After almost three decades of Indonesian occupation, Timor-Leste gained its independence in 2002. The widespread violence during the years of occupation has taken its toll, however, and, since independence, the nation has striven to rebuild. Despite these efforts, Timor-Leste remains one of the world’s poorest nations, with an estimated 42 percent of the population living in poverty. Before investigating methods by which this issue can be alleviated, it is important to understand the main causes of poverty in Timor-Leste.
- Much of Timor-Leste’s economic infrastructure became severely damaged during the years of Indonesian occupation. This has negatively impacted many of the country’s essential services, such as healthcare, agriculture and education. The lack of infrastructure has further exacerbated the country’s food insecurity. With many people reliant on harvested crops as their primary source of food, large amounts of these crops have been improperly allocated or are traded on the black market, compounding the issue of hunger.
- Timor-Leste faces challenges from its surrounding geography. The country’s uneven terrain makes both farming and water-gathering difficult, with only 30 percent of arable land currently used in farming. Around 70 percent of the nation’s population lives in rural areas and are reliant on agriculture as their primary food source. However, they are faced with the challenges of tackling the wet and dry seasons. Natural disasters also make this difficult, with floods and droughts the cause of large losses. As a result, many families who are reliant on farming are only able to produce enough food for eight months of the year.
- Food shortages contribute to a large number of illnesses and diseases in Timor-Leste. Malnutrition is widespread, and proper health care is hard to come by, particularly for those in rural areas. Maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world, and 45 out of every 1,000 children are expected to die before their first birthday. Of those who survive, many are stunted due to poor nutrition.
- Water and sanitation also create problems for health care. Of all Timorese, 300,000 do not have access to clean water, with large numbers of the population using public taps and unprotected springs to get the water they need. Additionally, 700,000 people are without adequate sanitation. The lack of these basic facilities enables disease to spread, resulting in unnecessary deaths, particularly of young children.
- Education attainment levels in Timor-Leste are low, with a lack of literacy among the population being particularly problematic. Prior to independence, many of the country’s schools were destroyed and teachers were in short supply. A 2015 UNESCO report found numerous challenges facing the education system. Dropout and attendance rates, particularly those of girls, is one of the key issues the country is facing.
- One of the primary reasons education is a major cause of poverty in Timor-Leste is the direct impact it has on employment. While more than three-quarters of Timor-Leste’s workers are employed within the primary sector, employment outside of this area is limited. The country’s educational issues prevent the development of a skilled workforce, which hinders the ability of the government to function effectively. This skill gap is particularly problematic for Timorese youths, where educational inadequacies have led to a 40 percent unemployment level. Further compounding this issue is the lack of job creation outside of government, with the private sector only able to create an estimated 400 jobs per annum.
- While Timor-Leste receives foreign aid from a multitude of sources, questions have been raised as to whether aid has delivered any observable results. Policies of donors may not necessarily be in line with what is best for the country, particularly when focused on the public versus private sector. Despite this, a recent government report shows that critical areas of health, agriculture and education are receiving significant investment through foreign aid. As some of the primary causes of poverty in Timor-Leste, further investment in these areas may enable at least a small alleviation of the poverty facing the country.
As a young nation with limited resources, assistance from the developed world is critical to progress in Timor-Leste. Increased foreign aid, focused on the primary causes of poverty in the country, will be a strong starting point to enabling a stable economic future for Timor-Leste.
– Gavin Callander