Timor Leste

I recently traveled to Timor Leste (East Timor) to look at the work Mercy Corps is doing there, meet with staff and beneficiaries and government officials all in order to get a better picture of the broader program.
The first thing to say is that it is not easy to get there. I flew from Portland to Tokyo, then to Singapore where I had an overnight layover. That enabled me to catch the twice a week flight to Dili, all of which encompassed about 22 hours of actual flight time. The country is on the east side of Timor Island, part of the same chain of islands that makes up Indonesia. Knowing that, one might logically conclude that there would be regular flights from Jakarta, but, for whatever reason, the major carriers don’t serve that route.

The second thing to say is that it is a very unusual place. It probably shouldn’t be a country at all. The population is only about 1.1 million and most people get by on subsistence farming. That wouldn’t set it apart from many countries, but what does is the fact that about 90% of its GDP comes from oil. There are significant undersea oil reserves between TL and Australia. Years ago, the two countries made a deal that drew a boundary between them and put in place a revenue-sharing arrangement under which TL got almost 95% of the revenue from the oil produced in its area. The problem arose when, later, they realized that the line had been drawn close to TL, and the far greater volume of oil was on the Australian side of the line. So that agreement has now been scrapped and new negotiations are underway to redraw boundaries and square things up.

Unless that goes well for TL, its oil revenue could dry up in ten years or less. That would leave TL in dire straits. It could be planning for that, looking for alternative bases for its economic growth and development, but that doesn’t seem to be happening in a realistic way. For example, instead of focusing on the development of its people through programs aimed at reducing a very high rate of malnutrition and stunting, and on education for the next generation, the government is instead working on roads and other infrastructure.

MC is doing some interesting work in TL. In a bid to both increase incomes and alleviate malnutrition, it assists fish farmers (with help from a government-run hatchery) in growing and marketing tilapia, a quick-maturing freshwater fish that provides a much needed source of protein. Ironically, despite being on an island, TL doesn’t have much of a fishery or marine heritage.

In the very mountainous interior (which easily captured the number one spot on my BRI – bad roads index), MC works with villages in what is essentially a community organizing effort. The usual starting point is forming a village savings and loan association (VSLA) of 15-20 people who each contribute a modest amount, say $10 (TL uses the US dollar as its currency), to get started and then a similarly modest agreed amount each successive month. Once there’s a decent sized kitty, a few of the members can take a modest loan. The money is kept in a box with three locks, the key to each being different and each key being held by a different member of the group, so all three must be present with their key to open it. One member will keep the books and as loans are repaid (with 15% annual interest, a very modest rate by developing country standards). Eventually, the pot is divided among the members and they either start over, reform into a new group, or go their separate ways.

One of the members of one VSLA I visited used her loan to buy local produce, transport it to Dili, sell it, repay the loan and put the profit in her pocket.

MC has started over 200 VSLA’s in just one region there, and in varying degrees, that initial organizational effort has led to other community development activities, such as keyhole gardens (to demonstrate composting and watering best practices), manufacture and distribution of small metal seed storage units (to prevent rot and pestilence of seed stock for the coming year) and more efficient cook stoves that use less wood, create less smoke and are easier to use. All modest steps, but taken together, ones that improve incomes, enable more kids to go to school and improve diets.

Seed storage container

A different approach was taken by a man named Nixon Galucho. A former police officer, he was shot by the Australians during the civil unrest and spent a couple of years in jail. He decided to focus on his community and his first target was the hill behind his village of government-subsidized housing. He and his friends set to work to terrace the hill so as to prevent erosion in the seasonal rains. That also gave them more space to plant crops. Nixon is a passionate man who left behind the turmoil of politics to engage with his neighbors and has even shown other communities how to organize in order to achieve community goals.

Nixon Galucho