Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development: A Question Of National Security

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The National Flag of Timor Leste

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) has written regularly about the urgent need for Timor-Leste’s leaders to work together to address the chronic problems of corruption, politicization and poor planning which are limiting the development of our productive economy, human resources, infrastructure and institutional capacity. Our most recent article asked the Government to uphold the rule of law, invest heavily in education and develop a strategic, inclusive and integrated national development plan to orient current and future government policies. This article expands on this last recommendation, with reference to some of the most urgent problems currently facing our people.

FM adopts a broad and holistic understanding of the concept of national security. Thus, while the functioning and development of the security sector has been the major focus of our work, we also see that education, health, physical infrastructure and industrial transformation are critical to ensuring Timor-Leste’s long-term security and prosperity. However, if our leaders fail to create the correct conditions, we can expect to see increased insecurity, instability and conflict in the future.

Since independence, several major issues have shaped Timor-Leste’s social, economic and institutional development, including chronic malnutrition and food insecurity, endemic diseases such as TBC and malaria, over-dependence on oil and gas revenues for state expenditures and supporting the domestic economy, import dependency, poor infrastructure and limited human resources. The recent shocks of COVID-19 and flooding have disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, exacerbating existing problems and widening inequalities in our society.

A fundamental factor limiting our development is that the education sector in Timor-Leste is facing a series of interlinking, structural problems, including teacher training, language and curriculum issues, lack of materials and facilities and maternal and child malnutrition. As a result of the failure to invest properly in public education since independence, much of an entire generation of Timorese youth has passed through the school system without achieving basic literacy or numeracy skills. Timor-Leste’s “poor human resources” are commonly cited as a major barrier to development, as poorly educated people are less productive and cannot participate in new economic sectors or work to strengthen state institutions. Education is also a security issue, as youth who are left behind by the education system become a burden rather than benefit to national development. Constantly growing youth unemployment, inactivity and violence are testament to these realities.

Meanwhile, successive governments have poured huge amounts of public money into projects and contracts which have benefitted some wealthy and well-connected people but have not created sustained economic improvement for the country overall. This is illustrated by the fact that despite spending billions of dollars, there has been little improvement in the productive sectors of Timor-Leste’s economy. Agriculture, the most important sector for supporting people’s livelihoods and supporting the development of other sectors, has barely improved since independence. In fact, much agricultural land has either been taken over for state projects, or left unproductive as farmers have no incentive to farm the land due to the lack of market for their products.

It must be noted that there have been some positive achievements in reconstructing national roads and expanding access to electricity, which FM applauds. At the same time, many of these projects have suffered from long delays, cost overruns and lack of adequate maintenance. Timor-Leste is still in the process of developing its institutional capacity, and mistakes are to be expected during this complex and difficult process. However, FM also sees that these problems relate directly to how Timor-Leste’s various governments have approached the issue of strategic development.

Part of the problem relates to the view among some politicians that the sharing of state benefits between powerful interest groups is essential for maintaining peace and stability. There is some merit to this argument, as there has been no major conflict between political factions since the arrival of oil revenues. However, if oil savings are not used to create strong foundations for the development of the productive economy, the money that has sustained the elite settlement will run out eventually. This will happen even sooner if there are major crises in international financial markets, which are highly likely to occur in the future. In addition, if the majority of people continues to receive little benefit from government spending while a few elites become richer and richer, resentment will grow, and political instability and conflict will inevitably follow.

Aside from this political question, many observers in civil society and academia have argued that the pattern of wasteful and unsustainable state spending reflects a lack of clear planning, insufficient public consultations and a failure to conduct adequate cost-benefit analyses of major projects. One key issue is that despite the adoption of the National Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 (PEDN) ten years ago, Timor-Leste still lacks a coherent strategy for national development. At the time of its creation, PEDN was celebrated for its grand vision of achieving upper-middle income status by 2030. While many of the goals contained within the PEDN were laudable, especially those related to public services and equitable economic growth, there has been little progress so far in achieving the promises contained within the document. A review carried out in 2016 found that only 30% of the targets set for the first phase has been met. Thus, it is highly doubtful that the PEDN’s vision will be achieved by 2030, especially given the political problems and ongoing State of Emergency which have paralyzed government functioning.

While the limited progress can be partly blamed on a lack of political will and governmental instability, FM also sees that the PEDN itself suffers from several fundamental flaws. First, it was written without adequate data, field research or public consultations, and did not seriously analyse Timor-Leste’s material and social conditions. Many of the plans and indicators contained in the document are thus vague, unrealistic and do not reflect Timor-Leste’s reality. The PEDN also included no budgets and was thus unclear about how its targets will be achieved based on Timor-Leste’s actual financial limitations.

Further, although PEDN discusses developing agriculture, small industries and tourism, its cornerstone is the Tasi Mane Project and onshore petroleum industry. While politicians have claimed that developing onshore petroleum will improve Timor-Leste’s economy overall, others have argued that oil activities on the south coast could harm other important sectors by taking over large amounts of agricultural land, damaging the environment and diverting a huge amount of government resources. In fact, as FM has already written, the security and wellbeing of many people in the south coast area have already been negatively impacted as a result of losing land and livelihoods, as well as by social conflict as people have been moved into new areas with insufficient support for communities.

Tasi Mane is the largest and most ambitious government plan, but many state projects have suffered from a similar lack of realistic planning, consideration of local communities’ needs or analysis of Timor-Leste’s real conditions. Instead, most plans for our country’s development seem to be based on ideas generated inside air-conditioned offices in Dili rather than on detailed study of concrete realities and consultation with ordinary people. We believe that this is part of why many projects are poorly adapted to either economic realities or the needs of local communities. Major examples include the South Coast Highway and Suai Airport, both of which are huge, expensive projects which have created no returns for Timor-Leste’s people, while bringing many negative effects for people living in the project areas.

The disconnection between communities and government planning can also be seen reflected in how public consultations are conducted. Many have pointed out that public consultations in Timor-Leste are usually more like “socializations”, where government officials simply explain to communities what they have already decided to do. They often use complex technical terms and graphs and emphasise positive impacts while minimising negative ones, which makes it difficult for community members to respond critically. The inherent power imbalance which exists between government officials and rural villagers also means that local people are less likely to speak up about their concerns.

In FM’s view, public consultations are essential to ensuring that development projects do not create insecurity by violating people’s rights or damaging their wellbeing and livelihoods. However, consultations must be substantive, not simply carried out as box-ticking or propaganda exercises. Public consultations also need to be adapted to local realities, including being sensitive to power dynamics between government officials and communities, as well as gender concerns.

Furthermore, this principle should apply not only to individual state projects, but to Timor-Leste’s development as a whole. With assistance from international agencies, the Government is currently revising the PEDN. From FM’s perspective, if the revised plan is going to meaningfully address the urgent needs of Timor-Leste’s people and ensure our long-term national prosperity and security, the revision process must include extensive public consultations, and not just the views of highly paid consultants and international organisations. These consultations should incorporate the views of vulnerable groups of people, local and traditional leaders, women’s groups, civil society organisations, academics, and Timorese entrepreneurs, especially young ones.

Finally, as FM and many other have pointed out, improving the education system is fundamental to achieving equitable, sustainable development and security for all our people. Our public education system in Timor-Leste is currently suffering from a series of complex, interconnected problems, and too many of our young people are not being given the tools necessary to lead productive, healthy and secure lives. This will limit our security and development now and into the future, while increasing the ability of martial arts groups to attract disenfranchised youth who are searching for comradeship and meaningful activities. As FM has argued several times, the growth of martial arts groups represents a major security threat in Timor-Leste. However, criminalising their members and attacking those who recruit them fails to acknowledge or address the structural factors which are driving Timorese youth to join such groups, including the failure of the public education system.

In conclusion, as Timor-Leste emerges from the chaos and disruption of the last two years, Fundasaun Mahein hopes our leaders will heed the warning signs and take action to address our people’s urgent needs and the country’s long-term challenges. While we appreciate the achievements of governments so far in improving roads, electricity and some services, Timor-Leste is facing multiple crises which threaten our people’s daily security and wellbeing, including in relation to education, health, water and sanitation, housing, nutrition and sustainable livelihoods. Furthermore, the country’s financial situation is fragile, and far too dependent on international markets which our leaders cannot control.

Therefore, we urge political parties and leaders to commit to a vision of strategic development which is truly inclusive, equitable and sustainable. This includes substantive consultations with people from various sectors and all areas of the country, cost-benefit analyses of major projects, realistic plans for transforming agricultural and industrial productivity, and developing our education system. Only in this way, can we ensure that our people’s immediate needs are met, while enabling our precious young people to participate in building a stable, prosperous and secure Timor-Leste.

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