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East Timor 10 years on and the two saving graces

On Sunday, East Timor will celebrate 10 years of independence. As a nation born from the ashes of destruction, its first decade has been marked by problems and setbacks.

Many in East Timor, not least its outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, lament a lack of development since independence. Ramos-Horta notes that the international community has spent billions of dollars in East Timor, yet most East Timorese remain amongst the world’s poorest people.

But a little over a year ago, Ramos-Horta said that the country had never been better. The question is, in part, whether the metaphorical glass is half empty or half full.

It is also, in part, whether the speaker — in this case Ramos-Horta — had a political score to settle. In early 2011, Ramos-Horta was still firmly in Gusmao’s political tent. A year later, he is an ex-president outside that tent.

Many East Timorese have also been disappointed with independence. With independence came statistical indicators — and a reality — that showed East Timorese people among the most underprivileged in the world. A recent report noted that, as a result of malnutrition, most East Timorese children suffered from stunted growth.

But East Timorese people have always been critically poor, and the situation getting worse before it gets better is an almost universal post-independence phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, rising popular frustration ran up against limited government capacity. The 2006 result, as it has been in many other newly independent countries, was chaos.

Since then, however, a democratic change of government coincided with rising oil receipts and developing local capacity has seen its key development indicators vastly improve. Infant and maternal mortality rates have been cut in half and literacy has increased along with average incomes and life expectancies. If East Timorese children do have stunted, they are much less likely to die of starvation.

But East Timor still has many challenges ahead of it, the biggest of which is the sustainable management of its $10 billion-plus oil fund. It is this — and realistically only this — that will underpin the economy into the indefinite future. However, the oil fund is being spent at well beyond a sustainable capacity.

The government argues this spending is necessary to boost infrastructure development and skills and, in effect, buy off problems such as high unemployment. But there is the very real risk that spending will not produce the desired outcomes, will promote corruption and will eventually leave the country broke.

Ten years on from independence, East Timor has two saving graces. One is that while the UN and the Australian-led peacekeepers are due to leave at the end of the year, the international community remains committed to East Timor’s longer-term success.

But, most importantly, the people of East Timor have embraced the idea that they can determine their own affairs. It is this commitment to regularising and further embedding political accountability, evident in the election process that is coinciding with its 10th anniversary, which gives East Timor the best chance for the future.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University and is co-ordinating volunteer observers for the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network to East Timor’s 2012 elections.

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  • 1
    michael r james
    Posted Friday, 18 May 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    If East Timorese children do have stunted, they are much less likely to die of starvation.”

    Things may have improved but the average fertility rate is still >6 children per woman; and being an average, there are still families with 12 children. After the unrest birthrates went up and modern practice means more survive childhood but that is creating a problem for the future unless they get it under control. In a deeply Catholic country….

    Whether Ramos-Horta was being political he was correct. It confirms that aid money is often useless. Having said that I feel Australia could be playing a much more constructive role in helping one of our poorest neighbours.

    http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/07/13/we-have-a-shameful-record-when-it-comes-to-timor-aid/
    We have a shameful record when it comes to Timor aid
    by Michael R James Tuesday, 13 July 2010

  • 2
    Posted Saturday, 19 May 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    There is now a well established pattern. A poor country has high fertility but also high infant mortality resulting in a relatively stable population. Improved health reduces infant mortality but social attitudes don’t change as quickly and the continuing high fertility results in a high population growth. After a generation or two fertility falls and the population tends towards equilibrium, altho at a higher level than previously.

    If you want to reduce a country’s population growth you first reduce infant mortality and then you educate the people, concentrating on women.

  • 3
    Liz45
    Posted Sunday, 20 May 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    50% of children are malnourished, and 70% of the population is unemployed. Almost all fruit and vegetables, fruit juice etc is imported, while East Timor has the climate to grow most of its own food. Importing such necessities adds to the price.

    Are we still stealing their oil and gas? Or most of it? Shameful!

    I understand that some politicians are abusing their positions and going on ‘study tours’ etc? When money is scarce and children are almost starving, I’d hardly find this progress. Why isn’t Australia helping more? That’s where our foreign aid should/could go - to help them set up areas to grow their own food at least!

    How many of the kids go to school? Educate the women and the size of families will decrease - it’s been shown to be a fact in other countries.

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