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Poverty in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is one of the least-known countries in the world. Situated between Papua and Indonesian West Timor, Timor-Leste’s economy depends largely on the production of hydrocarbon from offshore natural gas. Most people living there do agricultural work harvesting corn, rice, coconuts, coffee and sweet potatoes. To produce additional income, locals create textiles and baskets, carved ivory, pottery and handicrafts. Politically, Timor-Leste has had a turbulent past. Independence from Indonesia came at a cost in 1999, with hundreds killed by militants. The territory became a sovereign state in May 2002 and since then the government has grappled with the issue of poverty.

Facts about Poverty in Timor-Leste:

1. Investments in Human Capital

Timor-Leste’s population is 1.3 million, of which about 42% are living in poverty, down from 50% in 2007. Standards of living have improved in the past decade, with the Human Capital Index, or investments in human capital, reaching 0.43 in 2017. However, the country still needs to increase earnings and train a more skilled workforce.

2. Health Care for Women and Children

For every 1,000 babies born in 2018, 46 will die within five years. Yet child mortality has decreased by 41% since 2013. Timor-Leste has also made strides in its maternal mortality rate, which has been reduced from 694 per 100,000 live births in 2000, to 142 in 2017.

It is important to note that the country has one of the youngest populations on earth. In 2015, 42% of the populace was made up of children ages 0 to 14. This has created a high dependency ratio of 82% for young people in the working-age population. Timor-Leste’s government has been making an effort to expand education and to help it is citizens be healthier. More progress is needed in terms of providing food to fight malnutrition and in maintaining the health of its children.

3. Big Strides in Education

The government has made significant efforts to educate children and the country is investing in building schools. From 2003 to 2015, the secondary school enrollment ratio went from 46.4% to 76.8%. Still, Timor-Leste needs to invest even more resources in its younger generation.

4. Access to Food

From 2016 to 2018, the prevalence of undernourishment was 24.9% and the rate of malnutrition in children under five was 9.9%. In response, the government has established feeding programs in schools and health centers.

5. Sustainable Infrastructure

In 2019, the World Bank created a Country Partnership Framework which will support Timor-Leste in using its natural resources for sustainable infrastructure. Its initiatives include investing in human capital and promoting gender equality; investing in the digital and transportation sectors; encouraging economic growth led by the private sector and promoting tourism and agribusiness. While these efforts are helping with poverty in Timor-Leste, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought gains in this area to a standstill.

The Pandemic has Slowed Progress

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for Timor-Leste. According to the Global Health Observatory, there are only 59 hospital beds per 120,000 people. Complicating matters, only 5% of the country’s budget is dedicated to the health sector. Petroleum prices have dropped, and given its dependency on oil and trade, Timor-Leste’s per capita GDP could fall as low as negative 3.7% in 2020, and 4% in 2021. In addition, while the country has received medical support from UNICEF and other organizations, it will not receive as much help now, as countries are dealing with their own pandemic situations.

As of June 9, 2020, Timor-Leste’s government planned to give each home $15 in electricity credits and $100 per month. However, more needs to be done, since social and health services are limited, and over 40% of the populace is below the poverty line. It is the government’s hope that when the pandemic recedes, they will be able to pick up where they left off in the fight against poverty in Timor-Leste.

– Sarah Betuel

Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is an island country in Southeast Asia. Portugal colonized the territory in the 16th century under the name of Portuguese Timor, retaining control until the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor declared independence on November 28, 1975. Nine days later, however, the Indonesian military invaded and occupied East Timor, leading to decades of devastating violent conflict between separatist groups and Indonesian officials.

After a referendum in which 78.5% of Timorese voted for independence, Indonesia renounced control of the region in 1999, and it obtained official sovereign state status on May 20, 2002, under the name of Timor-Leste. Yet years following independence, Timor-Leste remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Here is some information that illuminates some of the causes, realities and potential solutions to poverty in Timor-Leste.

Legacy of Violence

Timor-Leste’s history comprises of poverty and inequality. Estimates determine that over 100,000 Timorese perished during the Indonesian occupation due to starvation, disease and deadly conflict. This turmoil continued after Timor-Leste declared its independence; the Indonesian military responded violently, killing upwards of 2,000 pro-independence Timorese. As a result, many Timorese sought refuge in the mountains or in neighboring countries. The Indonesians’ brutality left the country traumatized and weak, with destroyed roads and ports, poor water and sanitation systems and little to no government facilities. Timor-Leste is still recovering from this devastation.

Poverty levels remain high. In 2014, an estimated 42% of Timorese lived in poverty — an overwhelmingly high proportion of the population. Though Timor-Leste only has a 4.6% unemployment rate, 21.8% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day. As a result, 24.9% of Timorese are malnourished, 51.7% of children under 5-years-old have stunted growth and 46 out of every 1,000 children die before the age of 5. Almost 40% of the population is illiterate, and the average age is 17.5 years.

Despite these facts, the country is making progress. Though a 42% poverty rate is high, this is a marked improvement over Timor-Leste’s 50.4% rate in 2007. Data demonstrates that Timor-Leste improved in various key poverty indicators between 2007 and 2014, including a reduction in the population living without electricity (64% to 28%), with poor sanitation (58% to 40%) and without access to clean drinking water (40% to 25%).

Aid for Timor-Leste

The international community has helped Timor-Leste develop and stabilize since its independence. The U.S. assists Timor-Leste via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a burgeoning Peace Corps program. Additionally, the U.S.’s Millennium Challenge Corporation selected Timor-Leste for a five-year grant program in December 2017 to address the main contributors to poverty and stimulate economic growth. The U.S. then furthered its aid in 2018 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected Timor-Leste as a recipient of its $26 million, five-year McGovern-Dole nutrition and education program. Though there is little direct trade between Timor-Leste and the United States, the U.S. helped establish the coffee industry in East Timor in the 1990s, and Starbucks Coffee Company remains a loyal purchaser of Timorese coffee.

Timor-Leste also receives assistance from developed nations such as Australia, which has claimed the title of Timor-Leste’s largest development partner since the country gained independence. Australia allocated an estimated $100.7 million to Timor-Leste aid between 2019 and 2020.

There are a number of international nongovernmental organizations working to improve conditions in Timor-Leste. For example, Care International Timor-Leste works to improve disadvantaged families’ quality of education, safety of childbirth and resilience against natural disasters. Meanwhile, Water Aid aims to make clean water, reliable toilets and good hygiene universal, and Marie Stopes Timor-Leste offers Timorese family planning methods and sexual and reproductive health services.

COVID-19 is Hindering Progress

COVID-19 is a tragic setback to improvement. Due to early intervention and a mandatory quarantine, Timor-Leste has proved successful in preventing the spread of COVID-19. As of June 3, 2020, there were no active cases of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste since May 15, 2020, with an overall total of 24 cases and zero deaths. However, the strict lockdown has had wide-reaching political and social consequences for a country that was already in an economic recession prior to the pandemic. Many businesses either downsized or closed, resulting in a surge in unemployment rates. Though the government’s robust stimulus package has prevented catastrophe in the short term, its plans for long term recovery remain uncertain.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a substantial setback to Timor-Leste’s development, the nation’s declining unemployment and poverty rates and improving living conditions are nonetheless promising. According to the World Bank, the next step in Timor-Leste’s fight against poverty is restructuring its spending. If Timor-Leste redirects investments into the development of sustainable agriculture and tourism, better transportation and improved preservation of its natural resources, it has the potential to avoid the devastating financial consequences of COVID-19 and eradicate extreme poverty.

Abby Tarwater
Photo: Wikimedia

Girls' Education in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is a half-island nation located in Southeast Asia. With a lack of economic opportunities, Timor-Leste is known to be one of the poorest nations in Asia. Of the country’s population, 42 percent live below the national poverty line, making education a critical resource. Girls’ education in Timor-Leste is a complicated piece of this issue.

Education in Timor-Leste

The government of Timor-Leste recognizes the importance of school for young people as they want all individuals to have access to a quality education that will prepare them for life. In 2010, the Timorese government created a goal to achieve the nationwide completion of basic education in the country. As a result, the educational sector has made significant progress in the last five years, especially for young girls. For both boys and girls, the net enrollment rate grew from 67 percent to 83 percent in those five years. Also, gender disparity decreased substantially in early education.

Young Women are Being Left Behind

Although progress has been made in reaching gender equality, women and young girls are still disproportionately under-represented in undergraduate education. In regards to primary and secondary education in Timor-Leste, girls and boys are almost equal in enrollment. In primary school, 91.3 percent of boys and 90.6 percent of girls participated in their schooling.

However, the gender disparity in education increases as young people approach higher education. For instance, women become greatly outnumbered in higher education. For every 80 women, there are 100 men enrolled. Consequently, the literacy rate for adults 15 and older is 60 percent for women compared to 69 percent for men.

The Challenge of Rural Areas

Girls living in impoverished rural areas have a harder time accessing education in the country. Nearly 37 percent of people aged 15 to 24 are illiterate in rural regions compared to just six percent in urban areas.

Many poor families cannot afford schooling costs such as books, paper or pencils. Also, there is limited access to good facilities in rural areas. Many schools are aging, becoming dangerous for young children to be inside of. Of the basic education schools, 66 percent do not have functioning toilets and 40 percent do not have drinking water.

Timorese student Delfina explains her experience in her local schooling facility before it was renovated by UNICEF. “The building was falling apart. There weren’t enough chairs and the rooms were really crowded. They also flooded when it rained,” she said.

A Hidden Crisis

Young girls are subject to human trafficking and prostitution which interrupts their education but also places their lives in grave danger. Child sex-trafficking is widespread in Timor-Leste, but it specifically targets the girls in the country. There is little formal information available regarding the extent of human trafficking in the country because it is not easily traceable. However, it is still overwhelmingly prevalent. In some cases, poverty in certain remote villages is so severe, families send their daughters to more populated cities or towns to earn money as a prostitute. These girls can be as young as 10-years-old. Many times, girls will become pregnant and return to their villages. They will either have to take care of their baby or be forced back into prostitution.

Organizations Taking Action

Several organizations are helping the nation’s government improve girls’ education in Timor Leste. One, in particular, UNICEF, recognizes the importance of investing in the country’s education system in order to help girls and women receive an education and find their voice in society. The organization focuses on remote, rural areas where schooling facilities can be rare. So far they have helped to build 59 child-friendly schools while also supporting another 62 in the country. These schools are also equipped with learning materials and properly trained teachers.

The World Bank funded the Second Chance Education Project which was a national equivalency program in Timor-Leste. This project aimed to improve literacy rates in adults while also increasing community participation in education. Through this project, nine community educational facilities were created as well as a flexible curriculum that is appropriate for adult students. Because of this program, young adults were given the opportunity to complete parts of their education that they may have missed. This allowed young women to either further their education or pursue a career.

A Bright Future

There is a reason to be optimistic as girls’ education in Timor-Leste progresses with every passing year. Although there is still some work to be done, the status of female education in the country is becoming almost equal to that of their male counterparts. Because the Timorese government and many other organizations recognize the value of educating females in the country, more girls now are able to go to school and realize their full potential than ever before.

– Marissa Pekular
Photo: Flickr

how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste is repeatedly referred to as a “tiny half-island nation of 1.2 million.” It is framed as an “impoverished country” that has fallen prey to the resource curse that so often afflicts countries with an oil-dependent economy. In the context of its current political transition, skepticism abounds regarding the country’s ability to rise above the temptations of corruption and combat the country’s high poverty rates.

Despite High Poverty, Timor-Leste Has Made Great Progress

Such media coverage fails to take into account the notable progress being made by this newly autonomous country. In order to avoid detracting from this progress, it is essential to garner an understanding of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste —a nation whose independence was only recently obtained, after the turn of the 21st century. After centuries of Portuguese colonial occupation, the Timorese fought valiantly for their independence, only to be occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. This period of occupation lasted a little over a quarter of a century. In May 2002, Timor-Leste gained its independence.

Nearly two decades later, the media repeatedly employs statics in order to evaluate how the newly independent country is functioning. These statistics include a 40 percent poverty rate accompanied by a 60 percent unemployment rate. Highlighting standalone statistics is an example of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste. This practice becomes problematic because these statistics are not representative of the progress being made.

While a poverty rate of 40 percent may appear grim, this statistic fails to account for the vast decline in poverty since 2001, which was an astonishing 71 percent. In a little over a decade, the number of people living in poverty dropped by roughly 44 percent. The poverty rate statistic also fails to represent the declining numbers of undernourished people. Between 2005 and 2007, the rate was 34 percent; by 2014, the rate was at 28.8 percent.

Despite its progress, the Timorese government does acknowledge that its poverty rates remain high. To combat this, Timor-Leste has partnered with the Asian Development Bank in order to invest in infrastructure. These large investments are being put towards road development, supplying clean water to urban centers and vocational education.

The Media Misrepresents Timor-Leste by Ignoring Its Peaceful Transitions of Power

Rather than reporting on the progress made by these development initiatives, the news about Timor-Leste focuses on the uncertainty—and in some cases violence—surrounding the recently held elections. This uncertainty is the result of the country’s history of frequent political instability. Particularly in 2006, political instability had disastrous consequences. That year, the prime minister was forced to resign from his post. His resignation was the outcome of expansive rioting that resulted in 150,000 deaths and displacements. It is natural that the Timorese would be concerned about a repeat of these events.

However, Giteroano Neves, a Timor-Leste policy analyst, points out that the political climate at that time was very different from the one today. Timor-Leste had just emerged from internal conflict and was experiencing an unexpected influx of oil revenues. Since then, Neves states that the country has been relatively stable.

From 2017 to 2018, the Freedom House Organization updated Timor-Leste’s freedom status from “partly free” to “free.” One of the factors influencing this change in status was the successful 2017 presidential and primary elections, in which the country amicably transferred power between political parties for the second time since independence. According to a European Union observer mission, the elections were “peaceful and generally well administered.” Furthermore, the winning parties are united on the next steps for the country.

The 2018 winning coalition, called the Parliamentary Majority Alliance, is comprised of both the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction and the newly formed People’s Liberation Party (PLP). The PLP promotes investment in the basic needs of the people such as roads, water access, education and healthcare. The party as a whole is also in support of the investment in larger infrastructure projects, such as the South Coast Petroleum Corridor.

Economic Development a Bright Spot in Timor-Leste’s Future

Timor-Leste’s economy is highly dependent on its oil economy, which currently funds the vast majority of the state’s expenditures. However, oil revenues have been declining. Fortunately, the country was recently able to negotiate maritime borders with Australia, which provided Timor-Leste access to 70 to 80 percent of the Greater Sunrise gas field. Even with this acquisition, the country is expanding its efforts to grow other sectors of the economy, such as coffee and tourism.

By insistently reporting on Timor-Leste’s shortcomings, the media is overlooking the progress that is being made in the country. In order to avoid this oversight, poverty reduction supporters need to be aware of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste. This misrepresentation detracts from the discussion on how current development endeavors could be made more effective. It fails to reveal an avenue in which external organizations can provide support for these development agendas. Worst of all, it demoralizes those working hardest to make improvements. Timor-Leste is still maturing; the focus should be on fostering this growth.

– Joanna Dooley
Photo: Flickr