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‘Resource curse’ haunts Timor-Leste

There is a free health clinic in Dili, the capital of Asia’s newest and poorest country, Timor-Leste, that treats some 400 people a day. The doctor who runs it was telling me about the kinds of cases he generally treats — tuberculosis, malaria, dengue, typhoid, malnutrition, stunting, poor growth, pregnancy complications.

‘Resource curse’ haunts Timor-Leste

In Timor-Leste’s capital of Dili, young men walk the streets aimlessly; youth unemployment is over 50 per cent in a country where more than 60 per cent are under 18. Photo: Wong Pei Ting

There is a free health clinic in Dili, the capital of Asia’s newest and poorest country, Timor-Leste, that treats some 400 people a day. The doctor who runs it was telling me about the kinds of cases he generally treats — tuberculosis, malaria, dengue, typhoid, malnutrition, stunting, poor growth, pregnancy complications.

Dr Dan Murphy is actually happy about this. Back before Timor-Leste became a country in 2002, he treated gunshot wounds, machete wounds, victims of torture and hand grenade victims.

What passes for progress in Timor-Leste is a lot like that. The war zone days are over, but the patient at the door has new problems with endemic causes. Now that United Nations (UN) peacekeepers are gone and the civil unrest has quieted, the challenges of governing a very poor country and inexperienced democracy seem far greater than anticipated in the hopefulness of its first sovereign days.

I just got back after spending 10 days in Timor-Leste. I took part in workshops with the local media, rode the bumpy and barely passable roads into the country’s mountainous interior, and got to see up close the lives of everyday people.


The country’s existence is a miracle in itself. Occupying half of Timor Island, East Timor was colonised by Portugal for 400 years, and its overwhelmingly Catholic make-up is only one of its many cultural differences from West Timor, which was settled by the Dutch and is now part of Indonesia.

When Portugal pulled out of East Timor in 1975, Indonesia launched a bloody invasion and occupied the country for a quarter-century.

That the East Timorese resisted the occupation despite horrific costs, including losing about a third of the population, is a tribute to their love for independence, their resilience and their commitment.

They are fighting still.

I visited a junior high school in Baucau, the second-largest city, that had no books or learning materials. Its one-room buildings are crumbling, there are no lavatories and no running water.

I saw rural villages with little to no electricity or running water, where children bear the telltale signs of malnutrition, such as orange streaks in their hair. Most rural families get by on subsistence farming and often go without food during the “hungry season” between harvests.

In Dili, I saw young men walking the streets aimlessly; youth unemployment is over 50 per cent, in a country where more than 60 per cent are under 18.

More than half the population is illiterate. More than a third live below the international poverty line.


The country is divided by too many languages among its relatively small — 1.2 million — population. Tetum is one of the two official languages, along with Portuguese, but also spoken are Bahasa Indonesia, English and somewhere around two dozen local languages and dialects.

No wonder the local media have a hard time communicating. Worse than the language problem is that, since there isn’t much of a private economy, the media relies on the government for its revenues.

The government spends heavily on public notices and bulk newspaper subscriptions and, in return, the local media has an incentive not to bite the hand that feeds it. There is room for some sort of non-profit business model.

Those brave journalists who do seek truth without fear of consequences have their work cut out for them: The country scores a 33 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

You’d never know it to look around, but the country is rich, for now at least. There are tens of billions in oil and gas deposits at the bottom of the Timor Sea, and petroleum revenues give the government the ability to throw money at some of its problems.


But the widespread criticism is that the money goes to a well-compensated and growing government bureaucracy without trickling down to the average citizen and priorities such as healthcare and education.

One example: Members of Parliament are eligible for lifetime salaries after serving less than one full five-year term. Such cushy guarantees do not exist for the many Timorese living on less than US$1 (S$1.20) a day.

Another: More money is spent on veterans’ benefits for those who fought against the Indonesian occupation (and their families) than on education.

Those pension costs represent huge transfer payments and amount to a short-term political tactic to buy complacency among the governing generation. Worse, this and other misplaced budget priorities come at the expense of investment in education, healthcare and infrastructure, setting up future generations for failure, and detracting from the institutional trust and credibility that a democracy needs to thrive.

Such is the problem with what economists call the “resource curse”, when Third World countries squander wealth from natural resources on waste, mismanagement and corruption. Angola and Zimbabwe offer cautionary tales.

Another worry is that the country’s economy is not diversified. The organic coffee and tourism industries show potential, yet 95 per cent of the country’s revenues are from oil and gas, a finite resource that could be exhausted in a generation.

Timor-Leste’s leaders very much want the country to be admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which would put them in the prestigious league with their regional counterparts. But after years of assistance from the UN and non-government organisations from the outside, Timor-Leste must rely on itself for its survival.

Winning its hard-fought independence, it turns out, is followed by the even tougher challenge of self-governance.


Tom Benner is a Singapore-based freelance journalist. He blogs at

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