Exclusive: Timor Leste’s Nobel Peace Prize Winner speaks out

By Joshua Chambers Chia Jie Lin

President José Ramos-Horta tells GovInsider how the nation can tackle its challenges and build resilience.

“In Timor, it was like a clock: On the second of November it begins to rain,” the former President of Timor Leste José Ramos-Horta says.

But climate change has now ended a pattern that lasted for hundreds of years. Farmers can no longer predict rain cycles for planting crops, and agriculture yields have plummeted in the last decade, causing food shortages. “Now it can rain earlier or it can rain in December, in January or February,” Ramos-Horta says.

The country has come a long way from its brutal past, where a genocide by anti-independence militia wiped out 1,400 Timorese and turned 300,000 citizens into refugees. But this new nation - independent from 1999 - faces many challenges on a daily basis.

In an exclusive interview with GovInsider, the Nobel Peace Prize winning former President offers a look at how Timor Leste is empowering citizens and tackling its growing pains.

Growing pains

“We still have extreme poverty and problems of food security. Many parts of the country suffer from endemic food shortage during the dry season,” Ramos-Horta says. In 2014, 41.8% of the population lived below the national poverty line. For every 1000 babies born in 2016, 50 die before reaching their first birthday, the Asian Development Bank reports.

The country is importing more food today than it did a decade ago. “That's a total failure, I would say, in agricultural policies,” Ramos-Horta says. The government has tried to build dams to capture rainwater and improve irrigation systems., but these measures have not been successful, he believes.

As water sources continue to be destroyed by industrialisation and pollution, clean water should be a priority for countries across the world, Ramos-Horta argues. “20 years from now, countries will go to war, kill each other over water, and there seems to be no solution in sight.”
“20 years from now, countries will go to war, kill each other over water.”

Improving education

On the positive side of the ledger, the nation is seeing growth in human capital development. Between 2002 and 2014, student enrollment increased by approximately 150% and the number of teachers doubled, according to the World Bank. “15 years ago, less than 60% of children were enrolled in schools, but today, we are well over 90%,” Ramos-Horta says.

The government’s robust funding for education has also benefited the healthcare sector. The country faced a huge shortage of medical skills in the past: “In 2002, there were 19 Timori doctors,” he notes - with a population of 1.2m people. “Today we have close to 1,000 medical doctors, and in another year there will be 1,100 doctors - one of the highest in terms of per capita doctors anywhere in Asia.”

But more work needs to be done to improve the quality of education, he adds. An assessment in 2009 found that over 70% of first graders could neither read a simple text in Portuguese or in the native Tetum language. Many teachers have only completed secondary education, which limits the quality of education they provide for students.

The country suffers from high rates of student and teacher absenteeism. On a typical schooling day, over one-third of first graders and 25% of secondary school teachers do not attend school. “We may have more classrooms and children in school, but the quality of education, particularly teachers, is not the best.”

In 2011, the government launched a fund with over $100m, says Ramos-Horta, to develop training programmes and pay for domestic and international scholarships. To date, the government has sent hundreds of youth to countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Australia on learning programmes to enhance their professional skills.

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Image: Timor Leste Embassy in Australia - CC by 2.0

Timor Leste wants to partner with the private sector and civil society to meet its challenges. According to the former President, these partnerships are important because the public sector alone cannot do enough to spur development. “We cannot expect everything to be done by the government,” he says.

The government has reached out to citizens to chart a way forward for Timor Leste. Launched in 2011, its Strategic Development Plan was borne out of the government’s consultations with Timorese citizens. The plan details Timor Leste’s 20-year vision for national development, and lays out policies that it is taking to improve education, agriculture and food security.

In 2010, then-Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão visited all 60 sub-districts of Timor Leste to talk to thousands of citizens. “The strategic development plan was a result of this extensive consultation with the people,” Ramos-Horta shares.

The country is also interested in partnering with technology companies and other industries - particularly to use technology “that is simple, adaptable and not reliant on fossil fuel”. It hopes to explore the use of solar-powered technology, as it curbs pollution and is a cost-efficient alternative to fossil fuels, which are highly polluting and expensive in the long run.

Looking to the future

Meanwhile, Timor Leste is also learning and receiving aid from other countries. Since 2002, Australia and the European Union (EU) have been its greatest partners, supporting the country in “rural development, good governance, and in strengthening administration”, says Ramos-Horta.

From 2018 to 2019, Australia is providing an estimated $91.9m in aid to Timor Leste, which will continue to fund programmes that create jobs, improve nutrition, and empower girls and women.

Timor Leste also receives $10m of annual aid from China through the United Nations, but this is conditional: the country has to purchase Chinese goods and equipment, as well as hire Chinese workers. “China’s goods are not always the best. There are a lot of bicycles that break down after a few weeks, and a lot of shoes have soles that disappear after a few weeks,” he shares. “I was walking one morning and then I felt something strange in my feet. I looked; it was the sole that disappeared.” Timor would be better off without these pre-conditions, he says.

The country continues to be plagued by huge issues, and Ramos-Horta calls for more innovation as the nation approaches its second decade next year. “Innovation is important because it brings in new creative approaches on tackling issues around development and extreme poverty,” he says. Much has been achieved in the nation’s first 20 years, but there is much more to be done - and the country needs all the partners it can get.

This interview was conducted on the sidelines of the Unleash 2018 summit.