Not Just Another Road Project

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is partnering with the Government of Timor-Leste and the nongovernment organization (NGO) CARE Australia on a road project that is empowering communities and generating jobs. It is a new approach that may pave the way for better road projects in Timor-Leste in the future.

Maliana—It is almost the end of the rainy season, and in the lush green hills of the agriculturally rich district of Maliana—about 140 kilometers (km) west of Timor-Leste's capital Dili—a group of 11 villagers are rehabilitating a wide, dirt feeder road which connects the villages of Nuntana and Raifun to Maliana town. The group, dressed in their brightly colored green and pink uniforms and yellow baseball caps are clearing drains, stripping overgrown vegetation from the road's shoulder, and filling in potholes. As they conduct their work, the workers radiate an energy which has less to do with their luminous clothing and more to do with their sense of purpose and empowerment as a group. Road worker Adelina de Araujo explains: "We feel we are doing something very important, helping our villages get great access to the major roads and towns."

Linking Villages to Town Centers

Araujo is one of 30 women who are employed to do basic road maintenance work under ADB's Road Sector Improvement Project. More than 200 people use the feeder road she is working on. The school and health facilities are located in Nuntana, so the Raifun villagers in particular, use this feeder road regularly.

The consultative and pro-women aspects of this project, as well as the income raising opportunities it promotes, make this project unique. The project may also present a model of what road work in Timor-Leste may look like in the future.

Minister for Infrastructure in the Timor-Leste Government, Pedro Lay da Silva, says his Government wanted to partner with ADB on the project because "ADB is a leader in infrastructure in Timor-Leste and we have a strong relationship with them."

ADB Project Team Leader, Hasan Masood, says: "The Road Sector Improvement Project needed to go beyond road restoration and emergency works, and the ongoing project focuses on rehabilitation, upgrading, and maintenance. The Timor-Leste Government's road-improving efforts needed help, and we saw real potential in communities constructing access roads which would link rural areas to town centers."

Community Empowerment

The community empowerment initiative being implemented by NGO CARE Australia has become an integral part of the Road Sector Improvement Proj-ect, which began in September 2005. It aims to strengthen the capacity of rural communities to use opportunities associated with increased connectivity to Timor-Leste's national road network.

The project is also committed to the rehabilitation of 123 km of road by resurfacing, stabilizing shoulders, and improving drainage systems. Another innovation under the project will be a labor-intensive road maintenance for 47 km of road.

"We heard that ADB was looking to partner with NGOs to involve local communities in their road improvement projects in Timor-Leste. We spoke to ADB and both sides felt it would be a valuable partnership," says CARE Australia's Assistant Country Director (Programs), Hana Mijovic. "We decided to start small and right now, we are in the middle of a pilot project which involves four villages and aims to empower communities to play a more meaningful role in road maintenance and light construction work."

There are 44 people participating in the community empowerment initiative under the project, and more than 60% of these road workers are women. The workers earn $4/day for the work they do. Most of the women working on the project are earning money for the first time in their lives. CARE Australia estimates about 50% of the workers are illiterate so they try and make their training accessible and meaningful to people without reading and writing skills. CARE Australia provides the workers with technical training, teaching them the basics of light construction, such as mixing concrete, building small drains, and paving the sides of roads.

Gender Focus

On the high numbers of women participating in the project, CARE's Deputy Project Manager Luis Bere Buti says, "Most of the women we hired are widows. We gave priority to female heads of households and to young women in rural areas. We targeted them because they represent groups that are usually left out of income-generating opportunities."

Road maintenance workers Ivone Maria, Casilda Aubere, and Graciana de Fatima are all earning an income for the first time. Maria says, "Life is better now because we can earn money and have more control over the spending of it." She says she enjoys her work and the strong sense of team work in her group, and she is becoming very good at mixing cement. The three friends use their income to buy clothes, pay their children's school fees, and if there is any money left over they will try and save it.

Following a request from the road workers, CARE Australia is looking into helping the group set up a community-based savings and establish a common fund which community members can borrow from, repaying the money with interest. "The villagers were worried about spending all the money they earned on the road project, so they suggested this fund be established as an incentive for people to save money as a community," says Mijovic.

Income-Raising Opportunities

Araujo says she enjoys the freedom of being able to spend money she earns in any way she likes. She buys clothes and food with her earnings, and also pays for her younger siblings' school fees. Her family is very supportive of her work, and when the road work prevents her from completing her household chores, other family members pitch in and do them for her. "Earning money is good for the whole family," she explains.

Six years after achieving independence, Timor-Leste is still one of the world's newest and least developed nations. The fledgling nation has experienced some periods of instability and unrest, most notably in 1999, and in 2006, following national elections. Project partners agree that although sporadic civil unrest has inflicted some delays, there have been no serious or lasting impediments imposed on the project, which has now been extended until June 2009. The need for improving roads is one of the many challenges Timor-Leste continues to face.

"The single most important success of this project was the creation of income-generating opportunities for rural people, especially women," says Buti. "The women feel happy because they have gained a range of road maintenance skills, are earning money, and have control over how they spend or save that money."

Maliana road worker Silvina de Jesus is happy to be working and making money. She would like to see women all over Timor-Leste involved in road maintenance activities, for a fee. Laughing, she adds, "and a pay rise would be good too."