“I’m an optimist. To do the jobs that we do, you have to be optimistic – there are many setbacks, many things that go wrong,” says Roy Trivedy, UN Resident Coordinator of Timor Leste.

The UN has played a crucial role in helping it start up on its feet. After Timor’s bloodied struggle for independence in the late 1990s, diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello led a transitional administration that maintained security and created sustainable governance structures.

Trivedy now leads the UN mission in Timor Leste, optimistically tackling its many challenges – from poverty to illiteracy. He discusses how the tiny country managed to overcome the odds and successfully keep Covid-19 at bay.

The UN’s Timor mission

Timor’s independence did not come easy. Campaigns of terror prior to independence left an estimated 100,000 Timorese dead, and a bout of war crimes in its wake.

Up till today, the UN has been focused on maintaining political stability – something Timor did not have till late last year, Trivedy says. For the first time, all of its ministerial positions are filled, and the government has set the largest budget in history.

“Having political stability provides you with the platform to do many other things for poor and vulnerable people,” he adds.

Covid-19 success

Timor-Leste has managed to keep Covid-19 at bay with a total of 113 cases and zero fatalities, while neighbouring countries grapple with massive outbreaks.

Trivedy credits their success to the government’s swift response. “While the first few cases were trickling in, the government moved very quickly to call a state of emergency,” he says.

Public and private activities were halted, and borders were closed except for government and humanitarian purposes. A mandatory 14-day quarantine was enforced for those entering the country.

The government also set up a cross-ministerial taskforce that helped them ensure basic goods such as rice imports were financed, he adds. The taskforce set up Timor’s first national cash subsidy for low-income households, providing them with US$200 of financial support.

Timor has maintained such strict controls up till today, Trivedy says. It is currently in its ninth state of emergency – rightfully needed as “health systems will not be able to handle a community outbreak”.

The nation is preparing for its Covid-19 vaccine rollout, and will receive 20 per cent of its vaccines from COVAX. Australia will also be providing vaccines to Timor.

UNICEF and WHO are advising the government on which vaccine to choose, and which population groups should be prioritised first.

“Our task is really to help governments to do this in a very efficient way”, and maintain the public’s confidence in the government, Trivedy says. It will be tricky for Timor’s vaccination programme if citizens see things going wrong and lose trust in the government.

Improving education

Although Timor has managed to increase the number of children enrolled in schools, the quality of education is “still very, very poor,” Trivedy says.

Funding for education is low, leading to poor levels of numeracy and literacy. Homes, universities, and workplaces also use a mix of Bahasa, Tetum, or Portuguese – further complicating the issue.

Thousands of graduated Timorese are unable to find a job, or apply the skills needed to work environments, he adds. Many eventually leave to work overseas, creating a “big Timorese diaspora”. “If you’re lucky, you manage to get some remittances from them.”

During the pandemic, UNICEF worked with the government to broadcast lessons on TV. That created “a thirst within the education ministry to improve the quality of education”, he says.

Timor plans to invest in training teachers and to improve the quality and infrastructure of classrooms, Trivedy adds. His team is working with the government to not only improve the quality of formal education, but to also build a culture of lifelong learning.

Improving education starts in the homes, where children often grow up malnutritioned. “If children are not given the right nutrition at the right times in their life, their brain development is impacted and they’re not able to learn.”

To that end, Timor has signed up for the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition programme and committed to improving nutrition levels, he adds.

Creating a quality civil service

Prior to joining the UN, Trivedy was a civil servant in the UK government’s Department for International Development for 13 years.

Building a quality civil service is a “really big, big challenge for countries like Timor with a relatively young civil service”, he says. But the Prime Minister has embarked on an effort to create political independence within the civil service.

That way, civil servants are focused on the country’s needs and provide quality, evidence-based advice to ministers, he adds.

Trivedy also hopes to teach Timor’s government key principles behind good procurement. Most of the procurement of key health supplies during Covid-19 was done by the UN, but he hopes to impart that knowledge to the civil service.

“This way, they don’t have to rely on us to do all of these things for them, and they can get value for money as well.”

Diversifying the economy

Timor’s economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas – but that revenue will last for a maximum of 10 years, Trivedy says. The country needs to focus on creating jobs in tourism and agriculture instead.

The UN and the World Tourism Organisation are providing advice to Timor’s government on what can be done to grow its tourism economy. Trivedy’s team is also working with the International Growth Center to advise the government on the potential economic opportunities in a post-Covid world.

Trivedy is working to create “national consensus” on what this diversification should look like. “It’s no good if one government does A, B and C and the next government wants to do something completely different.”

“If Timor doesn’t make some of these decisions and just pushes them back for another two years, it will be very hard to create the jobs that it will need by 2030 to achieve the SDGs.”

Building stronger models for cooperation

Trivedy hopes governments can commit to stronger regional partnerships this year. Covid-19 was a time when “the world needed more multilateral cooperation, but we saw governments turning away.”

“We have to work together, because if we want to create a better world. It has to be a better world for all.”

Timor has a “very, very strong political aspiration to become part of ASEAN,” he shares. The young nation hopes to not only be supported by the region, but to also become a thought leader on issues like human rights.

There is much more to be done in Timor Leste’s road to development. The government’s and the UN’s efforts to transform its education and civil service will be crucial in helping it emerge resilient from Covid-19.

Images by the UN