One way foreigners can help

Hi! If you’ve come here curious from Dili Expats, I’d love it if you could please read this whole post, including its post-script, before making a comment on that Facebook post. This blog is 1,044 words long, which will take you between four and five minutes to read.


The last time I was back home in Australia, a few people asked me, incredulously, why I lived in Timor-Leste. I replied, quickly and enthusiastically, with my usual description of the neverending sunshine, abundant tropical fruit, laidback lifestyle and gentle, earnest people.

For many that’s enough; their skepticism is sated. But with one woman, it didn’t stick.

She explained her husband had served in Timor-Leste as a peacekeeper during the first fractured years of the country’s independence, which immediately clarified her concern.

For a generation of Australians, Timor-Leste is nothing but a desperate, war-torn, impoverished state teetering on the brink of collapse and requiring the strong hands of Australia to save it from disaster.

But now, things are totally different.

Timor-Leste is considered the strongest democracy in Southeast Asia; the country’s been at peace for over a decade; and while politically constrained government spending has seen a couple of development indicators dip this year, for the very most part, Timorese people are healthier, stronger, and better-educated than they’ve ever been.

And they don’t need our help.

At least, not in the way suburban West Australians may think.

As a foreigner in Dili it’s interesting for me to consider how my presence here sits within that longer canon of foreign influence, and to be mindful of my wealth and power here. I’m privileged, I want to help, but Timor-Leste needs support for its own initiatives, not my paternalistic handouts or my country’s protection.

One small but significant way we well-meaning foreigners can help here: throwing our economic weight behind Timorese-owned enterprises.

Sure, foreign bosses employ Timorese staff, rent Timorese premises, pay Timor-Leste taxes, create opportunities in Timor-Leste and front up with the capital that many Timorese entrepreneurs may not yet have. But that doesn’t mean Australian-run bars, Chinese-owned supermarkets, Portuguese restaurants or Singaporean scratch lotto are the only options options for eating, drinking and playing in Dili.

And, more importantly, spending our money at Timorese businesses casts a vote for a system that sees Timorese leading, creating and deciding, not only relying on paltry paychecks, charity handouts or foreign helpers to thrive.

If I eat my lunch every day at the Australian-owned pub I went to today (whoops), am I inadvertently choosing a Dili where Timorese people are forever trapped as receivers, dutifully serving others and waiting for benefits to flow, instead of creating their own opportunities?

I know there must be hundreds of energetic, ambitious and young Timorese people creating their own ventures, for whom my commerce or patronage could really help. I know Nuno, whose Black Box specialty coffee shop is my new favourite Dili cafe; smiling Cesar, whose Dilicious restaurant is a great place for a garden beer and gig; Gally, whose two Kaffe Uut cafes serve great juice and panini in environmentally friendly packaging; the ADTL canteen owned and operated by the disability peak body’s members; the Timorese-run not-for-profit ETDA restaurant; and just this week I learned about Nina and Steven’s fun new Dionysus Restaurant and Bar, and about Lorico Creative, who produce tiny runs of beautifully designed t-shirts and caps, sold on Instagram.

But there must be more.

And I’m determined to find and list as many as I can–a resource for foreigners who want to support Timorese businesses, but don’t know where they are, or who unknowingly support enterprises that send profits abroad because it seems there’s no other option.

Will you help?

If you’re a foreigner living in Dili and know of a Timorese-owned restaurant, bar, cafe, shop, supermarket or company, let me know about it, and I’ll make a list and publish it here.

I haven’t been here in Timor-Leste for all that long, but I have lived here for long enough to know that there’s not very much I know and not very much I can do.

But in the few months I have left here, I’m determined to do something small to help the foreigners who come after me make informed choices that are in line with the reasons most of us come here: to enjoy a beautiful life in a thriving country; to try and make a difference. One small way we can do that is to throw our financial weight behind Timorese-owned enterprises.


A post-script: keen eyes will pick up my reference to having a few “months” left here; I’m less than three weeks away from departing and this is an old post I’m retrieving from my drafts in an attempt to clear them all out before I leave Timor. My blog will remain published after I leave and this intention remains the same; please, let me know if you’ve got a Timorese-owned favourite we can support.

And a second post-script! I was just told that this blog found its way onto ETAN this morning; hello, if you’re coming from there! This is a personal blog not intended for mass consumption, but if you’re curious about it, you can learn more about me here, see a list of my favourite posts from the last year, read my favourite Timor-Leste expat blogs, and see my general overview of how to navigate this blog here. I’ve copped a bit of flack for this post this morning, which hasn’t felt too nice–it’s been described as racist against foreigners, which absolutely wasn’t what I was intending. Without splitting hairs too much, I wanted to address this, in case you were reading this with that thought in mind: it’s not my intention to feed anti-foreigner sentiments nor is it to denigrate the difficult and risky work foreign entrepreneurs put in to business here. I baulk at the word ‘racist’, because in my understanding it’s a system that assumes a particular race to be superior; and in a Western-dominant world it’s often white people, like me, who sit at the top of the pile. Perhaps things in Timor-Leste are different; perhaps I haven’t been here long enough to know. But my intention with this post was merely to highlight the great work being put in by Timorese entrepreneurs and to remind you of their businesses, in case you didn’t already know. Voting for Timorese autonomy and resilience with our cash; putting our money behind our sentiments–not denigrating foreign entrepreneurs. This is about Timorese people, not about us. 



2 responses to “One way foreigners can help”

  1. Wonderful writing and wonderful ideas and thoughts Sophie. I am absolutely amazed ( and stunned!) that anyone could perceive it as racist! Do they really know what racism is? I’m dumbfounded! In Western countries and Australia in particular there is a huge push to support local/local communities./Australian -grown produce……..I see this post as a similar suggestion – help people to help themselves.


  2. […] Three quick pieces of advice. 19 smiles. What I learned about myself from living overseas. One thing foreigners can do to help. Dear Sophie, 749 days ago. Homegoing. Landmarks in learning Tetun. Two different birthday cakes, […]


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