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Project August 30, 2009

East Timor: Fragile States - Halting the Slide Toward Failure


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This project was produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

August 30, 2009 marked the 10th anniversary of East Timor's internationally organized referendum in which almost 79% of the population voted to break away from Indonesia and build a nation of their own. The vote was immediately followed by violence: Indonesia's army, and the local militias that supported it, set the place aflame; but East Timor's freedom was eventually won.

This successful push for independence was also the first step of what would become one of the world's most ambitious nation building exercises. This was not a matter of a former administrative region, with the organs of government already assembled, simply breaking away from a federation. East Timor had little to begin with in terms of infrastructure, and the violence following the independence vote left what there was in utter ruins. The Timorese needed to build their new country from the ground up.

In order to help get East Timor on its feet, billions of dollars in aid money, and thousands of troops, administrators and aid workers have poured in to apply the lessons of international development. So the test case here is not only of how a nation builds itself, but also of how effective the international community is in assisting, and even directing, nation building. What role can they play in shoring up a 'Fragile State' that still struggles with internal security issues, poverty, a weak educational system and lingering tensions created by lack of justice? And what will the impact be of East Timor's great undersea oil wealth? Can the country avoid the "resources curse"?

This reporting is a joint initiative of the Pulitzer Center, the Bureau for International Reporting and NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

About the Fragile States series: Making peace is often thought to be the hardest part of dealing with the world's failing states. But while ending conflict is undoubtedly challenging, nation-building is often more difficult still. And then there are the countries that aren't failing but aren't succeeding, either: a so-called middle tier of "fragile states" that straddle a thin line of survival vs. returning to conflict or other social, environmental or economic distress. The Pulitzer Center's Fragile States project, in collaboration with the Bureau for International Reporting, offers a series of stories filmed in four of the world's most at-risk nations—nations that rarely make the headlines but that offer clear lessons for what it takes to stabilize a country emerging from trauma.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo: How can the world's largest United Nations Peacekeeping force protect civilians when it must partner with a national army that is almost as predatory on the local population as the rebels they are meant to fight against? Spend a day with UN Congo chief Alan Doss as he travels the eastern part of this massive country, trying to shore up a mission facing huge challenges.

In Bosnia: Rising nationalism is stoking ethnic and political tensions, threatening to undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the bloodshed there in 1995. What are the political, societal and economic stresses behind the instability? Could Bosnia return to violent conflict?

In Haiti: The recipient of billions of dollars in foreign aid and repeated interventions by the international community, Haiti may be on the verge at last of stability—or else at the cusp of even deeper misery. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has recently appointed President Bill Clinton as a special envoy to the nation, to help sieze what he describes as "Haiti's big chance."