The NTA started out in 1988 as a trust, formed by a group of Australians and Indonesians during a major survey of socio-economic potentials of East Nusa Tenggara Province. This was reinforced at a later international seminar on the same theme in Kupang (the provincial capital). The Nusa Tenggara Trust, led by ANU agricultural economist, Dr Colin Barlow, gradually built links with the provincial and local governments, local businesses and other regional organisations to get development projects going in the region. Colin Barlow and his colleagues were deeply concerned at the dire poverty they encountered in this region, the closest to Australia and were motivated to address some of the most pressing problems. (Even by 2013 per capital income in the area was only A$2 per day. Currently, also the province is on designated by the Indonesian Government as one where food security is a serious issue. A recent survey found, for example, high rates of stunted growth and related conditions due to malnutrition).

The Trust and its founders soon became the Nusa Tenggara Association. Members of the NTA decided to focus on West Timor, carrying out village-level development work through community-based participation. The NTA drew on a small network of people committed to working voluntarily on fund raising, monitoring field activities, liaising with groups and individuals involved in the projects, and sharing technical expertise. Later activities were extended also to the island of Flores and Colin Barlow established partnership arrangements with regionally-based Indonesian research organisations with relevant technologies and skills. Local activities were focused around several locally-based Indonesian NGOs and these help coordinate and manage projects and programs in the field, assisted by paid NTA staff and monitored by the Australian leaders, principally Colin Barlow and Ria Gondowarsito. The NTA qualifies for assistance from AusAID (now DFAT) under the ANCP (Australian NGO Cooperation Program) and continues to receive base funding from this source. However funding is contingent upon the NTA itself raising significant funds from the community.

Over 25 years on the NTA operates on the same basis although its activities and reach has increased significantly. The founders and present supporters of the NTA have a strong sense of achievement in the projects completed and their measurable impact on the day-to-day lives of those living in the communities. As Colin Barlow says; ‘after many years of experience, we’ve been able to mount an effective aid operation, involving close cooperation between us, local NGOs and local people. We hope to slowly expand this, increasing our impact beyond the current 10,000 odd people, and improving the effectiveness of what we do.'