DILI – It’s late afternoon at the Ministry of Finance. High-level representatives from some of the world’s most fragile and conflictaffected states identify the major barriers to development and progress in their countries. South Sudan. Sierra Leone. The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Afghanistan. Chad. The lists bear striking resemblance to one another. Lack of infrastructure. Poverty. Conflict.
The absence of Finance Minister Emilia Pires is palpable. She’s been delayed in Indonesia, Planning and Financial Management Advisor Ramon Oliveros said to the delegates. As the afternoon draws to an end, Pires arrives. She quietly walks into the room. For her unceasing commitment to Timor-Leste and other fragile and conflict-affected states, delegates stand and applaud her.
“There is a huge need,” Pires said. “Conflict states just need someone to give them a chance. Nobody wants to be a failure.”
Visionary. Global leader. Minister of Finance. It’s a challenge to describe Emilia Pires. This 5’2”-woman with striking ash brown hair who jokes about once wearing her nightgown to work all day because there wasn’t time to change is more than a career public servant and something closer to a force of nature. She is one the world’s most powerful people who runs the Ministry of Finance and meets with global leaders to set a development agenda for Timor-Leste and other fragile and conflict-affected states. At the same time, she walks through the halls of Ministry of Finance calling people by their first name and chats easily with near strangers.
Those closest to Pires describe her as creative, competent and committed. To herself, she is the ever-pushing student powered by the belief that everyone has a duty to leave the world stronger and more stable for the next generation.
“People died for us,” she said from her office. “We have to honor their sacrifice.”
Born into a prominent family of public servants, Pires’ love affair with Timor-Leste only strengthened when her family was exiled in 1975 to Australia. When the war erupted, she was only 15 and believed that the exile would last for a few days. Those few days turned into 24 years.
“There is a huge need. Conflict states just need someone to give them a chance. Nobody wants to be a failure.” Emilia Pires Timor-Leste Minister of Finance
Her family eventually settled in Melbourne but kept a close bond to their Timorese heritage. Pires said that being away from Timor-Leste recommitted her resolve, and she became active in the resistance movement, often writing letters or visiting anguished family members under a false name. She met with Timorese living in Australia and became more and more outraged as she learned of the injustices perpetrated against her people.
After she graduated from La Trobe University, she joined the Victorian State Government to help low-income families find housing. She was 22. Using her skills in mathematics and statistics to help the underprivileged came naturally to her.
She met and married an Australian engineer; and, by the late 1990s, rose to senior management in the state government. Over the next several years, she continued to rise in the ranks and was hired for high level positions with global organizations, including the World Bank and United Nations. Along the way, she completed post-graduate studies from the University of Melbourne and a M.S. in Development Management from the London School of Economics.
The more she did for Timor-Leste, the more she wanted to do. She worked to liberate Timor-Leste and, most notably, Prime Minister Xanana Gusma??o, when the leader of the resistance movement was captured and later jailed in Indonesia. She mobilized donors to contribute to the freedom of Timor-Leste, and stayed to help after the country gained independence. In 2004, she left for the Middle East to take a key job with the World Bank.
In 2007, Prime Minister Gusma??o appointed Pires to her current position in the first coalition government. Her technical background, global experience and success as a public finance manager distinguished her.
As Pires sat at her desk, she said she wondered if moving into the government was the right move for her. It was an honor to be asked, but Pires said she wasn’t sure. Then she realized that she had to take the post – for years, she had called for an independent Timor-Leste; and, now, she said, she had to demonstrate her commitment.
She accepted the post and immediately rolled up her sleeves. She inherited a ministry where 60% had 3rd grade level math skills. When she returned to Timor-Leste, she was one of the few in the government with administrative experience. Ever so slowly, a pace she’s unfamiliar with, she had to teach and learn about the complexities of working in a postconflict society.
The experience would prove invaluable for the future; but, in the meantime, Pires built the foundation of the Ministry of Finance and decentralized it to expedite service delivery. She helped Timor-Leste go from negative growth rates to three years of steady double digit growth. She became a kind of miracle worker, constantly beating the odds with her tenacity and vision.
Today the Ministry of Finance, housed in the center of the city, runs like a well-oiled machine. Analysts and budget experts crowd over desks and consider new projects. Her work ethic has set a powerful example: One night when Pires was at dinner with a group of foreigners, she received a text message. It was well past nine at night. She picked up her phone and answered the message.
“Look at that,” she said marveling at the message. “They are still at work.”
The Ministry of Finance is not where it ends. Pires has attracted a global corps of loyalists who undertake projects for her and help oversee her vision. And, she reciprocates. She answers messages and helps facilitate dialogue constantly. Her enthusiasm is infectious and sense of purpose real.
Today Timor-Leste is one of the success stories. It enjoys double digit growth and political stability. Oil and energy reserves have helped: Timor’s Petroleum Fund has accumulated $10 billion in royalties, and expects more than $20 billion by 2020.
Pires has been at the forefront of managing oil revenues to avoid the “oil curse” or the paradox of plenty. Pires wants to ensure that the money is spent on social development, infrastructure and economic development. And, she added, the best way to achieve that is to create strong government institutions to promote institutional capacity.
She engineered the Timor-Leste Transparency Portal, which was launched in 2011 and sets a global standard in allowing the public to interact with the government in an inclusive way. Her efforts have been noticed: Timor-Leste has led global forums in aid reforms and become a noted role model for countries trying to emerge from conflict and build democratic states.
The g7+ may be her crowning achievement. Representing more than 365 million people in some of the world’s most fragile states, the g7+ is the first forum to give a united voice and platform to countries emerging from conflict and fragility. Since the inauguration of the g7+ in Dili in 2010, Timor-Leste has served as the chair.
Pires has overseen the group since its birth and was instrumental in establishing a Secretariat in Dili and promoting the g7+ globally. The voices of fragile and conflictaffected states are necessary to gather, she said. Their countries struggle with development, and they are the ones who are most knowledgeable about charting a way forward. The international community needs to trust them more, she said. Members of fragile and conflict-affected countries have voiced their appreciation for her support.
“We wish we could be with you always, Minister,” said Moses Mabior, South Sudan’s aid coordinator and longtime friend, at the Dili summit.
Others nodded their heads in agreement.
It’s nearing the end of the day in Dili. The sun has set, and members of the summit have adjourned for the day. Pires looks at her clock and jumps in her seat.
She’s still got another meeting to attend and people to meet.