Thursday, March 10, 2011
Timor-Leste on its own - Young and growing
THE taxi drivers at Timor-Leste’s international airport are a many-tongued chorus. Every one of them has at least four different languages with which to try talking you into paying double the normal fare. A useful reminder of the colonial history of one of the world’s youngest nations—as well as testament to the universal opportunism of young men looking to make a quick buck in a free-market economy.
Of course, Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor), will soon be bumped a peg down the league table of the world’s youngest nations by South Sudan, falling just behind Montenegro and Kosovo. It hardly matters. Timor-Leste is perfectly ready to pass the torch to an even-younger brother. The buzz of deals being done in Dili, the capital, and an ambience of strong animal spirits are at their highest since the country became an independent state, in 2002. The whispers had been about whether East Timor would be capable of surviving on its own. Till 1975 a Portuguese colony, Timor-Leste is little more than half an island—not one of the Indonesian archipelago’s largest—isolated and broken by decades of brutal conflict and neglectful rule by Jakarta. In 2006, factional fighting between the army and police killed dozens of people in Dili and left around 150,000 homeless. Their feuding was inflamed by civilians who had been armed and goaded to fight by rival political parties. The government collapsed and a political crisis followed, forcing UN peacekeepers come back in and restore order. The talk turned to whether Timor-Leste had become a failed state.
But the new country had a card up its sleeve: offshore oil and gas, mineral wealth just waiting to be cashed in. Today the country is rolling in filthy lucre. In 2002 Timor-Leste’s national budget was less than $20m; for 2011 it is more than $1 billion. The government of José “Xanana” Gusmão, an independence hero turned prime minister, is spending like mad. It has busied itself dishing out $450m for a national grid and power plant; other contracts for roads, bridges, farming equipment; improved pensions for the elderly and veterans; and spending on sundry other priorities that Mr Gusmão judges to be essential to growth and development.
The spending spree is made possible by the East Timor Petroleum Fund, which held $7.2 billion as of March 1st and allows the government to draw a small percentage of it each year to fund its otherwise insignificant budget. Dili is a boom town, dotted with shops, internet cafés, restaurants, building-supply stores—not to mention the calming presence of UN vehicles and international police officers. An Australian-Timorese businessman is building a giant shopping mall on 15 hectares of land near the airport.
But not everyone is pleased. Opposition politicians, aid organisations and even the president, José Ramos-Horta, have all expressed alarm at the level of government spending and at the absence of oversight for contract-bidding and performance. They note too that 85% of the population lives in rural districts, and that the poverty rate tops 40%. Timor-Leste has the world’s third-highest rate of child malnutrition.
It also has one of the highest rates of population growth anywhere; only in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan is its rate of fertility to be matched. For better or for worse, this will be a young population, for a long time. Yet 85% of its schoolteachers fail a test of basic competency. Critics of the government complain that spending should concentrate on the country’s human capital, by improving education and health care, and on improving agricultural irrigation, taking into consideration that the vast majority of Timor-Leste’s 1m people are subsistence farmers.
The debate on spending priorities is playing out on the floor of parliament, in the press, and even at village meetings. On a return to Dili after years away, it doesn’t seem to matter so much which side has it right. What matters more is that the levers of a functioning democracy—governance, political opposition, a free press, civil society, trade, infrastructure development and the like—are clearly moving in Timor-Leste. For all the creaking and grinding, this is working. The talk of ten or even five years ago—of a country that might just be impossible—shot wide of the mark, mercifully. Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for 2012 and the withdrawal of the UN’s international police force is to follow. Mark it on the calendar as another opportunity for the Timorese to prove they’ve made the grade. The Economist, Asia View (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)