White 4WDs

It ends up being commented upon at regular intervals, but a recent article on the internet brought up 3 of the usual points.

Firstly, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in the world. Secondly, (from a western consumer perspective), it is one of the most expensive countries in the world and thirdly, one can’t help but notice the number of white Japanese 4WDs (4-wheel drive vehicles) on the roads.

The usual assumption is they are driven by UN staff or NGOs. In the TL context, NGOs (non-government organisations) refer to aid organisations. Sometimes, there is an implication that white 4WD drivers are living the high life while the Timorese live a life of poverty.

I am not sure there is such a thing as the high life in Dili. The highest quality accommodation (excluding hotels and for example, the US ambassador) would be good quality middle class accommodation in most western countries. But there are issues of water, power, drainage etc. that may not be to that same standard. I may be being a bit unfair on the US ambassador but I am assuming that the entire internals of his residence have probably been imported and re-assembled. (I know this is not the case for many other embassy people.)

I suspect most do not live in the higher quality stuff. Most probably live in quite modest bottom-level middle class western class accommodation and many in lower than that. Many live in long-term “hotel” accommodation. Cooking facilities are often quite modest, poor or non-existent, so many 4WD drivers eat out a lot. So if eating out for US$10 is living the high life then I am sure that the alternative of cooking a can of baked beans (or instant noodles) on the single gas burner at home is not.

After a while, you start getting familiar with the astounding number of aid organisations working here. You find that the IDP camps (ie refugee camps) are dealt out to the aid organisations. So if we include UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees), you have World Vision, CARE, Plan, Concern, CRS (Catholic Relief Services), Caritas, Oxfam and no doubt a few others. Plus you have the various foreign government aid agencies like Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, US etc.

I am told aid co-ordination meetings are real gabfests with a fair bit of competition over turf boundaries. I guess economists would say this sort of competition is good even in the aid world. I mentioned to an aid person once that I donated to an organisation that boasted an administrative overhead of 25%. Before I had drawn another breath, I was told that “our organisation is never any more than 20%”. Yep, competition is surely alive.

But one shouldn’t forget one other 4WD group. These are the “volunteers”. Most western countries have volunteer programs who provide “free” labour to target organisations – the case here, often government departments. The volunteer agency will usually pay for transportation to and from the target country and provide vehicle transport within the country. A modest expense allowance is provided to cover accommodation and basic living expenses. These guys live quite modestly.

However, there would seem to some imbalances there. I know one “western” country’s volunteer who discovered in conversation with another volunteer that the other “western” country paid their volunteers 4 times as much. My definition of volunteer has shifted after hearing this.