The soaring youth unemployment rate is one of the most perennially discussed issues in Timor-Leste, where it is presented as the root of any number of evils: from street violence, to Martial Arts Groups (MAGs), to a lack of economic growth. The 2015 Census put youth un-employment at 12% nationwide, jumping to 24.7% in urban areas—and the solutions offered are generally prescriptive, largely focusing on raising education rates and combating illiteracy. FM agrees that unemployment among the nation’s youth has the potential to be a major destabilizing factor, particularly if coupled with disillusionment and increasing sophistication among criminal networks; we also agree that education plays a critical role in this. As a small nation with few diplomatic enemies, Timor-Leste’s greatest security threats are still internal, and the opportunities available to the country’s young people may be the single greatest indi-cator of domestic safety. However, FM believes that ensuring that these opportunities exist is now as much a question of the nature of education available in Timor-Leste as its ubiquitous-ness.
What is most alarming about trekking through employment statistics is how much they do not change with educational attainment—and even get worse. A Timorese secondary school stu-dent debating the merits of a university education will be confronted with the uncomfortable reality that, college degree in hand, she faces a higher rate of unemployment (20%) than a high school dropout, and that while only 36% of Timor’s workers have a secondary education, 48% of the unemployed do. This bleak collegiate outlook comes on top of the costs of tuition, the opportunity cost of time spent studying instead of working, and, in many cases, a costly and intimidating move from the municipalities to Díli.
It is unsurprising, then, that many young Timorese have started to view education as a bill of sale: a much-touted panacea by various NGOs and Timor-Leste’s own government, which has loudly proclaimed the benefits of education while failing to put significant resources behind it. Schools are desperately underfunded, with many lacking both trained teachers and even basic infrastructure such as water, sanitation facilities, and furniture. And, while in theory, public school days are five hours long, the reality of too few teachers and materials means that, in practice, many schools split their days into two sessions, meaning that many students receive fewer than two hours of learning a day. Even without the weighty considerations of a lack of materials and adequate teacher training, this question of time alone means that schools are equipped to function as little more than literacy boot camps: and to be sure, literacy rates in Timor-Leste have risen. But whether literacy rates can be conflated with a comprehensive system of education is another question entirely.
This is not to say that literacy rates are not a remarkable achievement for Timor-Leste. The colony as the Portuguese left it in 1975 had a 90% illiteracy rate, an alarming figure bolstered by the colonial policy of restricting access to education to liurai families. During the occupa-tion, the Indonesians fluidly combined near-universal access to education with a concerted effort towards forced cultural integration, raising the literacy rate to 37% and the Bahasa-speaking population to 58% (a figure that jumped to 90% for the under-35 set). Since inde-pendence, Timor-Leste has managed to nearly double the literacy rate—to 67%—in less than two decades of self-rule, and introduced several pioneering programs, including the Second Chance Education program for adult literacy.
It is in many ways an achievement, then, that literacy is proving no longer to be enough. Stu-dents who weather the gauntlet of secondary school are entering the wider world with mini-mal education beyond basic reading and writing, few marketable skills, and only a shaky grasp on what they have learned. Part of this is due to the short school days; part is due to a lack of resources; and part is the issue of language. In 2010, the abrupt standardization of the language of education to Portuguese caught both teachers and their charges off guard. Even during the colonial period, only the elites actually spoke Portuguese, a small figure that nose-dived to 5% under the Indonesians. As things currently stand, 30% of all Timorese have a fa-miliarity with Portuguese, but not necessarily fluency—and certainly not, in many cases, the ability to teach and learn in it (an analysis by the World Bank found that, holding students background variables constant, students who were educated in Tetun were more likely to be high achievers than their peers wading through Tetun and Portuguese). Teachers are now ex-pected to teach in a language that they mostly do not speak to students who do not understand it.
Timorese students thus enter university woefully underprepared, and their entry into the workforce is even more dire. Among other consequences, this means that Timorese graduates, by and large, lack the tools for entrepreneurship beyond individual enterprises: the difference between, say, selling satay and creating a scalable business. This is especially concerning given that the country’s 2015 census noted that the majority of employment growth seen in Timor came not from industry or the government, but from self-employment. Clearly, the nation’s population has the drive to create opportunities for themselves—yet lack the technical capacity to move these ventures beyond the strictly personal. Young graduates are forced into a corner, becoming a nation of job seekers, but not job creators. Adding to this already fierce competition are issues of nepotism, particularly in white collar positions, which further dis-credit the notion of education serving to democratize opportunity. For an economy struggling to diversify and somehow dodge the resource curse of oil dependence, this has structural con-sequences that go beyond the question of individual futures.
To those individuals, however, this lived experience feels like a betrayal. Timor’s young graduates have been promised more: growing up under the optimism of a newly independent state, they have been told, repeatedly, that education is their guarantee of a stable future, and this future’s failure to pan out is bitter. As Xanana himself said, “We know that making the dreams and aspirations of our people come true is an investment whose return cannot be ex-pressed in words”—but what if that investment fails to pay off? What if those dreams and aspirations do not come true?
For Timor-Leste, this has created a population that is not only unemployed, desperate, and drifting, but one that is disillusioned. Moreover, for the many parents who cite skepticism about education leading to opportunity as the chief barrier to sending their children to school, the current unemployment rate only confirms their suspicions—with potentially disastrous consequences for future education in the nation.
That many young Timorese have responded to this disappointment by flaking away to better opportunities in Europe and Australia is unsurprising; but more even then brain drain, FM be-lieves that Timor-Leste’s main security concerns lie in the young men and women who remain at home. Criminal networks are able to capitalize on these bright, motivated, and educated young people (as both victims and recruits) who have grasped the lack of opportunity in the formal sector—both the home-grown Martial Arts Groups (MAGs), and, increasingly, in-ternational drug, arms, and human trafficking networks, which also bring a higher level of criminal organization (ascension into ASEAN and large-scale infrastructure projects such as Tasi Mane, both of which involve considerable internationalization, may augment the issue). And the recruits themselves are more sophisticated, with more and more educated and orga-nized young people finding themselves slotted into crime as they are blocked from formal white-collar work.
There is a strong argument to made, then, that Timor-Leste’s most severe security threats come from within. The allocation of government resources, however, does not reflect this. In the proposed 2019 National Budget, education, health, agriculture, and water were due to re-ceive less than one-fifth of government expenditure, with 10% going to education. Mean-while, defense was allocated more than healthcare (6% as opposed to 5%). That only 10% of the budget goes to education when 55% of the population is under 18 is striking, particularly when juxtaposed with some of the government’s recent glory purchases. Mass student pro-tests greeted the 2018 Parliamentary vote for the purchase of new Prado four wheel drive cars for all Members—which were themselves replacements for the Prado cars that Parliament had previously gifted itself. And as FM reported earlier this year, in 2017 the Ministry of Justice voted to supply the PSIK—the forensics force—with handguns, in lieu of functioning labora-tory equipment or training.
The story of literacy in Timor-Leste is one of qualified success, but it would be a disservice to the future of the country to let that story stop there. Timor done a remarkable job in teaching its people how to read; it now needs to offer an actual education. This means longer hours in schools, ideally in a language that the students and teachers can actually speak; it means fund-ing for materials and for teacher training; and it means teaching skills that go beyond basics to market applicability.
As Parliament debates the National Budget, FM requests that our leaders shift their focus and the nation’s resources to education. We believe that our country’s best defense lies with our people, as it did during the occupation and will again. FM hopes that Parliament agrees.