were no doubt saved by the speed and professionalism with which humanitarian assistance was provided. Although there were problems with the shelter programme, food distributions were quickly targeted, NGOs met immediate health needs and many refugees were successfully reintegrated into their communities. The External Review of the period to May 2000 concluded that ‘the overall achievements of the humanitarian response in East Timor have been very positive and timely’. The Review noted that, by April 2000, food distributions as well as maize and rice seed distributions had been extensive; 734 of 788 previously-existing schools had been re-opened, with a total primary school enrolment only 4,000 short of the previous figure of 167,000. Some 250,000 emergency shelter tarpaulins had been distributed, and 161,000 people had returned from West Timor, most with transport help from international agencies. OCHA established strong coordination with all humanitarian actors right from the start, and also coordinated well with the World Bank to identify areas of overlap and to rationalise funding requests, enabling longer-term rehabilitation to begin relatively quickly. Finally, relations between the humanitarian and military components of the response, although initially difficult, were generally as good as in any previous high-profile emergency, testament to the professionalism and respect on both sides.

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… local exclusion

In other respects, however, there were serious shortcomings. Many East Timorese felt overwhelmed and alienated by the massive international presence. They had just voted for independence – but suddenly found themselves totally dependent on foreign organisations. There was no agreed framework developed between the humanitarian actors and Timorese leaders and local institutions at the outset. There were constraints, especially at first, as the Timorese political leaders were not in Dili, and local NGO personnel were mostly still in hiding, or in West Timor. However, these problems persisted even as people began to emerge, and the leadership of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) regrouped and returned to Dili.

There seem to have been several reasons for this. Humanitarian agencies appeared to have little knowledge of East Timor, and were nervous about engaging with the CNRT for fear of aligning themselves with a political organisation. Yet the CNRT was not a political party, but a broad grouping of Timorese interests which had led the campaign for independence. It had moral authority, if no legal standing, yet struggled for months to secure a building in Dili, to obtain transport and to get the basic resources to operate. The Catholic Church was a major institution in East Timor, but few outsiders recognised the significance of its role and its reach.

Language was another problem. Few Timorese spoke English, few humanitarian workers spoke Indonesian or Tetun, and interpreters were scarce. All meetings were conducted in English, and key documents were generally only available in English. The World Bank in particular was very slow to translate its monthly newsletter, and often failed to provide interpreters for meetings. Few Timorese had access to the humanitarian compound, and Timorese rarely participated in coordination meetings.

An early effort to restore local Timorese institutions was made by the NGO Information Centre, which obtained funds and equipment to enable some Timorese NGOs to start working. Yet a year later, local NGOs claimed that even where partnerships existed with international NGOs, they tended to be unequal – it was a ‘donor–implementer’ model, not a real partnership. It was months before structures were created to give Timorese a say at a governmental level. The Timorese felt, with some justification, that their expertise and knowledge of East Timor was not recognised and used by the international community.

Tensions over the lack of Timorese participation were exacerbated by severe resource imbalances. UN staff enjoyed a daily living allowance of over $100. The average Timorese, even before the ravages of September 1999, earned between $300 and $400 per year. A floating hotel in Dili harbour, from which Timorese were barred, symbolises the disparities, and led to huge resentment, especially among young Timorese. Whilst accommodation was in short supply, this solution did nothing for the local economy. A dual economy quickly emerged, with hotels, cafes, restaurants and supermarkets catering for expatriate workers at prices at least equal to those charged in Darwin. For local people, these prices were exorbitant, and the display of affluence amid the poverty, destruction and unemployment which characterised the local economy was an affront. Other decisions, such as the World Bank’s initial policy to buy school tables and chairs from outside the territory, rather than get local carpenters to make them, further angered the Timorese. Eventually, the Bank was forced to change tack, and have at least some school furniture produced locally.


One of the key lessons emerging from the East Timor response is that we need to develop strategies that include and empower local people; in East Timor, as in other high-profile emergencies, it is very easy for local actors and institutions to be sidelined amid the overwhelming foreign presence that such crises tend to attract. Language and communication with the population about what is happening is very important. We need to allocate more resources for this purpose, especially for translators and interpreters, and to build availability of interpreters into contingency planning. Capacity-building should be part of the response, but it is a two-way process. Local actors may not be familiar with the processes and requirements of the humanitarian community, but the humanitarian community is not generally familiar with the local community, culture and systems. Collaborative learning is essential. We also need to acknowledge that a large-scale foreign presence will have an inflationary effect, and can distort the local economy in damaging ways. Every effort should be made to source supplies locally to stimulate the local economy. The UN needs to develop ways to rebuild economies without generating the kind of wide income disparities that caused such resentment in East Timor.

Within the response itself, more attention needs to be paid to coordination between military and humanitarian planning, and we should not allow political sensitivities to divert us from essential contingency planning. To make contingency planning effective, we need to do more homework on the politics of impending crises, know the players and the issues, and be ready to work in partnership with credible local leaders. This is the wider lesson: that we need to work harder at prevention. There were many warnings that the Indonesian military would exact revenge if the vote in 1999 was for independence. That no prevention strategies were devised is the biggest tragedy of all.

Janet Hunt is an Adjunct Professor in International Development at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. She has been an Adviser to the East Timor NGO Forum, and is a former Executive Director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, the coordinating body for Australian NGOs.

References and further reading

Arsenio Bano, Janet Hunt and Ian Patrick, ‘Making the Most of the Capacity of Local NGOs in Relief, Reconstruction and Development: The Case of East Timor’, from Rethinking Humanitarianism: Conference Proceedings, University of Queensland, 2001, available at the University of Queensland website

Helen Leslie, ‘Globalising Intervention: The Humanitarian Response to the East Timor Crisis’, from Rethinking Humanitarianism: Conference Proceedings.

Christian Bugnion, et al., External Review of the Humanitarian Response to the East Timor Crisis: September 1999–May 2000 (Dili: UNTAET, 2000). Available on ReliefWeb at

Chris Hurford and Margareta Whalstrom, OCHA and the Timor Crisis, 1999: An Independent Study for OCHA, November 2001, available on ReliefWeb at

Christopher McDowell, ‘Responding to the Crisis in East Timor: Relief, Rehabilitation and Sustainable Development’, Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS), available on the CAPSTRANS website at

Ian Patrick, ‘East Timor Emerging from Conflict: The Role of Local NGOs and International Assistance, Disasters, vol. 25, no. 1, 2001.

R. Zambelli, Assisting East Timor: Independent Roles, Coordinated Objectives, paper prepared for the UNHCR Regional Office in Canberra and the Australian National University’s National Internships Programme, May 2001.