All states face economic, social and political pressure, but when the pressure exceeds a state’s ability to control it, the state becomes fragile. The Fund for Peace uses the Fragile States Index (FSI) to assess the vulnerability of 179 countries every year. The Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste has shown significant decreases in economic and environmental fragility in recent years. In 2020, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) report on the state of fragility did not list Timor-Leste as a fragile state. In the FSI’s 2021 report, Timor-Leste ranked first of all the world’s countries for yearly reduction in overall fragility score. Improvements to fragility and rule of law in Timor-Leste have also helped the nation reduce poverty.
History of Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, formally known as East Timor, is one of the world’s youngest nations. It was a Portuguese colony until 1975, then remained under Indonesian sovereignty until 1999. In 1999, the U.N. organized the East Timorese Independence Referendum, in which citizens chose independence over greater autonomy within Indonesia.
Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century after the formal ratification of independence in 2002. Timor-Leste has devoted the last 20 years to rebuilding infrastructure and formal institutions damaged by past conflict. Around 1.3 million people call the newly peaceful, democratic nation home.
Economic Growth in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste’s poverty rate dropped from 50% in 2007 to 42% in 2014, indicating economic growth. Less poverty means less violence, so the drop in poverty means improvement in fragility and rule of law in Timor-Leste. The Timorese government has put great effort toward reducing disparities within the economy, especially through education.
After decades of conflict, the Timorese needed to rebuild nearly all institutions from the ground up. Between 2005 and 2008, the government devoted significant funding to primary education, leading primary education enrollment to increase from 68% to 85%. However, older youth and adults still lacked the education to participate fully in society and the economy.
In 2010, with only 36% of the population functionally literate, the World Bank launched the Second Chance Education Project. The program set up nine community learning centers with flexible hours, providing a second chance to those too old for primary school. By the time the project ended in 2017, 1,670 students had participated in the mature education course, 55% of whom were women. Timor-Leste’s recent efforts put the country on target to achieve U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education) by 2030.
Improvements in health and nutrition directly improved fragility and rule of law in Timor-Leste. Malnutrition is the country’s leading cause of premature death and disability. Timorese children suffer the third highest stunting prevalence in the world, with more than 50% of children younger than 5 identified as stunted. Experts believe that loss of productivity due to malnutrition costs Timor-Leste $40 million per year.
To combat malnutrition, the World Bank implemented the Community Driven Nutrition Improvement Program. Operating in 49 villages, the four-year program taught families how to grow and cook nutrient-rich foods. The program gave more than 1,000 families sweet potato cuttings and provided more than 400 families with seeds for their home and community gardens.
With the help of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), Timor-Leste has also brought its malaria epidemic under control. The GFATM funded and helped launch the National Malaria Control Program in 2003. Following the launch, Timor-Leste saw a 97% decrease in reported cases, which dropped from around 223,000 cases in 2006 to only around 6,200 in 2012. The program followed a six-part strategy:
- Enhance early detection and effective therapies.
- Distribute long-lasting insecticidal nets.
- Conduct indoor residual spraying.
- Improve epidemic prevention, preparedness and response.
- Educate the public.
- Enhance monitoring and research.
Timor-Leste’s democracy continues to flourish. Since gaining independence in 2002, the state has successfully held four peaceful, free and fair multi-party elections, all of which ended with a smooth transfer of power. Democratic stability will continue to improve fragility and rule of law in Timor-Leste. As one of Southeast Asia’s most stable democracies, the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Report classified Timor-Leste as on target for SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).
The Timorese government now prioritizes rebuilding infrastructure and public services. The Timor-Leste Road Climate Resilience Project is currently restoring 110 kilometers of road connecting three of the main districts in the country. Inability to travel throughout the country isolates communities and isolation hurts the economy. The project will connect 410,000 citizens, encouraging greater economic activity. The road will also help decrease malnutrition by giving families access to diverse foods grown in other parts of the country. The road restoration project is nearly 80% complete.
Goals for Timor-Leste Through 2024
In November 2019, the World Bank Group established the Country Partnership Framework for Timor-Leste. It plans to transform Timor-Leste’s “natural wealth into improved human capital and sustainable infrastructure” with three main objectives:
- Promote private sector-led growth and diversify the economy.
- Improve human capital.
- Continue to rebuild infrastructure, especially transportation.
Along with Timor-Leste, the OECD also removed Egypt, Malawi, Nepal and Rwanda from the list of fragile nations in 2020. As fragility and rule of law in Timor-Leste and other nations improve, their neighboring nations will also find more stability. There is always room for improvement but the world should take a moment to celebrate the significant progress in the small, young country of Timor-Leste.
– Ella LeRoy