Skip navigation.

Systems Administration in the Fourth World

Systems Administration in the Fourth World: The first year of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in East Timor"

By Lev Lafayette. Presented to the System Administrators Guild of Australia Annual Conference, Brisbane 2004, Published in Conference Proceedings

1. Defining Systems Administration in the Fourth World

The profession of systems administration is, as all would be well aware, one which presents often surprising challenges. It is undoubtedly an occupation which by necessity crosses disciplinary boundaries, usually those of management and computer science. It is little more unusual to find systems administration which demands at least a modicum of knowledge in cultural anthropology and developmental economics. However, in an increasingly globalized world which demands that all nation-states have at least some degree of international computer connectivity and internal computer communications networking such disciplinary requirements are in
increasing demand.

As an illustrative example, this paper describes experiences as the Information and Communication Technology Adviser for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation for the newly re-established Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, a position that was funded through
Australian Volunteers International and AusAID. This was a position which included fairly normal aspects of systems administration; policy development, network management, maintenance and repairs, website development, and education and training. However it also included more unusual aspects, such as assistance in the development of a national passport database, management of the country-code top level domain, recommendations for national networking. Finally, it included aspects which are entirely unique for systems administration in third and fourth world conditions; significant language and cultural differences, political and military instability, and infrastructure and health conditions quite alien to those more familiar with the advantages of advanced post-industrial economies.

The terms 'third world' and 'fourth world' have very specific meaning in economic geography and the opportunity is taken here for a brief excursus to elaborate on their meaning [1]. Within the world-system of advanced modernity first world nations, are defined as those which have independent means, institutional stability and complexity, with post-industrial economies. In contrast second world nations are those which with independent means with industrial economies and developing and fairly stable institutions. It is usually applied to former Communist nations of eastern Europe. Third world nations, have marginal a degree of independence primarily orientated towards agricultural activity, and finally fourth world nations, are those which are dependent on overseas aid and an economy with subsistence agriculture.

2. An Overview of East Timor

East Timor (or Timor-Leste, to follow the nations official name), the world's newest nation, certainly falls under the latter category. When independence was re-established after a quarter of a century of brutal military occupation the nation had a GDP per capita purchasing power of a mere $337 USD per annum (purchasing power), of which 41% of the population lived on less than 55 cents per day. The illiteracy rate of 54%, 49% male and 64% female, with a mean period of schooling of 3.5 years (4.3 male, 3.0 female). Almost two thirds of households had earth or bamboo floors, 7% had direct access to water and only 14% had toilet facilities. Over three quarters of the population do not live to see sixty, and almost one-third do not see forty [2].

Of the estimated 800,000 people (a figure which varies greatly due to massive dislocation of people in 1999), some 44 percent are under 15, and only 23.5% live in urban environments. Tetun, the most widespread language understood by an estimated 82% percent of the population, does not have widespread spelling conventions and exists in at least two dialects (Tetun-Praca, Tetun-Terik) with a third (Tetun-Belu) in Indonesian West Timor. The official international language, Portuguese, was understood by 5% of the population in 1999. It is estimated that figure in now 9% due to massive input in the schooling system. In addition to the other fairly common international languages, English and Hakka-Chinese, there are a total of fifteen primary indigenous languages, spread over three language families. The language which most literate people understand in Bahasa Indonesian. To express simply, East Timor is the tenth most impoverished nation in the world, and most impoverished in Asia.

A brief review of some recent history also provides some elucidation of the conditions of operation. Following some twenty four years of military occupation where an estimated 200,000 people died through starvation, disease, or directly by the occupying military,
Indonesia's President Habibe allowed a UN sponsored "popular consultation" on the province's future, following the financial collapse of the Indonesian Rupiah and the fall of the long-term military dictator, President Suharto. Up to that point, Australia was the lone country in the world who had recognized the annexation following the East Timorese declaration of independence from Portugal in 1975.

On August 30, 1999, 78.5% of the electorate rejected the option of special autonomy status within Indonesia. Following the announcement of this result, there was a campaign of violence, orchestrated by most senior members of the Indonesian military, with led to the deaths of an estimated 1,000 people, the displacement of some 250,000 people and the destruction of 85% of the urban infrastructure. It must be mentioned, and reiterated as often as possible less those responsible seek to rewrite history, that the Australian government was thoroughly aware of the impending violence, having intercepted communications between militia leaders and the Indonesian military and police commanders. Rather than sharing this knowledge with our alleged allies, the United States, let alone the United Nations or the East Timorese, the Australian government rejected offers by the United States prior to the poll to establish a multilateral peacekeeping force [3].

The reasons for this extraordinary behaviour are now (finally) being debated within the Australian media. The most common excuse, which at least is consistent with statements made by government representatives at the time, was that the Australian government preferred to think that the matter was best resolved by "gentle diplomacy" towards the Indonesian government. This does not sit well with the facts which are, unfortunately for spin-doctors, concrete. The massive outpouring of protest and grief by the Australian population over the government's failure to act on East Timor forced their hand and within days the previously hard-talking Indonesian government accepted an international peace keeping force sponsored by the United Nations Security Council and led by Australia. On October 25th, 1999 the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor was established and on May 20, 2002, following elections for the Parliament, overwhelmingly won by FRETILIN, and President, overwhelmingly won by Xanana Gusmao [4].

3. Initial Ministerial Situation and Immediate Responses

Whilst it would be fascinating to elaborate further on the role of governments, spies, military activities and the capacity of national protest to effectively direct government action in the international arena, that is not the purpose of this presentation. The discussion merely serves to illustrate the unusual working conditions and how those conditions arose. Whilst it would be expected in normal circumstances that the systems administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation would be deemed "mission critical", initial evidence of this was slight. With a mere 76 voice and data nodes the network hardware consisted of a Compaq ProLiant DL380 Generation 2 Pentium III as the main server (with a simple RAID level 1 mirror), two Cisco switchable hubs (2950 series), four Avaya 110 PSE power panels, and a Cisco 2600 series router. Client resources consisted mostly of early model Pentium computers as running MS-Windows 98. Nearly all of the latter were donations from the government of Singapore. Special mention must be given at this stage to the company East Timor Communications, mainly managed by young Indonesians, who conducted an exceptionally professional cabling and patching job.

The Ministerial local areas network was connected to the UNDP that then follows a satellite link to Singapore, established by Gabriel
Accascina, manager of the United Nations Development Program's Asia-Pacific Development Information Program [5] - a landline or submarine connection through Indonesia in early 2000 was not considered viable. This, combined with the problems of extremely sporadic power and poor electrical connections placed additional strain on the network. However, even taking into account the material
and infrastructure difficulties, there were additional equivalent administrative practices. Network security was virtually non-existent, with all client workstations utilizing the same simple four-letter password. There was no data backup system. Accounts for former workers and volunteers still existed on the system. The Ministry was without a website, and government use of the country-code domain was non-existent. This extended to the email system - all staff were using webmail through free mail providers such as yahoo! and hotmail, rather than email clients.

In initial steps to improve the public profile of the Ministry and efficiency of information technology services two steps were undertaken. Firstly, a website showing the divisional structure of the Ministry and providing basic information for travel, protocol and consular services. True to the principle of involving stakeholder interests a policy paper for content and design was submitted prior to development and responsibility for content provision was left to the heads of the Division. At the same time the "official government website", scripted by staff of the Ministry of Telecommunications, Post and Roads was rewritten so it had at least some semblance with browser compatibility, content organization and graphical presentation. In addition, two training and education papers were written and distributed to all staff. The first, written in English, Tetun and Bahasa Indonesian, provided a detailed outline in
non-technical vernacular of the concept of bandwidth - a matter of critical importance where the main applications used were a
combination of MS-Word and Internet Explorer, where the average ping rate (to the University of Melbourne) was often as bad as 2000-4000 ms for a 32kb packet with 75% loss, and electricity failures were a daily occurrence. The second paper was an educational description of different printers and a set of basic trouble-shooting activities and preventative maintenance that staff could undertake when printer problems occurred. Despite the extreme levels of heat and humidity (East Timor has an average temperature of 21 degrees Celsius and eighty percent humidity) printer resources were usually shared on a divisional level with heavy recycling of paper.

These initial activities were partially successful. Despite being inclusive in the process of website design and input, only one of the eight Divisional Heads submitted content by the due date. Only with intervention from the Senior Minister, Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, did the other divisions (ironically, with exception of the Division of Protocol) submit appropriate content and that was only after the deadline was extended twice. With regards to the government website designed by the Ministry of Telecommunications, their "webmaster" (and this term is used loosely), in initial correspondence claimed the website was only a temporary example and the author had full expertise in html, java, perl and php. When questioned if this was the case why the "temporary" webpage was scripted with MS-Frontpage, the "webmaster" ended correspondence. The website still exists, is still scripted in MS-Frontpage, and is still not hosted under the country-code domain.

On a more positive note, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation website was completed within eight weeks and launched on January 1st 2003. It was fully xhtml/css valid and compliant with level 3 accessibility guidelines as determined by the World Wide Web Consortium. Also during this time period, an email network was established within the Ministry for distribution of internal documents, requests for printer assistance dropped dramatically after the circulation and discussion of the "printer faq", as did bandwidth usage, which was further substantially assisted by the establishment of a proxy server for client web access. A network use policy was written, strengthening security and access and an file server was established, which proved its utility within two days: a divisional head's workstation suffered a dead head crash during one of the endemic power failures and all their data, including six months of work, was lost. Fortunately, it had just been backed up.

4. Extra-Ministerial Tasks

It was also during these initial months that some of the major issues external to the direct work of systems administration at the Ministry raised their head. The first was management of the central civil registry database and passport database, whose production and designed had been outsourced during the UNTAET period. These were, to be frank, disaster areas. Largely written for MS-Access and Microsoft SQL servers (which are well known for not being ACID compliant), continuing problems such as poor design, incomplete development, serious stability, security and reliability issues made the registry and passport databases unusable. Recommendations were presented to the Ministry of Justice to use a an public, open source, standard SQL compliant database with full atomicity, consistency, isolation and durability with offers from an well Australian company which specializes in databases development (MagentaLinus) for free assistance. It is unknown whether the Ministry of Justice ever considered or developed these recommendations.

The second major issue raised was the management of the .tp country code top level domain. In 1996 this domain, long dormant, was established by Jose Ramos-Horta and Bishop Belo in conjunction with ConnectIE. However, the new government, and specifically the Ministry of Communications failed to establish a Memorandum of Understanding with ConnectIE and rather than engage in dialog adopted a
confrontational approach to domain management. Despite the prospect of commercial development of the .tp domain with potential income of several million dollars per annum (especially through establishing an international telephone directory, a fact well-established by recent global top-level domain applications to ICANN) [7]. Debate over the use and potential of the ccTLD was a continuous feature from November 2002 and continues to this day.

The third issue was the prospects for national networking. Despite constitutional requirements that East Timor would adopt a decentralized system of government among the dispersed population and the thirteen districts (with special assistance to the enclave in Indonesian West Timor, Oe-cusse), political and infrastructure balance is heavily weighted towards the capital Dili and, to a lesser extent, the north-central coastal township of Baucau. Outside of Dili there is practically no Internet or telecommunications infrastructure to speak of, although there is a widespread electricity network, albeit with sporadic supply. With a countryside consisting of rugged mountains, up to 3000 meters, with 44% of the land area on a slope of 40 degrees or more and poor soil quality ensuring common landslides during the monsoonal wet seasons (twice per year in the south and far east), landline networks are not a viable option. The real possibility was presented, and remains, for wireless networking.

One other matter that must be raised are concerns over personal security and the lack of institutional stability. In the initial months there were a number of cases of border incursions by anti-independence militia gangsters which led to the deaths of several people. More dramatically of course, was the nearby Bali bombing organized by Jemaah Islamiah of October 12, 2002 which killed 202 people, and Portuguese army intelligence claiming the possibility of future attacks against Australian, Portuguese and American interests in East Timor. On December 4, 2002, several hundred individuals rioted throughout Dili, burning and looting a large number of buildings. The riot started next to the GPA, the building where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located, and was one of the first buildings invaded.

5. Further Development and Training

In the new year, the first priority was significant development of the website, and the production of a comprehensive training manual. In the former case, additional resources were added in the Tetun, Portuguese and Bahasa-Indonesian languages, along with job descriptions for staff, the constitution, laws and regulations of the country, and an archive of local and relevant international news coverage of East Timor, as well as press releases that the Ministry had distributed prior to having the website established. By the end of the one-year term of service, the website consisted over 500 fully xhtml and css compliant webpages, with content across four languages and regular updates.

With regards to the training manual an emphasis was placed on "learning by understanding" rather than "rote-learning", which is
depressingly common by most training agencies. With six chapters (hardware and software., networks and communications., operating
systems., applications., basic coding and programming., basic systems administration) and an appendix the seventy thousand word, two-hundred page manual, sought to provide the reader general knowledge of computer systems whilst using local examples throughout the
text. Approximately 150 copies of the manual were printed by the United Nations Development Programme in English, who also translated
the document into Portuguese. A commitment to translate the manual into Bahasa-Indonesian never eventuated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation maintains both English and Portuguese copies of the manual on their website [8].

As the training manual was written, substantial attempts were made to evaluate existing computing skills in the Ministry in a formal
way. This proved to a surprising task, not because of the results (which were significantly lower than expected), but rather because of substantial disinterest in completing the evaluation forms. This did not initially translate to a desire to be involved in training. When training sessions were eventually conducted, a six part program conducted over three weeks, double the expected (and confirmed) numbers attended the initial sessions. Although numbers soon fell afterward, the sessions (and the manual) were an overwhelming success with anecdotcal evidence suggesting a substantial improvement in computer knowledge - but only among those who participated in the course and read the manual.

Another surprisingly difficult procedure was establishing a working mail server system. This was partially difficult due to the lack of local mail hosting - as mentioned previously the entire .tp domain - and not just individual websites - is hosted in Ireland. Secondly, the UNDP national connection host was invariably flaky and prone to significant downtime. A third mailserver, from a Red Hat Linux distribution, was established within the Ministry itself. This of course did not address the problem of encouraging staff to use mail clients over webmail, despite their simplicity, significant individualized training and obvious advantages in access speed.

6. Post-placement Projects

Consistent expressions for the introduction of open source software, particularly a version of Linux (Red Hat) or BSD (FreeBSD), faced some technical and user problems. The main technical problem was the overhead for the most commonly used applications, such as Mozilla and OpenOffice or the suite of KDE application programs. Whilst recent changes to the Mozilla engine, specifically the separation of the mailclient from webclient is a dramatic improvement, overall the use of Windows 98 second edition with Microsoft Office had a very slight advantage to a dramatic change in client application installations and retraining. Nor was a changeover on the general server system a viable option, as there simply not the support staff to take up the project subsequent to the contract completion. The best option, was was carried out, was the installation of open source systems on an experimental basis for those who wanted to learn, and the introduction to more automated server systems (such as the mailserver).

A subsequent project that does have a viable future for the promotion for the advocacy of open source software is the Tetum-Translators project initiated by Peter Gossner. Although in its initial stages, the project has the viable promise of introducing a Tetun-language desktop interface and has recently had spin-off projects into developing a simple machine translation program for Tetun, Bahasa, Portuguese and English. One matter that does need to be overcome is the consistent preference within East Timor (and Indonesia for that matter) for pirated commercial software to legitimate freely distributable software. The strongest explanation for this behaviour is the concept of "commodity fetishism", where real or imagined exchange-value is reified above the objects use-value. Pirated software, because it is sold at a particular exchange-value elsewhere is perceived to be of that value, even though the particular instance has comparable resale value. This conception is utterly independent of any utility the product may have [9].

All that has been described here is the more unusual aspect of systems administration in the fourth world. It is needless to elaborate on any great level is that the above activities existing as well as the normal system administrator tasks of account management, computer repairs and network maintenance, software updates and virus protection, individual behaviour management etc. Thus anyone seriously considering such valuable and worthwhile activity must take into consideration some of the costs that individuals will have to bear in engaging in what is an extraordinary satisfying, frustrating and difficult work. Volunteer work does provide an allowance which is significant compared to local wages, but one's purchasing power is dramatically reduced. Infrastructure conditions do remind one of spending a year in camping condition (with the inclusion of endemic food poisoning, malaria, dengue fever, gastro-intestinal parasite infections) and, as previously mentioned, issues related to personal safety.

Finally, one particular issue that can have an extraordinary difference on work efficiency is the matter of cultural differences. Whilst these are often discussed in a more of less trivial reconstruction of everyday life, or in a manner that fails to recognize the universal existential themes that are common to all individuals of the species regardless of temporal or spatial location, matters of disposition and demeanor are apparently specific to cultural circumstances and history. Not only is the degree of directness and lack of ambiguity apparently unusual to West European cultures (specifically the Romance and Germanic language families and their English synthesis) decades of a people living with high degrees of subterfuge, indirectness and clandestine activities have taken their toll.

The greatest challenge for the East Timorese themselves is to overcome the negative aspects of these cultural norms. This will of course be difficult for a nation that has been traumitised by extraordinary brutality by the government of one neighbor and a consistent history of betrayal by the government of another. 'Openness' in Timor is by-word for suicide, and a positive work-ethic is perceived as compliance to the oppressor. Both have a long history of being a threat to the population at large. Yet they are necessary for East Timor to become a functioning, peaceful and developing democracy - East Timor is now governing itself, and it will take several years at least for this heady fact to fundamentally change a psychology used to dictatorship, chaos, war and impoverishment.


[1] Srinivas Melkote and Allen Merriam, "The Third World: Definitions
and New Perspectives on Development", in Alfonso Gonzalez and Jim
Norwine (eds.), The New Third World, 2d ed., Westview Press, 1998.

[2] Figures from East Timor Human Development Report, 2002. Published
by the United Nations Development Programme

[3] Peter Cole-Adams, Canberra "defeatist" on Timor: US envoy, Sydney
Morning Herald, August 10, 1999 and Marian Wilkinson, Why we kept
Timor secrets from the US, Sydney Morning Herald, August 13, 1999
and Paul Daley, Timor: We snub offer to send in the Marines, The
Age Sunday, August 31, 1999

[4] The author was an international observor at the Presidential

[5] Wayne Arnold, U.N. Agency Is Bringing Timor Online (Horsemen in
Mongolia, as Well), New York Times, December 27, 1999

[6] East Timor Leste;

[7] See: ICANN: Progress in Process for Introducing New Sponsored
Top-Level Domains, 19th March 2004 available at:
Declan McCullah, ICANN surveys proposed Net domains, CNET, March
19, 2004 [8]
Neon-komputador, Computer Users Manual, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and Cooperation, Democratic Republic of East Timor, 2003
available at:

[9] Karl Marx, Capital Vol I, pp76-87, Progress Publishers, 1954,
FP1867, available at: