A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

Friday is Cleaning Day

Friday 15th May – 5 months, 29 days

Timor’s Council of Ministers passed a new regulation last week that affects my work – in fact, the work of every single person in the public service - but is not about gender. Or law. Or policy. Or programs. Or anything that most government offices would do, in my experience.

Every Friday for the next three months is now Cleaning Day. Public servants don’t go to work in the morning. Instead, they put on their old clothes, they go out in the streets, and they sweep, hoe and pick up rubbish. It’s like Clean Up Australia Day, except it’s Clean Up Dili Day and it happens *every* Friday.

Can I emphasize something? These are *public servants*. These are people who *already* had jobs to go to on a Friday morning.

It’s not like we don’t have sanitation workers. The Saneamento guys are out every weekday in different parts of Dili, with their trucks, sweeping and picking up rubbish. It’s not like we don’t have a sky-high unemployment rate. It’s not like we don’t have funds to pay extra people to do this. Donors practically fling themselves at the feet of this government, every single day.

So. Instead of using a tiny amount of donor funds to pay some *unemployed* people to clean, on Fridays, now, all public servants ‘clean’ from 7am, ‘do sports’ from 10am, go home for lunch and then ‘go back to work in the afternoon’. I am using quote marks because during ‘cleaning’ and ‘sports’ time, there is an awful lot of standing about chatting. Dili is still covered in exactly the same amount of crap and rubbish that it has been since I got here, so I feel this also bears my observation out.

As for ‘go back to work in the afternoon’... Are you kidding me? I can tell you now, the majority of people aren’t coming back to work in the afternoon. It’s Friday. They’ve been leaning on their brooms all morning. They’re tired. They’re not coming back to work to hammer out that policy draft, or the agenda for Monday morning’s senior staff meeting.

So now, a public service that already had difficulty getting through the amount of work it has to do in 5 days – which is not really 5 whole days, because people are always going to language lessons (Portuguese and English) and spending their time attending endless meetings – now has 4 days. I am seeing a bit of a trend already towards meetings on Saturdays instead (although this could just be a recent thing with my workplace, and not related to the cleaning).

If Dili is so concerned about the state of its streets – here’s an idea – employ some extra damn sanitation workers. Don’t use people who are already employed, who are meant to be learning how to run the freaking country!

Posted by timortimes 22:53 Comments (1)

Unemployment levels in Timor and Australia

Wednesday – Thursday 13th and 14th May – 5 months, 27-28 days

OK, this is going to be one of those annoying posts that people who travel to developing countries end up writing at one point or another. But I think I’ve got a point. So.

I am tired of the hand-wringing about how Australia’s official unemployment rate is going to apparently skyrocket to *gasp* above 8%. I am tired of it for two reasons. In fact, only one of them is Timor related.

I am tired of this hand-wringing because in Timor there are about 500 formal sector jobs going each year for about 15,000 teenagers straight out of school. 90% of this country is employed in raising children and farming. In Dili, kids walk around selling phone credit and fruit. These are not income-generating activities; these are sustainable-life type activities. You earn enough to buy a little food to eat or grain to sow and then you eat that and start again. You don’t accumulate savings or stockpiles of goods.

Now, lots of Timorese people are quite happy with their lives and don’t want much more than enough food to eat and school for their kids and a secure, clean house. But a lot of people don’t have that. Way more than half the population.

The other reason I am tired of this hand-wringing about the official unemployment rate is that – damn. It has only been the last couple of years that this rate was under 6%! Going back up is *normal*, not a catastrophe!
Further – let me emphasise this, in case you haven’t picked it up yet – this is the OFFICIAL unemployment rate. The official employment rate does not take into account students, people who would like to be in the paid workforce but are not registered in the Job Network as unemployed and searching for work (hello single mothers and fathers), underemployment (people who’d like to work more hours but can’t – hello mothers, hello mature agers, hello workers with disabilities), and so on. It also doesn’t account for regional variation – e.g. where in coastal and regional areas the unemployment rate is usually much higher, especially when you are looking at youth or older workers.

So if we’re going to freak out, let’s get our facts straight. The unofficial employment rate – I like to think of it as the ‘real’ employment rate – is more like 14% right now. Oh my God! Yet the country is still kind of tootling along ok. Nobody is worrying much about those people sneakily left out of the official employment rate, though. *Those* people are the ones I’m worried about. They definitely deserve some hand-wringing.

Please note, I am not saying it’s a good thing that unemployment is going up, or that I don’t care about people losing their jobs. On the contrary. The second especially is dreadful. I’m just saying that it’s normal. And if you’re going to lose your job right now, Australia is probably one of the better places to do it.

Posted by timortimes 22:40 Comments (0)

A little-noticed part of the 2009 budget

Tuesday 12th May – 5 months, 26 days

So, my budget commentary is a little late*. However, I think this is important, so I still want to write about it.
I didn’t see much comment about one particular aspect of the budget which still has me shaking my head in disbelief. That is, that the majority of Australians working overseas now will be liable to pay tax in Australia. It used to be that most people working more than 91 days straight were exempt. Now, only certain aid workers, and certain defence / government workers will be exempt. Everyone else has to pay.

Now you might ask yourself, ‘And why shouldn’t they pay? They shouldn’t get to avoid tax! Besides, they’ll get a tax offset for any foreign tax they pay!’. Except, I’d ask in return, why do we pay tax? Well, to keep our country running, as far as I can tell. Schools and hospitals and roads and internet and such. Services which you just don’t use if you’re working overseas. Being out of the country, and all. So pretty much anyone who works overseas is being penalised for having the gall to leave Australia and work somewhere else. (As always, those of independent means, who can afford very good accountants, don’t have to worry.)

The thing is – there are a *lot* of jobs going in developing countries, currently filled by Australians, which probably won’t fall under the exemption for aid workers, although they are arguably aid work. How is ‘aid or charitable worker’ defined? I mean, do you have to be working for an Australian aid organisation to get the exemption? Or an international one? Does it matter how much money you earn?

And doing your tax when you’re overseas just isn’t as simple as when you’re working for an Australian employer. In Australia, working for the public service, I get issued a tidy little group certificate from my employer each July, ready to pop into my e-tax form. I can’t imagine what kind of hoops I’d have to jump through in Timor to convince an international employer, or a local Timorese NGO, in order to get some kind of statement of my pay, when the Timorese financial year runs from January to December, and the American one from April to March.

I just have this bad kind of feeling this isn’t going to encourage Australians’ participation in aid work, including volunteering (the potential for problems with this definition of who gets the exemption and who doesn’t is endless), in the long term. Once people work out that they’re gonna get slogged, they’re going to sneakily redefine their work, they’re going to do some creative accounting, they’re going to just not bother going for that awesome job in community development.

I particularly like how this measure picks on a demographic who would have the least idea of what’s just happened to their pay packets – because we’re all, you know, out of the country and probably mostly aren’t (apart from me) following things like the budget process at all. Nice work.

  • That’s what happens when you’re living the development lifestyle, my friends... It really is difficult to write a blog without a home internet connection.

Posted by timortimes 22:33 Comments (0)

Update on my work: being part of the National Priorities pro

Monday 11th May – 5 months, 25 days

Did I ever complain about the Timorese government’s gender equality secretariat (i.e. where I work) not being involved in the National Priorities? I take it back. We’re too involved now. OK, no we’re not really, I’m just feeling the time pressures from my counterparts and I being invited to attend every single meeting for the seven National Priorities. There are meetings to discuss the matrixes. There are meetings to discuss the quarterly progress reports. There are meetings to agree on who is leading the meetings. It’s rather a lot, given our main purpose for going is to see that a gender perspective is included mainly into four of the seven priority areas.

Anyway, we’re having the most progress, gender-indicator-wise, with working with the first four working groups. This is not because the latter third are lazy; it’s just that the first four groups coincide with our current gender mainstreaming priority sectors within government, and we don’t have enough resources (read: people or time) to be doing a full gender analysis and monitoring on seven sectors. So, we chose to concentrate on those first groups – but the others have some gender indicators here and there in their overall plans for work (the matrixes).

In case you were wondering, because I haven’t listed them before, here are the seven 2009 National Priorities of the Government of Timor-Leste:

Agriculture and Food Security
Rural Development
Human Resources Development (which actually means Education and Social Solidarity)
Social Protection and Social Services (which means Health and Social Solidarity)
Public Safety and Security
Clean and Effective Government
Access to Justice

These do not correspond exactly to ministries but rather are sectors that were decided within government and across ministries. For example, the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Social Solidarity are the two ministries working on the third sector’s working group.

  • **

On a side note, I do find different countries’ and governments’ decisions about names and roles of government departments, ministries, state secretariats and offices intriguing. Political priorities can change with a click of the fingers and that usually means that one department’s program gets axed and someone else finds themselves heading up a new program or even department (not always with new resources, either – and this happens in Australia, too).

Posted by timortimes 22:31 Comments (0)


Saturday 9th May – Sunday 10th May: 5 months, 23-24 days

Apart from Mothers’ Day, the most notable events of this past weekend were the testing of the toaster oven’s suitability for biscuit making; oh, and my actually making it to a party. Everything I make in the toaster oven at the moment is an experiment because I have no idea if recipes for food cooked in regular ovens (e.g. conventional, fan forced etc that have doors that seal) should or could work in a toaster oven. The excitement of everyday life in Timor!

Julia very kindly assisted me in this endeavour, the most important part of which was eating rather a lot of the biscuit mix before it even made it into the toaster over. After the discovery that the temperature indicator is wrong (there are 6 division dots between the 150 degrees and 200 degree markers instead of five, so there’s no way to accurately measure any normal temperature used in recipes that ends in a 0 or a 5) and an initial burnt lot, things went well and we produced some very nice biscuits.

The little oven really got a workout as I lured Julia, Sally and Frances back later with the promise of passata (basically a tomato based vegie casserole), which is totally my new favourite meal to make. Partly because it is delicious and partly because all the ingredients are fairly common around Dili :)

And I’d like to record that I went to a party last Saturday evening. Yes. A real party, at some guy’s house, built halfway up one of the mountains that edge the south of Dili. The view was astonishingly wonderful – imagine looking out through colonial-style balustrades down a hill and out to the ocean at night – really, now I try to describe it, I realise it’s the kind of view that just doesn’t come out well when you try to describe it.

There’s little more I can say to illustrate how much I enjoyed being able to go out*, except to thank my housemate Angie for having the good sense to have a job where she gets a vehicle, and inviting me; and to record that a room packed with girls from probably ten different countries singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ was truly one of the magical moments of my life. Ahh, 80s Madonna, bringing women from all walks of life together.

  • since almost every other time I am thwarted by sickness or lack of transport.

Posted by timortimes 22:23 Comments (0)

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