Seven years after independence, poverty is one of the biggest problems facing East Timor. Meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 is challenging. The World Bank (PDF 456KB) predicts that youth unemployment is widespread and currently runs at 43 per cent nationally and 50 per cent in Dili.
In 2002, when East Timor gained its independence, guided by its National Development Plan (NDP), the government was fully committed to working with both the international community and civil societies to “reduce poverty in all sectors and regions of the nation, and; to promote economic growth that is equitable and sustainable, improving the health, education, and well being of everyone in East Timor” (see East Timor National Development 2002 (PDF 1.27MB)).
This is said to be in line with the government’s commitments to meeting the millennium development goals set for 2015 which include to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health, combat HIV-AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability and Develop a Global Partnership for Development.
The 2006 crisis held back much of the progress which had been made under the first constitutional government. In order to revive the country’s shattered economy, the current government, under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao, chose to prioritise six key main areas known as the “2008 National Priorities” (PDF 353KB). These include “public safety and security, elections, justice sector strengthening, public sector strengthening, youth employment and skills development, and social reinsertion”.
Even though the 2006 crisis caused a significant setback, significant improvements have been made by the coalition government after the president was shot in an apparent coup attempt orchestrated by the deserted army leader, Alfredo Reinaldo. These include: the reintegration of Internal Displaced people (IDPs) to their communities; payments to former combatants and the elders; the provision of affordable rice to communities both in urban and rural areas.
Apart from that, the government also provides a significant number of scholarships to many East Timorese students to pursue their advanced study at various universities both within and outside of East Timor.
Within the health sector, scholarship has been provided for students to pursue medical training at the university level. At present, it is estimated that more than 1,000 East Timorese students are attending medical training in Cuba as part of bilateral co-operation between the Cuban and East Timorese governments. The reconstruction of clinics and hospitals in and around the country has now been completed, albeit some of them are still under way.
Strengthening food security in East Timor is another priority. Under the ministry of agriculture, the government has distributed tractors and seeds to rural farmers to boost agricultural production.
In spite of significant progress made by the coalition government, a number of problems continue to persist and hinder the government’s efforts to tackle poverty in order to meet MDGs. Last year Transparency International reported that under the coalition government, the effort to tackle corruption looks increasingly gloomy. Timor-Leste's position fell 22 places from 123rd to 145th - behind Kazakhstan and one place ahead of Bangladesh - for the period August 2007 to August 2008 (see 2008 Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International).
The persecution of journalists, and the arrest without warrant of ordinary citizens during the state of siege following the shootings on February 11 last year, and the recent suppression of student protests about the state budget and the purchase of luxury 4WD Prados for MPs is a discouraging development. So far the government has not conducted an investigation into the reports on these violations by the Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice.
The existence of poor governance combined with a lack of accountability and transparency has hampered the government’s efforts in three consecutive years to secure funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation promised by the USA congress in an effort to address the Millennium goals. The International Crisis Group (ICG) recently warned the East Timor government that while changes have been made, the government should stop being “complacent” (Timor-Leste: No Time for Complacency International Crisis Group, Asia Briefing, Asia Briefing N°87, February 9, 2009).
Actions must be taken to address the fundamental problems triggered by the 2006 crisis such as strengthening justice sector and carrying out security reforms. Furthermore, the government should avoid pursuing “buying off” policy where the population relies on the government’s handouts.