Off the Rails in Timor Leste

Child smiles in East Timor

A local child smiles in East Timor, where EMW is working in the area of neonatal healthcare (photo by Luciano Moccia)

As close readers of my blog may have surmised by now, I hold some views on international development that might seem a bit unorthodox. For example, I think that in most cases child labor is caused by a failing education system, rather than kids being pulled from school to help on the family farm. I tend to believe that more and better cities are environmentally preferable to keeping people in rural areas, and that microfinance is a way to recycle poverty instead of a path out of it. I think NGOs should leave the business of primary education to governments, and instead help them improve high school and post high-school education. Hunger is a function of not enough money to buy food, not of food scarcity. And all the NGOs in the world put together can’t end poverty, which is solved by a combination of good governance and a strong economy. There is a certain pleasure to be found in swimming against the mainstream and in finding unorthodox solutions.

But when I learned recently that the Portuguese had sent a team of advisors to help their former colony of Timor Leste improve macro financial stability, I almost fainted. What’s next, the US Congress advising on how to regulate the banking system? An Italian delegation to lead anti-corruption efforts? Hey, I have an idea for Timor — how about requiring all school children to learn Portuguese, even though none of their parents speak it? Crazy stuff. Read on…

I just spent a few days in the world’s newest country, Timor Leste (East Timor), which got its independence in 2002 after years of war that destroyed the country’s infrastructure and displaced half the population. It’s a lovely place; a handful of islands floating in the aquamarine sea, pristine coral reefs offshore encircling hills that at 3,000 feet resemble alpine landscapes. The capital city, Dili, is comprised of about 200,000 inhabitants and about that many pickup trucks emblazoned with a stark black “UN” stenciled on the side. Beachfront cafes cater to an army of UN staff and aid workers, who together provide about 97% of local spending on beer, cappuccino and pizza.

From a development point of view, Timor has nowhere to go but up. The seer of rapid poverty reduction Jeffrey Sachs was recently in town to give a speech, in which he prophesied that Timor could eliminate destitution in less than a generation, assuming various miracles on the order of loaves and fishes. But from what I saw, Sachs might have consumed an intemperate amount of wine with lunch, causing him to make rash pronouncements. One of the occupational hazards of the high-flying development set.

To be sure, there are definite signs of progress; significant investment in health and clean water has been made, and the government is committed to a rapid program of improvement in communications, energy and transportation infrastructure. These investments have created many new jobs, but half the population remains very poor, and malnutrition, food insecurity and unemployment are daunting problems with no easy solutions. The private sector is tiny, and mostly serves the gigantic UN mission, which is slated to leave next year.

Timor does have an important natural resource, oil, and the revenues from this sector, correctly managed, could serve as the investment capital for the needed improvements in health care, education, clean water and other important sectors. From what I could gather, the signs are good that this will happen, instead of natural resource wealth being squandered as in so many other developing countries.

In other sectors, however, the news is mixed. Basic health care has been enhanced significantly, but continued improvements are at risk as government budgets have dropped following an economic crisis of a few years ago that led to a severe contraction in the economy. I toured the best hospital in the country, and it’s not bad, but usage rates are very low. Most people simply avoid the health care system; more than 80% of babies, for example, are born at home. The impending return of 1,000 Cuban-trained Spanish-speaking doctors should add an interesting wrinkle to the system; let’s hope they all remember their Tetum so that they can at least communicate with the patients.

In clean water, the unfortunate reality is that 70% of all the rural village and small town water systems built since independence have failed, usually before they marked their first birthday. Built hurriedly, with little attention to maintenance or sustainability, at present more systems fail every year than are brought on line. And in education, my aching head. It’s hard to imagine a bigger disaster.

I remember years ago studying the development model in Singapore. After being expelled from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore was faced with high unemployment, a massive housing crisis, sub-standard education and a moribund economy hamstrung by a near-total lack of natural resources. To overcome these handicaps, the government, under the strong leadership of Lee Kwan Yew, made massive investments in housing and education, decreeing that all instruction should be in English and focused on the development of practical skills. The investment in education paid off brilliantly, with Singapore rapidly creating an enviably productive workforce in services and technology.

In Timor, for historical and political reasons, the decree was that henceforth all education should be in Portuguese. (Efforts from some quarters recommending Latin and Amharic were thankfully voted down.) Never mind that barely 5% of the population almost none of the teachers speaks Portuguese (teachers are now required to spend their summers learning the language. A recent article in the New York Times quotes a World Bank study showing that 70% of first graders could not read even a single word in Portuguese; the report ruefully suggests that perhaps the Bank should not have supported a Lusophone education system. Whoops! Sorry, lost generation of Timorese kids.

I spoke with several education experts during my brief sojourn in Timor, and the word most commonly used to describe the situation of education was “appalling.” Once again, as in so many areas (Oakland, California for example) the education system is failing its students. Of course, schools cannot compensate for a society that is at a low level of development or is falling apart, but it does seem to me that Timor had the chance to do things right with education, and instead made a massive blunder. I wonder if Lee Kwan Yew is busy these days.

East Meets West President John Anner’s blog provides a distinctive, accessible and sometimes humorous take on emerging issues and trends in the international development community. John’s observations are informed by years of traveling to and living in developing countries and meeting with some of the best minds in the field. EMW is one of the largest and longest-serving international development organizations in Vietnam. EMW is now working in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, India and the Phillipines. John has been at EMW since 2003 and travels frequently to all areas served by EMW.

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