UN under fire

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 February, 2000, 12:00am

Secretary General Kofi Annan's rapturous welcome in East Timor may buy time for the United Nations, which is coming under increased criticism for lack of progress there.

His reception shows that the organisation still has the respect of the people it helped to liberate, but the euphoria has gone. The focus has shifted to rebuilding from the ruins, and kick-starting an economy in what was once the poorest state in Indonesia. Expectations are high, but the new realities are harsh.

Promised funding remains tied up in red tape. There is a lack of co-ordination between aid agencies. The contrast between the comfortable situation in which aid workers operate, and the daily struggle for survival that is still the lot of most East Timorese, creates depression and discontent. With no homes, no jobs, no transport, young people in particular are frustrated to see non-governmental organisation staff driving between towns in land cruisers, eating at restaurants set up by off-shore businessmen, while they are left with nothing to do, and no immediate prospect of self-improvement.

It can be hard to accept that without decent living conditions, UN agencies would have difficulty in recruiting staff to work in a devastated area. Nor do locals always differentiate between foreign businessmen who are there for profit, and those working under the UN auspices. That is the real danger.

Aid agencies have restored the electricity, provided clean drinking water and brought significant improvements to people's lives. They are not as efficient as they could be, and the UN has to speed up and make good on some of its pledges, or the goodwill could evaporate.

But the real source of discontent is foreign entrepreneurs, who put nothing back into the local economy. The few who employ local staff pay a pittance. That is not something the UN is responsible for, but it may be blamed, unless these carpetbaggers can be persuaded to pay more and spend more in the place where they make their profits.