Potentials for democratic development in Timor-Leste: a critical modernist perspective.

Author:Tajuddin, Azlan


Having survived four hundred years of Portuguese rule, twenty-seven years of Indonesian military occupation, and decades-long civil strife, Timor-Leste finally joined the world community of nations as the 191st member of the United Nations on May 20 2002. After more than a decade of independence, however; 40 percent of Timor-Leste's 1.1 million people still live in immense poverty. Despite its location in a rapidly industrializing Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste remains overwhelmed by mass deprivation, political turmoil, and widening inequalities. The question arises as to whether the country is destined toward an inescapable path of underdevelopment that has beset many other countries. This paper suggests that this "fate" can be avoided, that there are potential areas in the country's current development in which a socially-just, democratic, and modern society can transpire. Such an approach however, will require a shift in paradigmatic thinking away from traditional theories of development to a perspective that is radically participation-centered.

Development and the Critical Modernist Perspective

Conventional discourses articulated within the modernization, dependency, and world system schools tend to analyze development through a Universalist and structure centered methodology. In response, scholars from the poststructural and post-development perspectives contend that the complex and diverse nature of the world today should entail rigorous analyses at the micro-social level instead. (1) They further assert that the development industry virtually constitutes of neo-imperialist projects serving to promote and sustain the profitability of western capitalist interests in the developing world. (2) Post-structuralists also argue that in order for poorer citizens to benefit from economic projects; mainstream approaches, concepts, and narratives of development must first be de-constructed. This will open up spaces for alternative, non-modem, and localized approaches to development, through which the poor are able to adopt practical and tradition-based strategies relevant to the needs and desires of their respective communities. (3)

Such a "localized" discourse in development, however, has drawn criticisms from those who feel that abandoning structural level analyses is theoretically unrealistic while the idea of de-modemizing development is self-defeating for communities in dire need of basic social and economic help. (4) Consequently, a body of scholastic literature has emerged to combine elements of Marxism, feminism, and post-structuralism into a cohesive theoretical perspective. Proponents call it critical modernism. Like its post-structuralist cousin, this perspective premises its theoretical critique on elite monopoly of resources, oppression of minority groups, patriarchal dominance, and hegemonic narratives. Critical modernists also agree with post-structuralists on the significance of micro-level analyses in the study of development, but only as complementary to structural-level analyses. Importantly, critical modernists tend to focus on the potential in, rather than the practice of, current development. This serves as a basis for moving a country or society toward one that is truly modern and democratic.

Primarily, critical modernists are highly distrusting of any privileged group and its versions of histories. Instead, they invaluably favor the opinions of marginalized peoples. Critical modernists therefore prioritize the use of logical analyses and documented experience to form the basis of their theories. (5) However, unlike post-structuralists who propose an "alternative to development" model, critical modernists believe in scientific modernity as the foundation for development. They explain that there is nothing bad about modernism; it has been capitalism, through its corollary of human exploitation, resource waste, and various forms of social divisions, which has corrupted the process of modernization. (6) Hence their argument that capitalism and modernism are not the same as far as democracy is concerned. A capitalist system may be modern but its democratic development has been limited to only advancing the market-driven interests of elites.

Critical modernists propose instead that the driving force behind modem development should come from a set of ethical principles. Unlike post-structuralists who tend to analyze development and its problems along socially-constructed and localized definitions, critical modernists use internationally-accepted norms of equality and justice to theoretically assess the goals and outcomes of modern development. The basis for this moral-ethical standard rests on ensuring marginalized peoples are provided with equal and accessible avenues for realization of personal, material, and collective goals. In a highly technological world, these must be balanced by sustainable production and consumption. This implies the need for a set of ethics that also governs against any impairment of the natural environment, which disproportionately affects the poor. These include biodiversity loss, desertification, water scarcity, food insecurity, resource depletion, and energy waste. In this, Becker and Brown noted that a set of sustainability ethics "could become the framework for integrating climate change ethics and development ethics with other fields relevant to sustainability concerns." (7)

An ethically-driven development also coincides with radical democratic development. Radical democracy is anchored in equal citizen participation and consensus-building, which allow groups to decide on development projects that are suitably needed for their community. The relationships between democracy, equality, and development, in other words, are mutually reinforcing. As Peet and Hartwick assert, "development is equality, and only equality will allow democracy to occur." (8) To enable the participation of the poor and disenfranchised, critical modernists recommend decentralized or devolved political systems as elemental for effective grassroots governance. (9) The rationale is that as members of their immediate communities and citizens of their country, people who live the development process, should be able to shape their futures through their own policy inputs.

However, critical modernists are of the view that since the state is a function of elite power, the work of furthering development rights for marginalized peoples in developing countries often falls on various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For it to be effective, Hickey and Mohan insist that NGOs form full partnerships with their respective communities to facilitate full grassroots participation. (10) This is crucial because research by Uphoff points out that NGOs are often inclined to treat people as mere clients; this has led to their imposing or dictating development terms to the communities. (11) NGOs have also shown--sometimes inadvertently--to be complicit in the steering of development projects toward the neo-liberal agendas of their parent sponsors; this has served little in the way of collective benefits. To avoid this, there must be a support network of moral alliances that will monitor, foster, and validate a mutually equitable and respectful relationship between the NGO and the community. (12)

In critical modernist theory, these support networks can be found in the coalition of similarly-aligned, justice-minded NGOs under a larger social movement. (13) Social movements are known to provide strong, ethical, and effective opposition against Capitalism's existing power bases. They also bring together the structure and the local through an understanding of social problems from the viewpoint of the oppressed. The aim of social movements then is to help highlight these problems through public action that will compel the state to resolve them through interactive dialogues with citizens. Case studies by Souza in Brazil and Heller in India and South Africa, among others, have shown that states do succumb to public pressure to offer fairer and far-reaching redistributive policies. (14)

Finally, critical modernists believe that social movements should carry development toward political economic transformation. (15) This can be attained if movements are able to extend their thematic focus beyond local issues and populations in their struggle against all forms of social injustices. Ideally, social movements should also solicit the backing of regional or global networks that provide enormous resources in educating and empowering ordinary citizens on their rights against the state. This is true of transnational movements, who have the capacity to organize joint campaigns through various NGOs within and across national borders. (16) There has been an array of such movements representing historically-excluded groups in development issues ranging from land rights to AIDS education. While the common theme has centered on the fight against deprivation, others have expanded into conversations regarding culture, identity, and lifestyles. (17)

Hence, critical modernism offers theoretical explanations for development problems as well as a framework for the pursuit of an ethical, radically democratic, and transformative development. Using a comparative historical approach, the paper will now analyze possibilities for such a development in Timor-Leste by examining three main discursive areas derived from critical modernism; local governance; citizen-centered NGO partnerships; and social movements.

Potentials for Ethical, Democratic, and Transformative Development in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste lies in the eastern half of Timor Island, which is located in the easternmost end of the Sunda Islands chain of the Indonesian archipelago. Colonized by the Portuguese, East Timor (as it was known then) had been subjected to centuries of exploitation and neglect until a 1974 revolution in Portugal finally presented Timorese...

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