Collabforge’s Founding Director, Mark Elliott, writes about his recent time working in Timor-Leste…
Central Dili
The beach in downtown Dili

I just spent an amazing three days in Dili, Timor-Leste (East Timor) doing a little pro bono work. The goal was to facilitate collaborative innovation with a group of NGOs (CARE International), philanthropists (Wise Foundation, English Family Foundation). The collaboration included participation with government (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Timor Ministry of Commerce and Industry) and the private sector (Telekomcel, a local mobile provider and others). We were all brought together by CARE, who are taking a very proactive and strategic move to address the Australian government’s New Aid Paradigm. The new paradigm calls for making specific attempts to engage the private sector, while placing a greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region and empowering women.

Grains in the market place
Grains in the market place

I can honestly say it was a very challenging and inspiring experience. We started with the premise that if we all got together, we might just discover some common ground and exciting ideas to pursue. However, there were no guarantees, or limits on what we could consider. This broad scope created an inspiring but extremely challenging brief for the group, as we not only had to get to know each other for the first time, but also come to a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities in Timor, while at the same time building our capability to collaborate with one another. The ultimate objective was to go beyond shared understanding, to shared vision for some compelling project ideas to take forward. So we started with a fill day in the field to ground ourselves in the realities of living in Timor-Leste.

Liquica market visit

Timor-Leste is an amazing place with a fairly unique profile. Some key points from my various briefing documents:

  • Population of 1.2 million, mostly non English speaking (Portuguese and Tetum) with roughly half living in poverty
  • Some of the highest unemployment rates of any country in the world, with approximately 70% without formal employment
  • Decades of recent conflict, as a result of both achieving independence from Indonesia (2001) and political unrest (2006), leaving up to 70% of the country’s buildings, homes, and schools destroyed and near 75% of the population displaced
  • There is currently a dependency on oil revenue (comprising 80% of GDP and 93% of exports), with reserves predicted to dry up in the coming decade, with no current alternative source of income for the nation
Students at Lacio Lema school, reading from CARE’s Lafaek magazine

After a day in the field, we started our second day with a range of fantastic briefings by DFAT Timor, International Finance Corporation (of the World Bank), and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). We then settled into getting to work as a group, for the very first time. Developing enough shared understanding to begin genuine collaboration is never easy, and we spent a healthy amount of time getting to know each other’s perspectives, interests, way of thinking and talking. As the first day came to a close, we sprinted ahead, brainstorming challenges and opportunities, both for us as a group working together, as well as for project ideas. CARE sees gender equality as a central issue to Timor-Leste’s larger poverty and social injustice challenges, so this was a key focus for us.

Danish Shoaib pitching our school wifi idea

We then spent the third and final day building out a huge map of our ideas and understandings, before whittling it down through collaborative and cooperative processes towards a short list of four project concepts. We then ran through a series of rapid prototyping processes to flesh out our project ideas, before pitching them to one another, and then finally to CARE’s wonderful Timorese staff for their insights and feedback. This left us with a very strong understanding of which ideas were most compelling and viable.

In the end our four ideas revolved around:

  • Ways to build a sustainable social enterprise around one of CARE’s key publications in Timor-Leste, Lafaek, an important educational resource for schools around the nation
  • Developing partnerships with telecommunication providers and government, to bring internet, information and knowledge to schools and rural communities
  • Extending one of CARE’s successful projects that employs women to improve and maintain roads, while using this as a platform to reduce domestic violence and increase empowerment
  • Sourcing ideas to develop Timor-Leste’s nascent tourism market (as a key alternative to oil dependency), through an open, global call for innovative ideas for social enterprises in tourism

Only time will tell the ultimate outcome of these ideas and our work together. However, in all, it was a remarkable outcome to go from ground zero (a group of near total strangers) to a deep understanding of both each other and Timor-Leste, as well as generating four well considered and exciting project ideas – all in three days!

Our great collaborative team!

2 thoughts on “Collaborating in Timor-Leste

    1. Margaret Gollagher


      this looks very exciting. I’m from Curtin Uni’s Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP).Your work interests me from a couple of angles. I’m working on a CRC for Low Carbon Living, looking at collaborative planning for urban development in Australia.Your name was given to me as a contact, since you have been involved with the City of Melbourne, amongst other things. I was wondering whether you might be interested in an interview, or perhaps participating in an upcoming workshop we are running with CRC participants, to do something like you’ve done here in Timor-Leste – come up with some project concepts for Collaborative Planning for LCL in Australia, that the CRC might fund.

      The other thing is that we have just started a Professional Doctorate in Sustainable Development, centred around the incoming Sustainable Development Goals. It is structured to let people stay in situ in developing countries, rather than have to come to Australia for years as is normal in studying for a PhD. There is some coursework as well.Looking at this project,I wondered whether there may be prospective candidates either in Aus (for whom I might have a scholarship) or in Timor Leste (for whom we’d have to find a scholarship if they need one.

      What do you think? Does any of this sound relevant or interesting to you?

      I’d be very happy to chat if you are interested in finding out more

      kind regards

      Margaret Gollagher
      Curtin University
      Bentley WA

    2. Mark Elliott

      Hi Margaret,

      Thanks for getting in touch, and yes, certainly happy to be interviewed and to consider the workshop. We have actually done a bit of work with the LCL CRC (maybe you saw on our blog):
      …so between myself and a few other colleagues in my team, we have some understanding of where the CRC is coming from and the likely orientations and interests for your planning session.

      Also happy to talk about the phd program – I do have some contacts in Timor Leste who may have some interesting candidates on that front.

      Let me know if you have time for a call in the next few weeks.


      Ps – I’ll email this message as well just to make sure it gets through

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