24 November 2010

Thesis on Local Governance in Timor-Leste

Following is the abstract of a study on local governance in Timor-Leste, specifically focussing on konsellu de suku (village council), contextualised in the broader local governance environment. Fieldwork for this study was conducted in 2008-2009. The full thesis can be obtained by writing to debcummins@gmail.com.

Thesis abstract:

This thesis examines the impact of coexisting modern and traditional governance institutions as they are experienced in the villages of Timor-Leste. Within some development theory and much development practice, coexisting modern and traditional institutions are often portrayed as binaries and necessarily in opposition. However, the reality is that local communities across Timor-Leste are navigating both 'spheres' of governance on a daily basis. Drawing on fieldwork conducted by the author in the subdistricts of Venilale and Ainaro from July 2008 to February 2009, this thesis provides a detailed empirical analysis of this lived experience within contemporary Timorese villages. It then draws on these insights to provide a more nuanced, contextualised account of the impact of institutional interventions, local governance and democratisation within these villages.

Issues around the coexistence of pre-colonial and postcolonial forms of governance are not limited to Timor-Leste; rather, this coexistence is arguably a common experience in most postcolonial states. As such, institutional theory needs to account for this complex reality as it is experienced by millions of people across the world. This thesis argues for a critical approach to institutionalism in order to account for the coexistence of modern and traditional governance institutions. A central argument of this thesis is that this coexistence is best understood through the everyday "politics of mutual recognition" (Tully: 1995). In most cases, the politics of mutual recognition is not something that is formed through legislation but rather comes about as communities engage with modern and traditional institutions in order to fill communal needs, and as leaders engage with these institutions in order to pursue individual political agendas. This thesis critically examines the structured forms of mutual recognition that have formed within the villages of Timor-Leste and the various points of tension and mutual support that have emerged as a result of this coexistence.

This thesis reaches three conclusions. First, the coexistence of modern and traditional governance institutions should not be viewed as necessarily in opposition. While there are some important points of tension where the norms and values of modern and traditional institutions are in conflict, in many areas of communal life Timorese communities have created various forms of political hybridity that reflect the requirements of both modern and traditional institutions. Second, within the current political environment where very few resources are reaching the rural population, the balance that is negotiated between coexisting institutions tends to be determined with greater reference to the values and norms of traditional governance institutions. Third, this current reality is not a settled state of affairs. Rather, it is deeply contingent on the broader Timorese political environment. A necessary correlation to the current lack of investment in the rural areas is that the Timorese government can demand very little from communities in terms of institutional and behavioural change. The potential role of the Timorese state as a development agency means that the existing balance that is negotiated through local politics could change very quickly, creating new challenges and opportunities for different actors at the local level.
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