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Insight: Rebuilding Timor-Leste

Radio New Zealand International - December 17, 2017

Timor-Leste's youth bulge presents huge opportunities for the still fragile country, 15 years after independence from Indonesia's brutal occupation.

New Zealand is still helping to support the country, after peacekeepers finally left in 2012 following violent civil conflict. Significant challenges remain but, as RNZ Pacific's Sally Round discovered, efforts are underway to diversify the economy and young people are trying to put their fraught and traumatic past behind them.

All along the foreshore of the capital, Dili, there are bodies. Stretching, pumping, kicking and running, everyone seems to be part of a fitness craze.

It is an unexpected sight for the first time visitor used to headlines about Timor-Leste's fraught and traumatic past.

The south east Asian nation is experiencing a youth explosion and these young people seem to be pulsing with energy and potential.

They are the first generation to have grown up under independence, after centuries of Portuguese rule and 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation.

New Zealand troops helped support peace in the country and 15 years on continues to support it with more than $17m of aid annually.

Timor-Leste's been living off the bounty from oil fields to its south, but there's consensus diversifying the economy and attracting private investors is crucial for Timor-Leste's future.

"People before us, generations before us, all they did was to fight," said Mimi Pinto, an actor who helps spread the anti-violence message through theatre productions with the organisation Ba Futuru.

"So now that we got our chance after all those times of fighting, fighting, struggles, hunger and also slavery, it's a chance for us to grow."

At the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, a study centre in Dili, students come to practice English, read newspapers, use computers and discuss their future.

"A number of students who graduated from university, they find it hard to get a job because industries in Timor still don't exist, and... skills are hard for them to get," one student said.

"Right now unemployment is everywhere," said another. "I have a dream. I want to become a doctor," a young woman said. "Many children in my village have malnutrition... so it's a strong motivation for me."

Sixty percent of Timorese are under the age of 25. The birth rate has been declining, though, and combined with a growing number of working-age adults, researchers shows Timor-Leste has a window of opportunity for a so-called "demographic dividend" to drive growth.

But careful policy choices are needed to achieve the growth attained by other countries in Asia.

A former prime minister and now Minister of Health, Rui Maria de Araujo, acknowledged huge challenges remain 15 years after independence.

"Developing the human capital for the country in order to support the socio-economic development is the biggest challenge that we are facing," he said.

Dr Araujo said the government, elected in July, was focusing on improving the quality of services to the people. "We've tried as much as possible to focus on education; some good results are coming up," he said.

"But compounded to that every year we have 15 to 20,000 coming out of schools and universities who find themselves in a difficult situation of not having jobs."

A stalemate in parliament means the minority government's policies are on hold, and the people may have to go to the polls again next year.

Timor-Leste lives overwhelmingly off oil and gas from the Timor Sea, through its Petroleum Fund, now worth about $23bn, but predicted to run dry in the next decade.

It's been dipping deeper into the fund to pay for massive infrastructure projects and there has been concern if this continues and other industries are not built up in time, there will not be the money to pay for rice and other necessary imports.

Among the schemes underway are a special economic zone in Oecusse in the west and the Tasi Mane project on the south coast which is being built in anticipation of piped gas from a new LNG field in the Timor Sea.

Details of the deal with Australia over the Greater Sunrise field are still to be unveiled and there are many questions over if and how it will be developed.

"Oil money is easy money," said Juvinal Diaz, a researcher with the local organisation, La'o Humutuk, which is urging more spending on health and education to lift people out of poverty.

"The country is already freed from occupation, but people (are) still colonised by poverty. We want a good governance plan to address people's needs."

New Zealand is among countries helping to develop areas of potential like agriculture, fisheries and tourism as well as providing scholarships, training and support for early childhood education.

It's building playgrounds, training inspectors and supporting a country-wide learning magazine reaching 130,000 children in even remote villages.

New Zealand is also putting $14.5m into a Fair Trade coffee growers co-operative, CCT, helping 19,000 farmers prune overgrown trees and replant new ones.

Coffee is the country's biggest export after oil and a coffee culture is taking root in the capital. "I grew up with coffee," said Tozy Goncalves, a barista at the Agora Food Studio in Dili.

Standing behind the restaurant's shiny espresso machine, he explains how his family survived growing coffee beans, without ever knowing what made a good cup.

He says his job and new skills, including decorating the milk froth with his own style of "coffee art" make him happy.

Efforts are also underway to harness young people's potential at a newly set up one-stop-shop in Dili, supported by the United Nations Development Programme.

"As young people, we don't fight for independence... we fight for development," said Silvia de Araujo, an entrepreneur and mentor at the centre. The hub has laptops, information desks and advisers helping with financing and know-how.

Ms de Araujo established her own business selling feed to fish farmers after spotting a gap in the market when she worked as a technician with a New Zealand sponsored fish hatchery.

"I encourage all the young people in Timor-Leste to work together to develop themselves, invest [in] themselves. I want to make 10 or 20 Silvias," she said, smiling.

[Sally Round travelled to Timor-Leste as winner of the VSA Excellence in Journalism Award.]

Source: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/insight/audio/2018625261/insight-rebuilding-timor-leste