Interview with Emilia Pires, Chair of the g7+ Group of Fragile States

In this interview, Emilia Pires, chair of the g7+ Group of Fragile States and Minister of Finance for Timor-Leste, discusses her role in the origins of the g7+ and the changes fragile states are seeking in their relationships with donors in the agreement on the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States,” which was outlined at the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in November 2011. She also talks about her experience with the implementation of the New Deal her own country, Timor-Leste, which is a pilot participant.

Ms. Pires also discusses where the UN can help to implement the New Deal, both at the global and country level. “When you are dealing in a country under conflict, you have to be fast,” she said. “I had one donor who took a year to buy a car, and in the end didn’t even buy the car. Is this the kind of behavior you want? On the ground, this does not work. So now, all these now are going to be measured through this New Deal framework.”

The interview was conducted by Vanessa Wyeth, IPI Research Fellow.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Vanessa Wyeth (VW): I’m here today with Her Excellency Emilia Pires, who is Minister of Finance for Timor-Leste and Chair of the g7+ Group of Fragile States. Thank you, Madam Minister, for joining the Global Observatory today.

Can you give us a little background on the origins of the g7+ and the role you’ve played? And what lessons do you think Timor-Leste has to offer other countries emerging from conflict and fragility?

Emilia Pires (EP): The g7+ originated from a meeting in Accra in 2008 – September – when we had the 3rd High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, and in there, 5-7 of us volunteered our countries to become the pilot countries for monitoring the fragile principles, and see whether it was successful or not. And then at the same time, in Accra, there was an agreement that there should be an international dialogue between the development partners and the country recipients of the aid, to see why aid was not so effective. And this international dialogue initiative was taken by DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], from the fragile states side, and France, from the development partners.

So the first meeting came in December 2008 in Paris. We went there to discuss how could we organize this international dialogue – and time and space was given to the fragile states to meet together, for the first time, by ourselves. And when we did, we started to share our own experiences about aid, how it is coordinated – or not coordinated in our account, of the challenges etc.

And then, we decided, given that there are seven of us, why don’t we just call ourselves the little g7 part – because we are at the bottom of the ladder – and then continue to have these meetings to share experiences? We found out that we had so many things in common, and when we never knew each other – we were so different in history, geography, religion, you name it, languages – we thought it was very interesting that we have very similar challenges. And so we wanted to continue that. And then, of course we continued to work on the international dialogue, and when we held the first international dialogue meeting in Timor, we decided that we would have a g7 – by that time in was a “+” already because, apart from the 7, the others wanted to join in, that felt that they shared in the same kind of challenges we had. So, in Timor-Leste, we launched the first meeting of the g7+ group and, at the time, there were thirteen of us.

And what lessons has Timor-Leste got to offer? I think Timor-Leste is a new country, and we went from trying to build our nation, from 1999 onwards. In 2006, we faced a huge, big crisis. When we looked back, into our short history as an independent country, we found out that every 2 years we seemed to have a crisis. So we wanted to find out, what was wrong with that because we didn’t want to have that. And then we read some literature, written by, I think, Paul Collier, which said that many countries that have come out of conflict – most likely, within five years they go back to crisis. Then they tend to continue and become chronic and never get out of it, unless you make sure you get out of that.

So when we came into government – the government that I am part of – we came in, in 2007, immediately after the big crisis, and the country was in a mess. And so we worked really hard, and we were very conscious that we didn’t want to go and have a crisis every two years. So we kind of counted every month, and when we broke the – I think we used to call it “curse” – we broke the curse two years after and we had no crisis, we were like “oh my gosh, it’s incredible!” We even came up with this motto, of saying: “Goodbye conflict, welcome development.” Because people were just so embedded in conflict, they knew nothing, and they look at our history, 25 years of violence, all the time – what else do you know? A whole generation was born into violence. So they didn’t know what a normal life was.

What did we do to become normal? I remember one, very small example: The prime minister, in the middle of so many priorities, he wanted to do a garden – to fix up the garden. And he ordered to put in the – what do you call it – swings for the little kids. And we thought: “Prime Minister, we’ve got things to do, we’ve got no electricity, we’ve got no roads, and you want a garden for the little children?” And he goes, “Yes, we need for the next generation to be brought up in a normal life. They need to know that there are swings to play with, there are gardens that you go to, that mothers and children can smell the roses and stuff like that – that is normal life. And when the garden was ready, you should have seen – you know, people queue up for shops, etc. in other countries – children were queuing up to take a chance on the swings. They cried, they stayed until midnight, just to have the swings. And that’s when I thought, this is normalization.

My people did not know what is “normal” life. You needed to show them what normal life is, so they had to have a vision to go and want that. Otherwise it is only violence they knew. And so we kept going into that. We did quite a lot of innovative things. And today, we can say since 2008, we have had no crisis. We’ve just enjoyed a peaceful time.

VW: The g7+, under your leadership spearheaded efforts to reach agreement on the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States,” which was endorsed last November, at the fourth high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan, South Korea. Can you tell us a little bit about what change the new deal represents to you, and what makes it so different?

EP: We were very set, on trying to change the global policy. The New Deal is part of that process. Because, even though, like in Timor-Leste, we changed our own behavior, ourselves, then we had to change our donors’ behavior. But then the donors were tied up to a bigger thing – that was bigger than them – in the country. And that was linked to the policies – that was when I started to find out that all their aid was given, attached to some sort of goals. And we found out it was towards the MDGs.

So if the aid that was given to a country is already attached to some goals, then they can only measure against those goals. And then they kept measuring failure: They said, “Ok, the children are not being educated. The children are stunted. The infant mortality is high, etc.” We said, “How can the children be educated if we have instability? There is no security, so which parent is going to allow the children to go to school? Which farmer is going to grow vegetables and whatever, when there is no security? They are too scared to go to their farm?” So we needed to address first, their priorities which were security, stability, peace and we also had to address the IDPs, the problem with the rebels.

And now all these were not in the goals, or the benchmarks, that the donors were measuring their aid. And that’s why we came up with the peacebuilding and statebuilding goals. Because there was a lot of work being done in fragile states, but it was not being measured. And so, everybody felt that all their money was wasted, because it wasn’t measured. And so, we moved on, and then the New Deal came on, because we saw that there were many of the principles had already been talked about, but not really implemented. Nobody knew about it. We, the recipient countries, needed to understand what these goals were, what these principles were. The donors – everybody had to understand how to implement. And so we looked at everything, discussed, and picked up only the key ones. We thought, let’s not do all those ten principles of engagement – or five Paris Declaration-type of principles – let’s just pick those critical ones that could make a difference on the ground. And so we picked them, and that’s why it became the focus and the trust and the PSG – five peacebuilding/statebuilding goals.

VW: In Busan, several countries came forward as volunteers to pilot implementation of the New Deal in their countries. Can you describe some of the work underway to implement the New Deal at the country level?

EP: Well, I can start with my country, Timor-Leste, what is happening is after the New Deal, we had to socialize that. Socialize it in the Cabinet, make a presentation in the Cabinet, all the other ministries that were not involved in this process became aware of it, and became aware that the country has to stand up to a global policy. Then, the civil society did their own socializing everybody else. And then, we had meetings with our own donors, on the ground whereby we made them aware that their representatives had signed them up to it, and therefore it was now our responsibility together to look for how to implement it, because many of the things in the New Deal have direct linkages to their laws, their systems. Let’s say, procurement system. The budget support principle, some countries will need quite a few things to be changed in their country, their headquarters before they can implement. So they had to be aware of all this.

So in Timor-Leste, we are going through this process. We had just recently a lessons learned about analyzing what sort of action did we take to get us to where we were. We got lessons learned from there and how to move forward. Right now we have distributed the fragility spectrum to everybody and now they have to familiarize themselves with that and see whether it makes sense or not. If it does, where would they rate Timor-Leste on the fragility spectrum. So in a way that’s part of the consultation and building consensus and making everybody aware of it before you actually start looking at which policies should I take to move you from point A to point B.

Some other countries, they are looking at, I think it is DRC, they are re-looking at their plans. Some countries hadtheir plans already made. Now they are looking at it and see which aspects of their plans are aligned to the peacebuilding and statebuilding goals that now we have decided that these peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, five goals, are critical for fragile states. If we implement them to the best of our ability, we could ensure that our country will be getting out of fragility. So, other countries are looking into their plans and see whether they are aligned or not. They may have some other priorities, which, are they really priorities or not? And other stakeholders, who’s involved in there.

We are not working by ourselves. In Timor-Leste, we have Australia who’s declared to support us, as our partner. In other countries, they have other donors, like UK, with South Sudan, and US with Liberia. They are working together to implement, each in their own different ways.

VW: We are having this conversation in New York, across the street from the United Nations, and so I would like to ask what kind of role would you like to see the UN play in helping to implement the New Deal, both at the global level, and also at the country level?

EP: Yes, indeed, they have two roles. They have Peacebuilding Commission, who’s supposed to be actually looking after countries like ours, fragile states, and then they have the UN, the membership of all the other countries who actually often make policies that everybody adheres to. One important one is the policy on the goals. At the moment, the whole world has signed up to the MDGs which by 2015 finishes and everybody is supposed to have met the MDG goals, but there are lots of talks that many will not be meeting it, especially fragile states.

And we have done a little, I would say, advance work, in the sense of, we are not meeting, not because we didn’t want to meet, not because we didn’t work hard enough to meet, but because there were some prerequisite goals that needed to be met before we could get to the MDGs. And these are the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs). And this affects about 1.5 billion people on this earth. So it is worth to be taken into consideration. So now that the UN is already starting to have discussions on post-MDGs, I think the UN should take into consideration that, yes, we are moving to post-MDGs, but there are still 1.5 billion people that are not being covered by any goals, let alone these post-MDGs. So maybe the PSGs should be incorporated in this conversation. That’s one.

And then the other role in-country, because they also have the peacebuilding and peacekeeping missions in countries, so they need to kind of adjust themselves as well to what does this New Deal mean? How does that change their way of working down there? Should they continue to work like a little separate unit in countries, giving advice, but not really behaving or doing what they are meant to be doing? So all of these things.

And, we are also able to use this to measure the behavior of the people on the ground. For example, you can measure are they doing budgetary support? Are they doing parallel systems? Are they not using the country systems? So everything can be measured. Are the taking too long to procure something? When you are dealing in a country under conflict, you have to be fast. So what is fast for you? Now it is going to be measured. I had one donor who took a year to buy a car, and in the end didn’t even buy the car. Is this the kind of behavior you want? On the ground, this does not work. So now, all these now are going to be measured through this New Deal framework.

VW: Madam Pires, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with the Global Observatory.

EP: Thank you very much.