It was a bright morning on April 19 in Maliana town as participants gathered for an unusual meeting. The meeting brought members of Timor-Leste‘s Parliament to the capital of Bobonaro District, southwest of the capital Dili, to hear from members of the public. The public forum was part of USAID’s Fostering Meaningful and Responsive Representation project, implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The project’s activities include support to political parties as they find effective ways to interact with constituents.

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest democracies, gaining its independence in 2002. Over the past 11 years, voters have participated in seven free and fair elections, most recently in 2012, when they elected a new president and new Parliament.

Citizens from Bobonaro District, southeast of the capital Dili, voice their opinions and concerns to members of the Timor-Leste Parliament at a USAID-supported public forum in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

Seats in Timor-Leste’s Parliament are party-based, and on election day voters choose a party rather than an individual candidate. Members of Parliament are drawn from the party lists based on what percentage of the popular vote each party received. This means that parliamentarians don’t have specific geographic constituencies.

In every democracy, it’s crucial that parliamentarians meet their constituents regularly to explain how they are serving communities as their elected representatives and listen to the views of citizens to incorporate them into legislation and public policies.

That kind of interaction is often difficult in Timor-Leste, where the population of just over 1 million people is spread across the island in a dozen district capitals, many small towns and scattered rural communities. Roads to the capital are in bad condition and transportation costs are high. It’s often impossible for citizens to make their way to Dili to gain attention for their views and concerns.

With significant transportation challenges and a nationwide constituency, it’s not easy to reach out to citizens to get their input. So the USAID responsive representation project is finding effective ways to increase parliamentarians’ interaction with the public.

One way of facilitating more interaction between parliamentarians and citizens is through a public forum, like the Bobonaro meeting. This was the second in the project’s series of constituency outreach activities focused on “Listening to the People’s Voice.” The series itself is a first for this Parliament.

Parliamentarian Mateus de Jesus (CNRT) shows notes received from constituents during the “Listen to the People’s Voice” forum in Maliana, Timor-Leste, in April 2013. Photo credit: Paul Randolph, USAID

This forum enables members of parliament to meet and interact with citizens outside Dili. They can explain their party’s stance on major issues of public interest and, more importantly, listen to constituents’ viewpoints.  In particular, parliamentarians said that they are eager to hear feedback and local concerns because they were just elected in July 2012.

Four parties won seats in Parliament in the 2012 election. Three form the governing coalition: the National Congress of Timor-Leste Reconstruction (CNRT), the Democratic Party (PD), and the National Reconstruction Front of Timor-Leste (Frenti-Mudanca). The Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) is now the opposition party, having governed Timor-Leste from 2002 to 2007. Three of the four parties sent parliamentarians to the public forum.

The 100 participants in Maliana represented a typical cross section of Timorese society – students, teachers, community leaders, representatives from NGOs, women and youth organizations, local offices of political parties, and district offices of government ministries. Participants raised many concerns, including poor rural road conditions, poor quality of small infrastructure projects, a lack of medical supplies at the district hospital, and the need for ambulances. Students highlighted a lack of books in their schools and limited access to scholarships for rural students. Others talked about their concerns related to government social programs, such as pension payments for veterans and the elderly people that do not always reach their recipients. Many voiced their concerns about the government’s plan to adopt and implement a new decentralization policy.

Parliamentarians said that they shared most of the participants’ concerns, and promised to channel those concerns to the relevant government ministries. They also said they would urge the government to address those concerns appropriately.

At the end of the forum, both parliamentarians and participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to better communicate with each other. After the forum, Mateus de Jesus said this USAID-supported outreach activity was the first such opportunity for the current legislature, helping parliamentarians improve their outreach activities and connecting parliamentarian with their constituents. ” This forum was very important so that we can hear directly from the people living in the districts,” de Jesus said.  ”As parliamentarians, we’re aware that most of the issues raised during the forum relate to government capacity.  However, as representatives of the people, we can channel these concerns to the relevant ministries or departments and demand accountability.”

Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians are demonstrating their commitment to reach out to constituents, helping to fulfill their role of overseeing the executive branch. As one of the participants said, “It’s good that today we have the chance to meet the parliamentarians in the district and convey our concern directly to them, but we hope that parliamentarians will conduct such forums regularly in the future as part of their own agendas, and that they must will their authority to ensure that our concerns are addressed.”

Based on this success, USAID’s representation project will help expand these opportunities to other districts in the next few months.

I hope that Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and party benches will continue to schedule more frequent outreach forums themselves and develop their own best strategies for meeting constituents, listening to their feedback, and ensuring that their concerns are addressed appropriately.

As parliamentarians begin to strengthen these kinds of mechanisms, and development partners like USAID continue to assist, I think that it would not be a far-fetched hope that in the future the relationship between Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians and citizens will be as bright as the morning sun that day in Maliana.