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Timor-Leste: Glass half full

In 2010, a senior Timorese political figure remarked in private conversation that Timor-Leste had never been better. This particular political figure was commenting on the general state of Timor-Leste since his return in 1999, after a forced 25 year absence from the country.
What is remarkable is not the political figure’s comment at that time, but that this same person now publically decries Timor-Leste’s lack of development. That is, I suppose, how politics is played.
This negative appraisal does come around a time when there has been much public negativity about Timor-Leste’s development process. Much of this negative comment is either anecdotal or reflects a snap-shot of Timor-Leste now, without reference to where it has come from.
In the mid-1990s, Timor-Leste was the second poorest ‘province’ in Indonesia, at that time itself a country which had an internationally low benchmark for poverty. Within Timor-Leste, there was a huge gap in wealth and living standards between Timorese and Indonesians, so that the local standard of living – already abysmally low – declined drastically once Indonesians were removed from the average.
This is not, however, to suggest that prior to the Indonesian invasion there was some golden age. Under Portuguese colonialism, the noted English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, in 1861, described the colony as ‘a most miserable place’ with Portuguese officers who ‘in gorgeous uniforms abound in a degree quite disproportionate to the size or appearance of the place’.
Wallace also commented on the swamps and mud-flats that surrounded Dili and its extreme prevalence of malaria. The road from Dili to Balibar was, he said, ‘a mere track’ that was in places only traversable by foot. ‘Nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country, and at this time, after three hundred years of occupation, there has not been a mile of road made beyond the town’.
By the 1990s, despite the deaths of around a quarter of the population and oppressing the rest, the late Indonesian period did see some infrastructure development.
Yet in 1999, when everyone knew that the Popular Consultation would result in a clear vote for independence, there was a common expectation that with independence would come almost unlimited development and opportunity. The post-independence of almost all new states shows significant decline before there is improvement, so that even in the best of circumstances, these post-independence aspirations were wildly optimistic. And the circumstances which followed were very far from the ‘best’.
In short, Timor-Leste has always been poor, it has always been under-developed and its people have always suffered from malnutrition, high infant mortality, stunted growth, poor water, non-existent and then inadequate education and health care and extremely low or non-existent incomes.
In simple terms, then, the notable politician, in 2010, was correct to note that the situation was the best it had ever been. And it is has improved further since then.
The UN Development Program’s human development index (HDI) shows that Timor-Leste has gone from being next to the bottom of the development scale in 2000 to improving by around 20%. Almost no other country has developed so much over that time.
Life expectancy, under 56 years as recently as 2005, is now over 62 while infant mortality has declined from being the world’s worst at 24% in 1980 to around 8% in 2005 to 4.5% now. Any infant mortality is always too high, but there is no doubting that a cut of almost half is heading in the right direction.
Similarly, while average income is not an accurate measure of wealth for most people, it does illustrate how well a country is doing in broad economic terms. Average income in 2005 was just $367, while in 2011 it had risen to a relatively massive $3,005. Income inequality is growing in Timor-Leste, both between rich and poor and between urban and rural divides – a problem common in almost all developing countries. But there is no doubt that more people have more money and more access to goods and services than in the past.
The recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights largely reiterated what was already widely known about Timor-Leste. However, its claim that poverty, at 41%, remained ‘roughly the same’ as it was in 2001, is laughable. One can only imagine that the Special Rapporteur, or the World Bank figures the report was based on, did not actually spend much time in Timor-Leste in 2001.
In 2001, there were critical food shortages across the country, most people still lived in temporary shelter, very few schools existed, there were almost no health clinics and very few other services were operating. The HDI over those two periods shows a very different situation.
A number of commentators, also noted by the Special Rapporteur, are critical of Timor-Leste’s reliance on oil and gas income and worry about what they call the ‘resources curse’. What commentators don’t say is that, without this income, Timor-Leste would still be among the world’s very poorest countries, relying heavily on subsistence agriculture grossly inadequate to meet the food requirements of its growing population.
Reliance on oil and gas does bring potential problems, primarily with proper management of income. But the problems of not having this income would vastly outweigh such problems that do exist because of this source of income.
What many commentators also mistake is that the ‘resources curse’, in its usual context, refers to resource-based currency strengthening which undermines the viability of other economic sectors. In Timor-Leste’s case, however, it is not as though without oil and gas revenue the rest of the economy would flourish.
Timor-Leste does not enjoy the economies of scale, skills base or cost structure to compete in manufacturing. Apart from some niche tourism, it also cannot compete in the service sector.
In this respect, then, Timor-Leste is not ‘cursed’, but blessed, with an oil and gas supported economy. It is the oil and gas-based government spending that continues to drive the rest of the economy, not as a problem but as the almost sole means of independent economic development, upon which almost all other improvements in the quality of life depend.
There is no doubt that Timor-Leste still has a very long way to go towards reaching its sometimes inflated dreams. But there is equally no doubt that it has made considerable progress along that path.
As much as we might like it to be so, the world is often not a fair or easy place and Timor-Leste has had more than its share of difficulties. There is no question that much poverty continues in Timor-Leste and there will improvements will never be enough.
But with careful management and realistic expectations, Timor-Leste’s place in the world looks set to continue to improve.

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