July 13, 2023

What should the development priorities be for the new Timorese government?

Last week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong was in sunny Timor-Leste, where she asserted: ‘we will continue to support your ambitions and respond to your priorities.’

Timor is one of Australia’s top five development partners, but the relationship has experienced serious turbulence (from Australia’s actions, to say the least). After warnings last year from President Ramos-Horta about his appetite to work with other partners and affirmations that the country ‘will not be lectured’, Australia is working hard to get on the relationship front-foot.

So what are the development priorities and ambitions for Timor-Leste’s new government? Having been sworn in just last week, we thought the timing was right to ask some of the top Timorese development experts what they think the priorities are – and indicate where Australia can partner in assistance.

Jonas Guterres
Australia Awards Scholar, Crawford School of Public Policy (ANU)

Timor-Leste’s recent parliamentary election was widely lauded as a testament to the youngest democracy in Asia, an inspiration for democracies around the world, and a lesson for Australia. The result of the election saw Xanana Gusmão, the independent hero, return to power as the country’s Prime Minister for the third time. The new government of 46 cabinet members was sworn in on July 1. In his inaugural speech, Gusmão said “the time has come to put Timor-Leste and the Timorese back on the path of development.” He vowed to bring the Greater Sunrise gas pipeline to Timor-Leste, reform the judiciary system, and decentralise the Government to the local municipalities as the development priorities in the first year of governance. Gusmão emphasised that his government is committed to developing basic infrastructure in health and education, economic diversification in the non-oil sector, and preparation for full membership in ASEAN.  

Responding to the change of Government in Dili, the Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong announced a visit to Timor-Leste to meet with Prime Minister Gusmão to hear about the government’s priorities. Speaking to her Timor-Leste counterpart, she expressed that Australia is deeply committed to supporting Timor-Leste’s economic resilience and working with them to bring the Greater Sunrise development to fruition.  

The public’s expectation is high for the government to deliver on its promises. But one thing is clear: the Gusmão-led government continues to see petroleum fund as the catalyst for national development.

Jonas is an anti-corruption and governance practitioner who’s honed his expertise working with Timor-Leste’s Anti-Corruption Commission, the United Nations Development Program, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He’s currently doubling down with a Master of Public Policy at the Australian National University, specialising in Anti-Corruption and Public Finance. At the Lab, we look forward to all of Jonas’ publications, and we can’t wait to see what he does after leaving Canberra.

Marilia Da Silva Alves
Advisor - Gender Mainstreaming, Partnership for Human Development Australia-Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste just recently had its elections, and while we saw female representation decrease from 40% to 33%, it has remained consistently above the 30% state-applied gender quota. My country has made strides in crucial development sectors such as women’s political participation, reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, and eradication of malaria. However, more focus is required to tackle high rates of gender-based violence and enhance women’s economic empowerment.

Timor-Leste has a high dependency on petroleum funds and deep poverty: 42% of Timorese are living below poverty line, 47% of children are stunted, and 24% are malnourished. Furthermore, gender inequality is persistent. Domestic violence, low labour force participation, and other economic and social arenas continue to be critical issues facing Timorese women today.

That said, major opportunities exist for making gender equality progress. Different paths have been defined in laws and policies from a government that is committed to gender equality: including a conducive framework and objectives. It will require a big effort on several fronts.

Critical priorities for the new government’s agenda are:

1. Implement laws and policies to advance gender equality and upholding women’s rights. This includes implementing the third NAP-GBV for 2022-2032, with the focus on shifting norms and behaviours, placing emphasis on faith-based organisations and networks of women organisations, community and youth innovators, and media, to address inequality and patriarchal systems, and supporting victims of gender-based violence and their families.

2. Contribute to gender equal and sustainable economies through a gender responsive long-term social protection scheme and care services to strengthen women’s empowerment and participation.

3. Enhance gender mainstreaming approaches in the development sector with an emphasis on shifting from women as target groups to gender equality at the centre of development. Gender-responsive budgeting is an essential component of public funds management in guaranteeing an equitable distribution of resources, benefits and improving the social and economic status of women and girls.  

Australia and other development partners can support through assistance in enhancing government systems strengthening and capacity to deliver quality services. This will enable greater space for women to mobilise and lead productive and effective government programs.

As one of Timor’s top experts in sustainable development, Marilia has worked as an independent consultant at places like the United Nations, DFAT, the Asia Foundation, and the Green Climate Fund and led Timor’s foremost women’s rights NGO. She is driven by a passion for changing society by gender mainstreaming and social inclusion into all development programs. At the Lab, we love Marilia’s deep expertise and commitment to addressing some of development’s hardest challenges.

Héctor Salazar Salame
Country Representative - Timor Leste, The Asia Foundation

Timor-Leste's IX Constitutional Government faces the task of continuing the country's impressive development since independence, while also tackling complex socio-economic challenges that will shape its future.

People are Timor-Leste's greatest asset. However, limited access to quality healthcare, education, food security, and nutrition hampers their potential. The World Bank estimates that a newborn Timorese “will only be 45 percent as productive as an adult as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health.” Building human capital should be a top priority for the new government to ensure long-term socio-economic well-being.

The new government will also need to create employment opportunities, particularly for the estimated 30,000 youth entering the workforce annually. Creating economic opportunity is essential not for economic growth, but also stability, with the possibility of social unrest if the economy cannot accommodate those seeking employment. To achieve essential economic diversification and growth, the government must listen to and understand the needs of the private sector and establish a favorable policy environment for its growth. 

Addressing the persistently high rates of domestic violence in the country is a pressing issue that the new government must prioritize. Likewise, it must strive to amplify the voices of, and consider the needs of, marginalized and vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community. Emphasizing evidence-based policy making and transparent governance is crucial to ensure that investments yield the desired results. By following these approaches, the new government can maximize social and economic return on investments and equitable development for all Timorese.

Héctor has spent over fifteen years tackling poverty reduction and social protection systems. His broader expertise in governance, labor relations, community participation, and evidence-based policymaking make him a stellar Country Representative for the Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. At the Lab, we love Hector’s collaborative energy, and his ability to step back and look at the big picture.

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