Timor Leste – a service delivery state of mind

By Harold Lockwood  –

Last week I was in Timor Leste supporting some of the work of WaterAid Australia and its programme in Timor Leste. As this has evolved over the last several years, and with coverage levels increasing, WaterAid Timor-Leste (WATL) has recognised the pressing challenge of maintaining service levels in those communities who have gained first time access to water supply. The Government of Timor-Leste has pledged to meet its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to provide 78% of the population with access to a safe water supply by 2015 (75% of the rural population and 86% of the urban population). The JMP update for 2013 records access in 2011 to an improved water source as 69%: 60% rural and 93% urban. As of 2013 steady progress is being made and it has been determined that the MDG for water supply will be met.

Although this paints a positive picture with steadily rising coverage, there is a high frequency of system breakdowns, non-functionality and the performance of the community management entities (Grupos Manajamento Facilidade or GMFs) is particularly of concern as has been documented consistently in recent years. In short, premature system failure and wasted investment in rural water has become an issue which is now ‘too big to ignore’. In conjunction with the government ministry and other sector stakeholders, WATL is now in the process of developing a strategy to focus on sustainability and long-term service delivery development and this is what I went to Timor Leste to help them with.

A changing mindset – everyone recognises the problem and speaks the same language about the solution

In my short time in the country I was struck by several important insights. For a start, with all its problems Timor Leste feels like a place that is on the up and up and a country on the move. With oil revenue coming on stream and a mini-boom in the private sector (albeit focussed on the bubble that is Dili) one can feel the wheels turning and this will spread inexorably outwards to the more rural areas. With the oil revenues comes the potential for significant public expenditure to support long-term service provision (amongst other things of course).

The second thing that struck me was that the whole of the water sector, from top to bottom, has turned the corner and there is a collective realisation that the end game is not to think of meeting MDG coverage targets, but to deliver sound and durable services. From senior ministry staff at Public Works, to the big Australian aid programme – BESIK – and most importantly to the district level deconcentrated water and sanitation staff, local government and local NGO partners, everyone more or less gets it; everyone talks the same language and everyone realises that there is no going back to the same old business as usual of simply building more systems, ticking a box and then coming back three or four years later to rebuild them again.

The third thing is that they are getting on and doing it. For a start the National Directorate for Water Supply and Sanitation, together with BESIK, has developed a really sound monitoring system that is being rolled out at district and sub-district levels and includes aspects of functionality and even the performance of the GMF; the next step is to add service levels to assess the quality of water services being delivered to rural consumers. Of course it isn’t perfect, but it is a great foundation to build on and it works and most importantly it is being used by the people that count – I asked the guy in the photo below who is the District Water Supply Office from Liquiça district to see some of the data on GMF performance and he tapped away on his computer and delivered the data with no hesitation!

District Water Officer, DNSA, Liquiça district, Timor Leste

Miguel la Cruz, District Water Officer, DNSA, Liquiça district, Timor Leste. Photo by Harold Lockwood.

A solid foundation, but challenges remain

Of course there are remaining challenges, many linked to broader public administration and political processes that are out of the direct control of WaterAid, and perhaps even BESIK and the Ministry, but that will influence their efforts to establish a truly complete service delivery based sector; these include:

  • The need to clarify policy, and if necessary legislate, regarding asset ownership and the legal status of the GMFs;
  • An evolving, and at times fast moving, process of decentralisation which has started with a ‘pre-deconcentration’ phase and the establishment of new municipal structures with greater funding flows through the public administration ministry (ESTATAL) to local levels;
  • Linked to the above, there is bound to be a changing role for DNSA’s deconcentrated offices and a likely retrenchment to core functions to focus on monitoring, facilitation and technical advice;
  • There is a human resource capacity deficit in the rural water space (and more broadly) in Timor Leste, particularly for skilled technicians and planners, which will be a drag on any long-term solutions for sustaining improved service levels;
  • Even though significant public funding is potentially available, current resources flows and budgeting frameworks are all biased towards capital expenditure programmes; work and advocacy efforts, including with the Ministry of Finance, are needed to find ways of opening funding channels that can support long-term recurrent expenditures to subsidize service provision.

And ultimately as with every sector anywhere in the world, the solutions remain essentially political ones. Will the government spend their oil wealth wisely? Will rural water – and sanitation – receive the priority they deserve in such a fundamentally ‘rural’ country? And above all, will the politicians be convinced of the need to spend money – and big money at that – to keep on supporting services so that the water flows for good?

WaterAid’s home grown Association solution

It was clear from the meetings I had with national level entities and in the district that WaterAid is seen as a credible and valued partner in the WASH sector. It already engages closely with national level stakeholders and processes, whilst at the same time continuing to play an important advocacy role and is respected as a ‘critical friend’ of the Ministry of Public Works. At district level WaterAid has built up very strong and positive working relations with local government, as well as the District Water officer and sub-district staff, suco level government and local implementing partners.

However, it is the formation of an association of GMFs that is one of the more innovative and interesting aspects of WaterAids work in the district and which holds out a promising approach for long-term direct support to water committees. The association was formed some three years ago and is staffed by volunteers with an obvious enthusiasm for their role, but still faces many capacity challenges and is in a ‘fragile’ state – for a start it has yet to be legally registered, which is the first step in giving it real legs. The executive committee has passion and enthusiasm and even though they will need a lot of support going-forward, they are based on a growing membership of around 135 GMFs and have plans to represent the entire district in time; they are also a really great group of people as you can see in this photo:

Association of GMFs Liquiça district Timor Leste. Photo by Harold Lockwood

Association of GMFs Liquiça district Timor Leste. Photo by Harold Lockwood

We know from other contexts (most commonly in parts of Latin America) that associations can work well and can not only provide the technical support that is needed to keep the water committees strong and motivated, but can also lobby and represent these groups to government and others.

Whole of system change

One could play the cynic and say that this is not much of a case to celebrate – after all with a population of only a bit more than 1.1 million people it is pretty small change; about the size of a big district in Uganda and maybe a sub-district even in some of the more populous Indian states.

But what we are talking about here is a ‘whole system’ that is changing:from top to bottom and bottom to top. From practice in supporting communities better, to new policy, clarity about who does what and smarter financing. It still has a way to go, but I really get the sense that everyone in Timor Leste is pulling in the same direction and that is really great. My colleague Patrick Moriarty at IRC and I have been blogging about just this topic and what I heard and saw and read in Timor Leste last week just re-confirms that this is the only way to go. And it is the only exit strategy for the endless cycle of NGOs and donors. No one person or organisation can do it alone and no one single action will ever precipitate the ‘whole’ change.

Service delivery – a final word on keeping the word!

With thanks to WATL and their partner NGO HTL, I was lucky enough to witness a traditional blessing ceremony in a rural village. This was mostly done in Tocodede, an indigenous language pre-dating Portuguese colonisation and led by a sort of shaman character who is known literally as the ‘keeper of the word’. This was and is an important function in a society where legends, rituals and governing rules were all passed down in an oral history – the photo below shows one such ‘keeper’ and I like to think that he will pass on the message of service delivery and make sure people respect their water source. Wishful thinking perhaps, but a nice way to end this blog!

Traditional 'keeper of the word', Lautekas village, Laquicia, Timor Leste. Photo by Harold Lockwood.

Traditional ‘keeper of the word’, Lautekas village, Laquicia, Timor Leste. Photo by Harold Lockwood.




Harold Lockwood, Brisbane Australia – 23 March 2014





2 comments on “Timor Leste – a service delivery state of mind

  1. Reblogged this on Rural Water Supply Network and commented:
    Some experiences from Timor Leste

  2. […] Ghana and Uganda but these types of processes are happening elsewhere. For example, see Harold’s post on Timor Leste, where the Timor Leste government, with the support of WaterAid Australia and AusAid, is working to […]

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